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What is Customs at the Airport? Here’s What to Know

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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?

This post will give you a breakdown of the customs process and explain what you can expect when you pass it. Remember that rules and regulations may vary depending on your destination, so check with the embassy or consulate of the country you want to visit before traveling.

If you’re ever curious about what happens at customs, read on.

Do you go through customs before or after your flight?

Going through customs is a procedure that regulates the movement of individuals and goods across international borders. Typically, passengers undergo customs checks after landing at their destination country, as well as an in-flight declaration form.

Certain countries might require pre-flight customs clearance for specific goods or travel reasons. It’s crucial to consult your airline or the customs regulations of your destination to ascertain the exact process.

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.

StepDescriptionDocument(s) Required
ArrivalDeplane and proceed to customs areaPassport and boarding pass
Passport ControlVerify identity and travel documentsPassport and visa (if applicable)
DeclarationDeclare goods and currencyCustoms declaration form
Baggage ClaimCollect checked luggageBaggage claim ticket
Customs CheckInspection of luggage and declaration verificationDeclared items and receipts
ExitPass through customs to enter countryNone

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 they are in an “Inspection Station.” When international flights arrive, and you start leaving 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 time you spend 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), 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 your destination country’s “customs” area, an officer will provide you with an Arrival/Departure Record. You may also need to complete the customs form when going through customs.

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 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 visit (and will return to). This includes weapons or devices 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

People can encounter a few common issues 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 challenging 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 questions about your trip. Do not overthink; avoid acting suspicious, as it may raise some red flags.

For instance, remaining completely silent will look suspicious to the customs agents. If you don’t tell them your purpose or the items you have with you, 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 and your purpose for visiting the other country.

You also want to declare what you’ve brought so they can inspect what’s in your bag. If they are prohibited items, the customs agents will seize what they are or have someone else remove what you’re bringing.

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.

This will lead to many more issues than being honest about your goal 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 okay.

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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 fines and additional costs for what you have to do with what you’re trying to keep in your possession. Donating what they’ve confiscated or getting rid of it entirely is 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, smoking tobacco will be illegal in New Zealand in a few years, 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?

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

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 can 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 something 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,” you’ll have to pay additional taxes and duties on what was not declared. It’s not the end of the world but a hassle.

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What is Customs at the Airport?

Travel Bags

“Customs” refers to the agency that international passengers must go through when attempting to cross international borders and bring 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 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,” they run your passport and bag through the system to see if what you brought with you matches what’s on your declaration.

It could be as simple as not filling out any paperwork correctly 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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