"" Writer's Wanderings: Going Through Immigration and Customs

Friday, August 20, 2010

Going Through Immigration and Customs

A friend of mine is taking her first international trip and asked me what it was like to go through customs. We have done it so many times, we don't really think of it as anything more than routine now. But for first timers it could create a bit of anxiety. So here is a general description of what it is like. Each country will be a little different.

For the most part, when your plane is destined for a different country than where you boarded, you will have to go through immigration and customs. In Europe borders are open among the European Union nations so travel between them is like traveling within the borders of the same country. Either upon take-off or just before landing, the attendants on your flight will hand out customs forms and sometimes an entry form for visitors. They will explain who must fill them out but it usually goes like this: one custom form per family and one entry form for each visitor.

The forms you fill out will require your name, address, passport number, flight number, and ask you to declare certain items that you might be bringing to the country especially if in a large quantity or if on their list of banned items. Many countries do not allow you to take in fresh fruits/vegetables so leave that uneaten banana on the plane. If you do take it, dump it in the first trash can. Believe it or not, there are fruit sniffing dogs in some airports.

If you are entering the US, you will be asked to declare a dollar amount for purchases made abroad that are staying in the US. Citizens are allowed $800, non-citizens $100, before a tax is added on. For a sample of the US customs form and more explanation, go here.

The entry forms for countries that use them usually just want to know the purpose of your visit, where you are staying and where you came from. I think a lot of that is for their tourism records. Usually they keep half of it or stamp it and you return it on your way out of the country.

To make things easy, keep your passports and the completed forms handy as you exit the plane. You will be directed right to the immigration area either through hallways that are enclosed from the rest of the airport or through smiling lines of officials who make sure you get there. At immigration there are usually two lines--one for citizens and one for everyone else. TURN OFF YOUR PHONE. The last thing you want is someone thinking you are taking a picture with it. No pictures are allowed in the immigration or customs areas.

At immigration, the officer will ask to see your passport/s. If you are traveling as a family, you can all usually go through at the same time. S/he may ask you how long you plan to stay or where you came from or just if you had a good flight. Some of them smile. Some of them frown. It doesn't indicate anything. Just relax. Be polite. And you will be through in a jiffy.

Your next stop is baggage claim where you will pick up your luggage and then go through one of two lines in customs--Something to declare or nothing to declare. Chances are you will have nothing to declare and will simply hand the form to an officer and pass through. On occassion, they will do a random bag check and in some places "man's best friend" will sniff your bags.

The process is at times very fast and other times very slow depending upon the airport, time of day, time of year, and the country. If you are making a connecting flight through an airport, you want to give yourself a good hour in between especially if it is a very busy airport. Whatever you do, stay calm and don't loose your cool going through the process. Your airline will help you rebook if that becomes necessary.

Security (TSA) and immigration/customs. It's all part of the travel experience.

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