“Are you an American or not?” 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 mean I’d even filled out my customs declaration forms down to the smallest items I’d purchased while traveling abroad so that even the $2 keychain I’d bought my wife was on 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 were thinking 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 so that they can make it through customs, checkpoints, or even that less than friendly border crossing with as little difficulty as possible. That’s what these tips are intended to help you do!
Tip #1: Don’t Make Jokes
I have this vivid memory of 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 there in the trunk,” he told the official. That prompted a much more thorough search of the vehicle, one of which my teenage mind then tuned out since I obviously had nothing to hide.
Making a joke in an uncomfortable situation can help to alleviate some tension, but what it usually ends up doing is creating more tension because you’re then seen as a suspicious character who feels the need to make a joke. Just smile, answer the questions that are put forth to you, and you’ll be more likely to be quickly on your way.
Tip #2: Don’t Speak Unless Spoken Too
I once handed my passport to an official, flashed as brilliant a smile as I could muster 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, kind of raised an eyebrow, and then proceeded to painstakingly look at each page I’d handed over. It seemed to take 6 hours, but it was probably like 20 minutes or so. Then I got an equally brilliant smile, was told to enjoy my stay, and to make sure that I kept my mouth shut so I’d stay safe during my visit.
I decided that was prudent advice not only during that holiday, but also when coming through a customs checkpoint. Some folks don’t mind a little conversation, but most of them do. They see thousands of people every week and don’t want idle chit-chat. They want to make sure you’re not a security risk, so just wait patiently, speak when they need you to speak, and maybe not be as proactive about anticipating what they want from you.
Tip #3: 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 that I’d picked up to eat. Because of that one banana, a 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. Just leave this stuff at home… or don’t try to bring it back.
Tip #4: Missing Passports Aren’t Always the End of the World
It’s a hollow feeling in the pit of your stomach when you lose your identification. It happened to me once and I can 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 simply stuck my identification in a different pocket of my carry-on.
Tip #5: Keep That Mobile Phone Off!
Little did I know that cell phones are considered a no-no when passing through 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.
Tip #6: Even If You’re Late, Don’t Make a Scene
It’s a frantic feeling you get when you know your connection is tight. The heart races, the adrenalin begins to pump, and you might even begin to coldly sweat from your forehead, hands, or other less attractive places. This also causes you to try 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 is guaranteed to 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, start planning on trying to find a new connection as the worst case scenario, and maybe you’ll get through customs on time and not need those plans.
Tip #7: You Can Request a Same-Sex Inspection
Now I don’t carry things that I would find embarrassing and if someone really wants to ruffle through my tighty-whiteys, then they can be my guest. Some folks, however, aren’t a big fan of tighty-whitey ruffling and this makes them uncomfortable. This discomfort then leads to the customs official believing that you’ve got something to potentially hide and then off you go into a side room for a secondary inspection.
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 at all!