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:
-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?