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14 Tips for Going Through Customs (Completely Stress-Free)

When it comes to traveling, the process of going through customs and border protection can be a real hassle. You have to make sure you have all your paperwork in order, and that you’re not carrying any prohibited items. Plus, there’s always the risk that you’ll get stopped for inspection.

This article will cover a few tips that travelers can follow in order to make the process of going through customs and border protection a bit easier. It’s important to note that following these tips won’t guarantee that you won’t get hassled, but they can help.

According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, they processed more than 507 million travelers. Of those, there were only about 1.2% were referred for secondary inspection. So, while it’s still possible to get stopped and inspected, the odds are in your favor.

“Are you an American or not?” the customs official practically screamed at me. I didn’t understand the issue. He had my birth certificate in his hands. He also had my passport because I like to be ultra-prepared for any eventuality.

He’d even asked me “Are you an American citizen?” and I’d responded, “Yes sir, I am.” I mean I’d even filled out my customs forms down to the smallest items I’d purchased while traveling abroad so that even the $2 keychain I’d bought my wife was on there.

I’d also seen the last two people in front of me taken out of line for what would presumably be a lengthy questioning session at best… and I didn’t want to think about what the latex gloves this customs official were thinking as they sat there, maybe four inches from my eyeballs as this guard pointed at me.

Tips For Customs

This encounter helped me realize that there are some basics that everyone should know when traveling abroad so that they can make it through customs, checkpoints, or even that less than friendly border crossing with as little difficulty as possible.

That’s what these travel tips are intended to help you do!

Travel Tips to Go Through Customs with Ease

Let’s get into our favorite travel tips to help you go through customs completely stress-free.

1. Make sure you have all the necessary documents.

Make sure you have all the necessary documents.

Before you even get to the airport, make sure you have all the necessary documents for travel. This includes your valid passport, visa (if required), and any other permits or certificates that may be needed. 

If you’re not sure what documents you need, consult the embassy of the country you’re visiting. They will be able to tell you what travel documents are required for entry.

Make sure you have all of your documents in order before your trip to avoid any stressful situations at the airport.

See Related: Best Day to Book Flights

2. Missing Passports Aren’t Always the End of the World

Closeup of an airline ticket and US Passport

It’s a hollow feeling in the pit of your stomach when you lose your identification. It happened to me once and I can remember scrambling to retrace my steps. I forced the hotel to let me back into my room.

I took a taxi to the rental car place to double-check the vehicle. I even spent 15 minutes walking from the rental garage to the administrative offices to see if I’d dropped it and by some miracle, it was still there.

Make a copy of your passport in case you lose it. Not every official will accept a copy, but some will. It’ll give you some outs during your travel so you’re not stuck somewhere, trying to get new official documents.

In my case, I’d simply stuck my identification in a different pocket of my carry-on.

3. Don’t Make Jokes

People Laughing at a Joke

I have this vivid memory of being at a customs checkpoint with my folks and my stepdad being asked if we had any weapons to declare while coming into the country. “The only weapons I’ve got are the squirt guns back there in the trunk,” he told the official.

That prompted a much more thorough search of the vehicle, one of which my teenage mind then tuned out since I obviously had nothing to hide.

Making a joke in an uncomfortable situation can help to alleviate some tension, but what it usually ends up doing is creating more tension because you’re then seen as a suspicious character who feels the need to make a joke.

Just smile, answer the questions that are put forth to you, and you’ll be more likely to be quickly on your way.

4. Dress comfortably and be prepared to take off your shoes.

Dress comfortably and be prepared to take off your shoes.

Dress comfortably when going through airport security. You may be asked to take off your shoes, so it’s helpful to wear slip-on. Security may also ask you to remove other items of clothing, so avoid wearing anything that’s difficult to take on and off.

In general, it’s best to dress in layers so you can easily adjust if necessary. And remember to wear footwear that’s easy to slip on and off – no one wants to be fumbling with laces when they’re trying to catch their flight! Dress for success and make security a breeze.

5. Apply for the Global Entry Program

Apply for the Global Entry Program

Global Entry is a program that allows pre-screened, low-risk travelers to receive expedited clearance upon arrival in the United States. If you are interested in applying for Global Entry, you will need to pay a $100 fee and submit a background check and fingerprinting.

Not all airports offer the Global Entry program, so be sure to check before you apply. If you are accepted into the program and find yourself traveling through a major airport that offers Global Entry, the process of getting through customs will be as simple as entering your identification number.

Global Entry members save a ton of time on international travel by skipping out on long processing lines. It makes the process easier and your entire travel experience easier. Global Entry offers the same advantages as the Nexus and Sentri programs offered by the Department of Homeland Security.

6. Pack light and keep your luggage organized.


Packing light will make it easier to get through security and it will also help you avoid having to check your bag. If you do have to check your bag, make sure it’s well-organized so that you can easily get to the items you need.

7. Don’t Bring Produce As a Snack

Don't Bring Produce As a Snack

The longest wait I’ve ever had was a 75-minute delay for… wait for it… the banana that I’d picked up to eat. Because of that one banana, full agriculture of everything I had was initiated to make sure I wasn’t bringing in some rogue oranges that would potentially mate with the rebellious bananas to form a governmental coup.

Flowers are on this list too. Just leave this stuff at home… or don’t try to bring it back.

See Related: Layover vs Stopover

8. Follow the instructions of the customs agent and security personnel.

Follow the instructions of the customs agent and security personnel.

I once handed my passport to an official, flashed as brilliant a smile as I could muster after 14 hours of travel, and said “Hi! I’m an American citizen and all my paperwork is there for you to review.”

The official looked at me, kind of raised an eyebrow, and then proceeded to painstakingly look at each page I’d handed over. It seemed to take 6 hours, but it was probably like 20 minutes or so.

Then I got an equally brilliant smile and was told to enjoy my stay and to make sure that I kept my mouth shut so I’d stay safe during my visit.

I decided that was prudent advice not only during that holiday but also when coming through a customs checkpoint. Some folks don’t mind a little conversation, but most of them do. They see thousands of people every week and don’t want idle chit-chat.

They want to make sure you’re not a security risk, so just wait patiently, speak when they need you to speak, and maybe not be as proactive about anticipating what they want from you.

When you’re going through security, it’s important to follow the instructions of the CBP officer during customs inspection. They’re there to help keep everyone safe, so cooperating with them will help the process go smoothly.

See Related: Best Skyscanner Alternatives to Book Travel

9. Declare all items you’re carrying.

Declare all items you're carrying.

When you’re packing for a trip, it’s important to be aware of the items that you’ll need to declare at customs. Even if you don’t think an item will be inspected, it’s still important to include it on your list.

Declaring all of your items helps to ensure a smooth and hassle-free journey. failure to declare items can result in heavy fines. So when you’re preparing for your next trip, make sure to take the time to Declare all of your belongings. It’ll save you a lot of headaches in the long run.

10. Know where you’re staying

Know where you're staying

Be prepared to give officials a briefing about your destination. You may be asked by them to give your address to your hotel room. Sometimes you may be asked to provide evidence of the departure tickets and dates, which documents also have to be packed in their luggage.

Several passengers have taken their duty of being first in customs very seriously. I think moving fast at customs can help you get into your position faster. However, a journey through customs is not necessary to transform it into racing. We’re sure you’ll experience something more enjoyable when you relax and enjoy your experience.

11. Keep That Mobile Phone Off!

iPad and Mobile Phone

Little did I know that cell phones are considered a no-no when passing through customs. Not only will you get dirty looks when your phone rings, but you’ll likely get a customs official next to you, their hand outstretched, silently demanding that you hand over your phone.

If that happens to you, expect to be purchasing a new cell phone in the future. Confiscated phones in customs are rarely returned. I got mine back, but I’ve known many who have not! Leave it off and you’ll be good.

12. Be honest about your purpose for travel.

Be honest about your purpose for travel.

When going through customs, be honest about your purpose for travel. Lying about your reasons for travel can result in serious penalties, including being denied entry into the country. In some cases, travelers who lie about their purpose for travel have been arrested and deported.

So be truthful when the customs officer asks why you’re visiting the country. If you’re traveling for business, say so. If you’re traveling for pleasure, say so. It’s simple and it will save you a lot of hassle in the long run.

13. You Can Request a Same-Sex Inspection

You Can Request a Same-Sex Inspection

When going through security, you may be asked to undergo a same-sex inspection. This is a request that can be made by any traveler, and it’s important to know that you have the right to make this request.

If you feel uncomfortable with a male or female security officer conducting an inspection of your luggage, you can make a request for a same-sex security officer.

Be aware that this may not always be possible, but it’s important to know that you have the right to make this request.

This discomfort then leads to the customs official believing that you’ve got something to potentially hide and then off you go into a side room for a secondary inspection.

14. Keep your cool.

Keep your cool.

If you do get stopped and inspected, it’s important to keep your cool. Getting angry or agitated will only make the situation worse.

It’s a frantic feeling you get when you know your connecting flight is tight. The heart races, the adrenalin begins to pump, and you might even begin to coldly sweat from your forehead, hands, or other less attractive places.

This also causes you to try to rush the customs process along sometimes, but if there’s one thing most customs officials don’t like, it’s being rushed.

A big scene is guaranteed to get you into a secondary checkpoint where you’re guaranteed to miss your connection… and a little scene will often do the same.

Take a deep breath, start planning on trying to find a new connection as the worst-case scenario so get to your final destination, and maybe you’ll get through the customs lines on time and not need those plans.

Step-by-Step Process to Go Through Customs

Going through customs can be a bit of a hassle, but there are a few things you can do to make the process go more smoothly. Here are the steps to get through customs.

Board your departure flight

While going through security, scanners and x-ray machines are looking for dangerous objects that could harm the passengers or crew onboard the aircraft. However, they can also screen for other items such as drugs, weapons, and cash.

If the scanner detects something suspicious, you may be subjected to a pat-down search and/or have your carry-on luggage inspected. Sometimes this process can be random, but other times it may be because you fit a certain profile or were selected by the Advanced Passenger Information System. 

If you are chosen for a secondary inspection, don’t worry – it’s nothing to be concerned about. The officer will simply need to take a closer look at what was detected in order to determine whether it poses a threat.

They may also ask you some questions about yourself and where you’re traveling. Once they’re satisfied that there is no danger, you’ll be on your way.

Arrive at your destination airport

When you arrive at your destination airport, you’ll need to go through customs and passport control. This is the process where you declare any items that you’re bringing into the country. You’ll also need to show your passport and visa (if required). 

Go to Passport Control

When you’re ready to leave the airport, be sure to look for the signs directing you to passport control. The United States government has combined its customs and immigration controls, which means that you’ll need both a visa and boarding card in order to enter the country.

Passport control lines are typically segregated by nationality, so unless you’re a U.S. citizen, you will likely be directed into a different line than European citizens. When it’s your turn, you will hand your passport and any required forms over to a consular officer for verification.

If your trip was to the United States, the officer will also give you an I94 form. Keep in mind that if any of your documents need to be reprinted, you may have to go back through passport control.

Claim your luggage and clear customs

How can I get into customs after going through customs? Once you’ve cleared passports you can claim all of the baggage from baggage claim and proceed into customs. If you do not want anything to be declared then click on a green arrow. When the item is declared put the red arrow at that point on the line.

Here, a customs agent can answer your question about your recent visit or where your trip was. Be very specific if possible.

When you are picked up as an applicant, the customs agent searches the suitcases using the hand or by x-ray and asks for more details. But it’s always smarter to act with courtesy and cooperation.

Fill out your passport and customs form

Passport and customs forms may vary depending on the country you are visiting. However, most customs forms will ask for basic information such as your name, address, date of birth, and passport number. In some cases, you may also be asked to declare any items that you are bringing into the country that have a value over a certain amount.

Once you have completed the customs form, you will need to present it to a customs officer when you arrive at the airport or border crossing. The customs officer will then stamp your form and return it to you. It is important to keep your customs form safe as you may need to present it again when you leave the country.

See Related: Can You Bring Alcohol on a Plane?

Final Thoughts

The key takeaway from this list is to be prepared. Have your documents in order, know what you can and cannot bring with you, and answer all questions honestly.

If you do these things, you’ll likely have a smooth experience going through customs and border protection. What do all of these tips have in common? They’re all about being prepared so that you can avoid any potential problems.

Customs can often be a fast, easy process, but you’ve got to do your work before getting in line to make it that way. Use these tips to improve your experience and you’ll have a better chance to get through customs in no time at all!

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What is a customs declaration form?

A customs declaration is a form that lists the items you are bringing into the country. You will need to fill out one of these forms if you are traveling with goods that exceed your personal exemption limit.

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