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

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

Going through customs and border protection can be a hassle when traveling. You must ensure you have all your paperwork and not carry any prohibited items. Plus, there’s always the risk that you’ll get stopped for inspection. These are our favorite tips for going through customs.

This article will cover a few tips travelers can follow to make going through customs and border protection easier. It’s important to note that following these tips won’t guarantee 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, only about 1.2% were referred for secondary inspection. So, while getting stopped and inspected is still possible, the odds are in your favor.

“Are you an American?” 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’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 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 thought as they sat there, maybe four inches from my eyeballs as this guard pointed at me.

This encounter helped me realize that there are some basics that everyone should know when traveling abroad to 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

Explore our favorite travel tips to help you go through customs 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, ensure 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 can tell you what travel documents are required for entry. Ensure you have all your documents in order before your trip to avoid any stressful situations at the airport.

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

Well-Travelled US Passport with International Entry and Exit Stamps
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

It’s a hollow feeling in your stomach when you lose your identification. It happened to me once, and I 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 stuck my identification in a different pocket of my carry-on.

3. Don’t Make Jokes

People Laughing at a Joke

I vividly remember 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 in the trunk,” he told the official.

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

Making a joke in an uncomfortable situation can help to alleviate some tension. Still, it usually creates more tension because you’re seen as a suspicious character who must make a joke. Just smile and answer the questions put forth to you, and you’ll be more likely to be on your way quickly.

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 remove your shoes, so wearing a slip-on is helpful. Security may also ask you to remove other clothing items, so avoid wearing anything 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 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 must 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. Suppose you are accepted into the program and traveling through a major airport offering Global Entry. In that case, 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 help you avoid having to check your bag. If you do have to check your bag, ensure it’s well-organized to quickly get to the items you need.

See Related: Things to Know When Flying with Cash

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 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. Leave this stuff at home… or don’t try to bring it back.

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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 possible 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, raised an eyebrow, and then looked at each page I’d handed over painstakingly. 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 keep my mouth shut so I’d stay safe during my visit.

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

They want to ensure you’re not a security risk, so wait patiently, speak when they need you to, 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.

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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. They may ask you to give your address to your hotel room. Sometimes, you may be asked to provide evidence of the departure tickets and dates, which documents must also be packed in their luggage.

Several passengers have taken their duty of being first in customs very seriously. Moving fast at customs can help you get into your position faster. However, a journey through customs is unnecessary 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 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 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

You may be asked to undergo a same-sex inspection when going through security. Any traveler can make this request, and it’s important to know you have the right to make it.

If you feel uncomfortable with a male or female security officer inspecting your luggage, you can request a same-sex security officer. Be aware that this may not always be possible, but it’s important to know you have the right to make this request.

This discomfort leads to the customs official believing that you’ve got something to hide potentially, 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. You get a frantic feeling when you know your connecting flight is tight. The heart races, the adrenalin begins to pump, and you might even coldly sweat from your forehead, hands, or other less attractive places.

This also causes you 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 will 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, and plan to find a new connection as the worst-case scenario to reach your final destination. 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 you can do a few things 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 look for dangerous objects that could harm the aircraft’s passengers or crew onboard. However, they can also screen for other items like 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 must look closely at what was detected to determine whether it poses a threat.

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

Arrive at your destination airport

Modern airport terminal interior with travelers and directional signs, showcasing contemporary design and efficient layout.
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

Going through customs and passport control when you arrive at your destination airport would be best. This is the process of declaring any items you bring 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 customs and immigration controls, meaning you’ll need a visa and boarding card 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 to a consular officer for verification.

The officer would also give you an I94 form if your trip were to the United States. Remember that if 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 your passports, you can claim all the baggage from the baggage claim and proceed to customs. If you do not want anything declared, click on a green arrow when the item is declared and put the red arrow 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 x-ray and asks for more details. But it’s always more competent 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 require 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 you bring into the country that have a value over a certain amount.

Once you have completed the customs form, you must 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.

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!

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See Related: Can You Bring Alcohol on a Plane?


What is a customs declaration form?

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

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