How To Cope With Customs and Immigration

by Brenna Holeman

Customs and Immigration 1 Customs and Immigration 2 Customs and Immigration 3

Flying to the Galapagos, Ecuador

Crossing international borders is part of travelling; I remember one day having to go through three different immigration and customs procedures (Morocco, Italy, and Egypt). It is usually fairly painless, in my experience, and the long wait in the queue is quite often the most annoying part of it all. I’m very rarely asked any questions, and all I really have to do is hand over my passport and smile (this is a luxury afforded to me because I have a Canadian passport, I know).

Despite that, I still prepare myself for the worst: an interrogation or even a search of my belongings. Sometimes being chosen is completely random, or sometimes the immigration or customs officer has reason to pull you aside, but either way, I mentally and physically prepare every time I cross an international border. As I’m flying back to Canada in a week, and as Canadian officials give me more grief than any other country (more on that in a moment), I thought I’d share my list of tips with how to cope with immigration and customs to make your entry into any country as smooth as possible.

1. Do your research. Finding out what is required of you before visiting a country is usually as simple as going online; check to make sure that you have whatever necessary documents you need and that your passport is up to date (you usually need to have a passport valid for at least another six months, as well as an empty page for a stamp or visa). Some countries require that you have proof of funds or proof of your exit from the country, so make sure that you have all of that sorted before you get to the airport, bus, or train station.

2. Have a pen in your bag. This sounds stupid, but they often do not provide any on the plane or in the airport/station, and you want to be able to waltz directly off the plane and stand in line, not go searching for a pen to fill out your customs forms.

3. Have a hotel or hostel name in mind for your immigration form. You often have to fill out a contact address in the country you’re visiting; I’ve just randomly picked one out of the guidebook and used that, which has never been a problem.

4. Be honest, both on your forms and in person. Go over your personal information in your head before you’re standing directly in front of the immigration officer as he or she is asking you questions; it’s amazing how your mind blanks when someone asks you something you’re not prepared for. Questions I’ve been asked in the past (almost exclusively by Canadian officers) are:

-How long is/was your holiday?
-What date did you leave Canada?
-Which countries did you visit?
-Where did you stay?
(After staying with my sister in Mexico) What is the name of the school your sister works for?
-What do you do for a living?
-How do you fund your travels?
-What does your father do for a living?
-What is your current address?
-Did you attend university? Which one?
-What kind of souvenirs did you buy? How much were they?

-Did you fund your travels by playing the ukulele? (I’m not lying, I was carrying my ukulele after a few months in Europe and the officer asked me ONLY THAT ONE QUESTION)

All of these questions seem easy enough to answer, but, for example, if I was asked these questions at this very moment, I’d stumble over some of them (what date I left, etc.).

5. Make sure you know exactly what is in your bag, and that you don’t have anything you’re not supposed to have. This usually includes fruit or vegetables, live animals or plants, endangered species, and firearms. I don’t know why a backpacker would have any of these things (other than a random apple), but I once heard about a backpacker smuggling a live monkey in his pants from Thailand, so it’s worth mentioning. Also, if you are stupid enough to have drugs on you when crossing a border, you deserve whatever happens as a consequence. I met a girl in Guatemala who bragged about smuggling speed from Australia to Peru by stuffing it in her bra…and I still can’t believe how incredibly dumb she was. On a much, much smaller scale than that, make sure you know how much alcohol or food you are bringing in to a country so that you can fill out the customs card accordingly. I once had my bag searched after returning from Russia because I didn’t know exactly how much caviar I had. Apparently “two small jars” isn’t specific enough.

6. No matter what, even if you are pulled aside, stay calm and stay smiling. My bag gets searched 90% of the time when returning to Canada (it’s either that I travel a lot or that I have an incredibly shady face…let’s hope it’s the former). Retain a sense of humour about it all, even as they are taking your dirty underwear out of your backpack or flipping through your journal. There is absolutely nothing you can do about the situation, so best to stay positive.

These are my tips for going through customs and immigration; I’ve heard many horror stories about the procedure, but it is often easy enough. I’ve had my fair share of stories (having a man go through my bag at 3am after a flight from Copenhagen asking me repeatedly if I had been “a good girl” while in Europe; having a young officer go through my belongings for a solid half hour while chatting to me…and then asking me out; beforementioned ukulele incident) but I try to take it all with a grain of salt.

200 grams of Bolivian salt, that is, officer.

Do you have any other tips or recommendations for going through customs and immigration?

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Steph Lloyd December 11, 2012 - 4:32 am

Ha! Love the last sentence.

Andi of My Beautiful Adventures December 11, 2012 - 3:39 pm

It sometimes can be a bit scary! ALWAYS have a pen. Smile smile smile.

Sojourner W December 13, 2012 - 12:48 am

Deep yogic breaths ,)

This Battered Suitcase December 13, 2012 - 12:46 pm

Steph – Thanks!

Andi – Sometimes it can be quite intimidating, yes!

Sojourner – Absolutely…

Agness Walewinder December 13, 2012 - 6:45 pm

I have been a lucky one, but seen many people who struggled a lot with customs and immigration 😉 That’s so true – stay positive and smile 🙂

Jennifer December 17, 2012 - 6:50 am

Definitely relax, smile and breath. I always remind myself to try and have a sense of humor about it all. At the end of the day it is there job. I do believe that some hassle you because they can, but what can you do??

This Battered Suitcase December 20, 2012 - 11:04 pm

Agness – That’s what I always try to do: keep smiling!

Jennifer – You’re right – we can’t do much! Luckily I wasn’t stopped this time…

alex loaiza January 3, 2013 - 5:25 am

You can have a very hard time with them. In 2010 i was coming to the US from Colombia and I landed in Miami, which was the worst experience. They went through every single thing on my bag and asked a thousand questions. Why are you bringing so much coffee? Why so much candy? And then trying to intimidate me and make me believe that i had drugs on me, which at the end i was thinking to myself… Maybe someone put drugs in my bag. Maybe i have something illegal. It was too much. They really treated me like a criminal and at the end they said…. Ok! pick up your stuff and leave. All my clothes were on the floor and i had to pick them myself, put them back in the suitcase and leave.

Finishing a Trip or Moving On? Before You Leave, Read This - This Battered Suitcase February 5, 2014 - 2:23 am

[…] Prepare yourself for customs. I’ve written about this before, but basically, know your own life. It’s harder than it might first appear, especially if you travel often. I can’t tell […]

Kailey April 24, 2014 - 9:33 pm

Why is it your home country gives you the most trouble? When I moved to Australia they did not ask me one question. Just smiled and said Welcome to Australia! When I moved back? Oh dear god.. “Why were you there? What were you doing? Why did you only live in Sydney? How much money do you have? What part of Nevada were you born in? “uhmm I wasn’t?…” Exactly.. so where were you born?” SERIOUSLY?

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