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What is Customs at the Airport?

Have you ever wondered what happens when you go through customs at the airport? What is the process like, and what do they look for?

What is customs at the airport? In this post, we will give you a breakdown of the customs process, and explain what you can expect when you pass through it.

Keep in mind that rules and regulations may vary depending on your final destination, so make sure to check with the embassy or consulate of the country you want to visit before traveling. If you’re ever curious as to what happens at customs, read on!

Customs Process in a Foreign Country

Officers Checking a Luggage

Customs are the border patrol of any country. It’s what you go through in international airports when you come from a foreign country.

The customs agents must ensure that travelers comply with the rules and regulations of the new country.

Passport Control

Diverse employees of airport checking passports and biometric data working with passengers
Frame Stock Footage / Adobe Stock

When you pass through customs at the airport, you will see that they are located in what is called an “Inspection Station.” When international flights arrive and you start going out of the plane, you will pass through an area where border agents are stationed.

In this customs area, you must go through an immigration process. It is important to complete it before proceeding to the baggage area. You must complete the customs form, including details about your international trip and flight number.

The form must also indicate what country you have traveled from, your purpose for visiting other countries, and the times you have in your luggage.

Customs Agents

Security agent at an airport check-in gate patting down a bearded male passenger
Frame Stock Footage / Adobe Stock

A customs agent is considered a gate agent or border control authority. Customs agents are a form of law enforcement with the same arrest authority as federal police and on-center worksites. Their primary responsibility is to enforce border protection by ensuring the inspection process is conducted thoroughly.

They collaborate closely with CBP’s Border Patrol, ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations, the US Army Corps of Engineers Civil/Military Affairs Division (USACE C/MA), FDA Customs Service Import Safety Staff (CISSS), USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), TSA, Coast Guard, and the Travel Security Administration.

Their job is to ensure the lawful entry of individuals traveling abroad.

Their duties include:

  • enforcing laws prohibiting illegal trade activities such as smuggling;
  • conducting criminal investigations in cases such as drug offenses and alien smuggling;
  • enforcing immigration laws;
  • preventing the entry of prohibited goods such as weapons, crops, animals/livestock or contaminated/regulated food products; and
  • ensuring the safety of travelers by inspecting luggage at airports. Even family members who travel together must go through the security checks conducted by customs; sadly, Dad can’t just take one for the team at the border.

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How to Pass Through Customs

Travel Hand Bag

As already mentioned above, the laws may vary from one country to another. This is why it is important to learn more about the passport control guidelines, details on immigration authorities, customs fees, and other international customs rules.

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Customs Authority: What to Do

Bins passing through the x-ray at an airport TSA checkpoint.
Mihail / Adobe Stock

When you enter the “customs” area of your destination country, an officer will provide you with an Arrival/Departure Record.

Upon going through customs, you may also need to complete the customs form.

This is where you will declare the purpose of your entry or trip and if you are anything that the destination nation considers taxable, regulated or controlled e.g. a case of Johnnie Walker, a gallon of milk, or seeds.

If they give you a Declaration Form, ensure your answers match what’s on the Arrival/Departure Record. As the agency in charge of transportation security administration for many international flights, the agents may also ask several questions about you.

Take note that the agents in the customs and border may look into your bags or luggage to search if you have brought some illegal or hazardous items.

Many of these searches are completely random, but there are certain red flags that customs agents will look out for that will almost guarantee a search e.g. wearing combat boots or military-style clothing on a civilian flight.

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What to Bring?

Holding a Passport
Levi Ventura / Unsplash

When you go through customs, the first thing you need to present is your self-descriptive passport; it allows you to pass through ports of entry.

It is required before you can cross international borders in many countries. All the important information must be clearly and correctly stated in your passports, such as your name, passport ID, birthday, photo, and expiration date.

At the same time, you can also bring luggage with all the items you need, especially those for your personal use. It’s important to see that you do not bring any prohibited or illegal items to the destination country.

Otherwise, you may be subjected to a more thorough check to determine whether or not you should be detained, and your prohibited or illegal cargo will definitely be confiscated and destroyed.

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What Not to Bring?

White pills
James Yarema / Unsplash

You should not bring any items known as “restricted goods” into any nation you are visiting (and will be returning to). This includes weapons or devices that are referred to as “weapons of mass destruction,” as well as anything classified as “hateful items,” which include anything that might inflame others.

Other restricted items include endangered or invasive plants and fruit, protected or invasive animal species, toxic materials (such as asbestos), flammables or explosives (like gasoline), ivory (the trade of which is illegal virtually everywhere), used batteries (if they aren’t rechargeable), and prescription drugs that you do not have a permit for.

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Common Issues: Customs Duty, Passport Concerns, and Others

Travel Packing

There are a few common issues that people can encounter when dealing with customs at the airport. One is that there may be a language barrier, making it difficult to communicate with the customs agents.

Another potential problem is uncertainty about what is and isn’t allowed. Finally, some people may find the customs procedure difficult to complete quickly and correctly. If you encounter any of these difficulties, don’t hesitate to contact a customs agent or a travel agency for assistance.

They should be able to assist you in resolving any issues you have if you run into any.

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Customs and Border Control Tips at the Airport

People in the hall of the airport security inspection secition
Mariakray / Unsplash

When traveling to another country, you should first state what’s in your luggage and why you’re visiting. Be honest and straightforward if the customs agents ask you questions about your trip. Do not overthink and avoid acting suspicious as it may raise some red flags.

For instance, remaining completely silent is going to look suspicious to the customs agents. If you don’t tell them what your purpose was or what items you have with you, then that will raise suspicion. They’re the ones who must check the entry of passengers coming from a foreign home country.

As mentioned above, the best policy is always to be upfront and honest about what you’ve brought with you and your purpose for visiting the other country.

You also want to declare what you’ve brought so that they can inspect what’s in your bag. If it’s prohibited items, then the customs agents will seize what it is or have someone else get rid of what you’re bringing in.

Even if you’re not caught, lying is a more significant issue because attempting to smuggle prohibited items is illegal.

They can arrest you for everything you were doing or attempted to do, so this will lead to a lot more issues than just being honest from the start about what your goal is and what items you have with you.

Want to know the secret? This is much easier to do if you pack your bag and ensure what you’re bringing is a-ok.

What will happen if what I bring into the country isn’t what’s on my declaration?

X-ray scan in the airport terminal, checking the bags with luggage
Mihail / Adobe Stock

You may incur a fine and additional costs for what you end up having to do with what you’re trying to keep in your possession. Be donating what they’ve confiscated or getting rid of it entirely, it’ll be more work than you might think.

What if what I bring with me is a thing like drugs or tobacco?

Dog at the airport searching drugs in the luggages
Dragosh Co / Shutterstock

It depends on what you’re trying to bring with you, what country you’re visiting, and their laws on what’s restricted. As an illustration, in North America, smoking weed or buying cigarettes/cigars can be done without problems, but in other countries, what you’re doing is illegal, and a big risk.

As an illustration, in a few years, smoking tobacco will be illegal in New Zealand, meaning that pack of Pall Malls you packed in your carry-on will lead to a fine!

What happens if I don’t declare what I bring into the country?

Packing Travel Essentials
Kittiphan / Adobe Stock

Technically, you’re smuggling a thing in, which will at least lead to additional costs and fines on your end, if not worse. Customs can also seize what you’re trying to bring with you, so you have to declare what’s on your person.

What if I don’t have my passport with me when I travel?

Open passport with stamps
Maksym Yemelyanov / Adobe Stock

This may not be what you want to hear, but what happens is that you’re either going to get denied entry into the country or you’ll have to wait until they can verify who you are. Under infrequent circumstances, people are allowed to cross borders without passports, and you likely don’t fit those criteria. Don’t. Forget. Your. Passport!

What if what I bring with me has a thing wrong with it?

Man Packing a Suitcase
Vlada Karpovich / Pexels

If what’s incorrect is that there was a mistake or it’s incomplete, then customs may allow an application for what they call an “amendment” to the declared value of the goods. Otherwise, what you’ve done is called “undervaluation” and you’ll have to pay additional taxes and duties on what was not declared. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s a hassle.

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Travel Bags

To answer “What is Customs at the Airport,” refers to the agency that international passengers must go through when attempting to cross international borders and bringing goods into the country that may be restricted, such as food or substances prohibited by law.

If you’re visiting a new nation and plan on returning to your home country, you should know a few things about customs. When arriving at the airport, carry your passport with a recent visa stamp or entry requirements papers, and be truthful when passing through security.

Don’t be embarrassed if you don’t have an answer for everything because most people aren’t familiar with every single detail of their laws. That said, it can never hurt to brush up before jetting off! Don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter for the latest updates on international and domestic travel flights.


How long does airport customs take?

And what about what they might say to you? Customs does not have a maximum time limit, but they will usually take about 5-15 minutes to review your declaration and ask you some questions. However, customs may detain you for additional questions if they notice anything suspicious.

What happens when I get to customs?

The most important thing is that you fill out your declaration correctly and keep it with you until the end of your trip. You cannot possess more than what’s permitted in terms of items.

If they are found, you will not be able to keep what’s in their possession, and they will seize what you’re trying to bring into the country.

What does clearing customs mean?

Clearing customs is when you finish what they call the “primary inspection,” and they run your passport and bag through the system to see if what you brought with you matches up with what’s on your declaration.

It could be a thing as simple as not filling out any paperwork right or having a prohibited item in your bag — regardless of what it is, it’ll slow down the lines and wait time.

Do you have to go through customs at every airport?

Technically, only countries with airport customs stations must go through them. Still, some smaller airports perform the same function as major airport customs stations.

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