Customs and immigration are among the most daunting aspects of overseas travel. Crossing international borders usually involves some kind of checkpoint—and since international airports are the first point of entry to a new country, they have checkpoints in them through which travelers must pass before they leave the airport. Collectively, these are typically referred to as customs and immigration.
Whenever you travel from one country to another, you must go through the immigration process. Each country has its immigration inspection process. For most passengers, this is a simple process that takes only a few minutes.
Do You Go Through Customs Before or After Your Flight?
In most cases, you’ll go through customs and immigration after your flight first arrives in a new country, but there are exceptions.
For example, some countries have mutual agreements intended to help speed travelers through the process, so you may go through customs and immigration before you board. When flying from Ireland to the United States, for instance, you’ll go through US customs in Ireland. But when arriving in the US from most other countries, you’ll go through customs upon your first arrival in the US (even if you have a connecting flight onward).
And sometimes you don’t go through customs until you reach your final destination. For example, if you’re flying from the US to Europe and have a layover in one Schengen Area country before you arrive in a second Schengen Area country, you’ll typically go through immigration when you first land, but you won’t go through customs until you reach your final destination.
Immigration Process: What to Expect
When you enter a different country from which your flight departed you will have to go through the Immigration process. You’ll enter the immigration area, where arriving passengers are split into separate lines. Each country will have its own agency that administers this inspection process. For the vast majority of passengers, the immigration process only takes a few minutes, though lines to take your turn can get long if many international flights arrive around the same time.
- Upon arrival, go through the immigration and passport control area of the airport.
- Passengers are split into multiple lines. There is generally a line for host country nationals (people with a passport from that country), sometimes a line for citizens of the region (EU, ECOWAS, etc), and non-immigrant visitors. Be sure to enter the correct line to avoid confusion and wasting your time.
- When going through immigration in a country in which you are not a host-country national, you will likely go through the non-immigrant visitor line.
- Do stay calm and relaxed as you wait your turn.
- Do NOT use your cell phone (put it on silent mode) or cameras in the immigration area. Cell phone calls are not allowed in this area and could be subject to confiscation. It is a good practice to avoid using any electronics in the immigration and inspection area.
- Use of electronics in the immigration area can result in confiscation.
- Stay relaxed. As long as you are honest and pay attention to instructions, there will be nothing to worry about.
The immigration inspection
1. Review Travel Documents
When it is your turn for inspection, an airport official will ask to see these Travel documents:
- Green card
- Disembarkation card (provided to you during flight; you will complete before landing)
- Immunization documentation
- Letters of confirmation or support, etc.
2. Standard Questions
Officials will likely ask you a set of questions such as :
- What is the nature of your visit?
- How long are you staying?
- Where will you be staying?
- what cities you’ll be visiting during your stay?
- This last question is often phrased as, “Do you have anything to declare?”
3. Fingerprints and Photos
Some countries require fingerprints and/or photos of every individual entering the country. Officials will take fingerprints or photos if required.
Once you are approved, the officials will stamp your passport and grant you admission into the country. Officials can specify your period of authorized stay in case of non-immigrant visitors (this will depend on visa rules/tourist stay policies). The length of your authorized stay will depend on local visa rules/tourist stay policies.
Some passengers may be selected for the second level of inspection. Reasons for this may include random checks or questions about documentation. The inspection may take place in a separate room, and passengers undergoing such inspection may or may not be approved to enter the country, based on inspection results.
Second-level inspections could be conducted in the same queue (line) or in a separate room to aid in a conversation and to keep the queues moving for other passengers. The timeframe of these inspections can vary greatly. Passengers that are part of second-level inspections could be granted regular admission into the country once the inspection is complete. However, if incorrect or inadequate documentation is provided, passengers can be denied approval to enter the country. Passengers are sent back to their original location on the next available flight.
Reasons for 2nd level inspection could include random checks and questions or issues with documentation.
Customs Process: What to Expect
Each country and airport will have different requirements and procedures for declaring items. For specific customs guidelines, research online restrictions for your host country and for the airport of entry.
- Just as each country has an agency that facilitates the Immigration Process, the country you enter will have its own laws and regulations regarding the import and export of goods into and out of a country. It is the responsibility of the respective customs agency to enforce these policies.
- Many countries are strict about the transfer of soil/sand/dirt from one country to another—it is important to avoid introducing non-native organisms. Certain countries will have strict rules around this transfer and may ask questions or require you to clean shoes, close, personal effects before clearing customs.
- For the vast majority of passengers clearing the customs process only takes a few minutes.
- Some countries have goods that are restricted or forbidden to be exported and/or imported. Learn more about Customs exports and imports.
Before You De-Plane
During your flight, an attendant will distribute a Customs Declaration Form (in addition to the disembarkation card you completed for immigration). You should complete this form before landing.
The form will ask questions such as:
- Your flight number
- Your flight’s point of exit and entry
- What goods you are bringing into the country (the form may list prohibited items).
You must declare:
- Any goods you are bringing into the country that may be restricted.
- Return trip to U.S.: Any goods you purchased in the host country.
After Clearing Immigration
After clearing immigration and collecting your baggage, your next step will be clearing the customs area before you are allowed to leave the airport. As with the immigration process, most passengers find that clearing customs takes only takes a few minutes.
Each country has its own regulations regarding the import and export of goods into and out of the country.
Customs is the authority of each country that is responsible for controlling the flow of goods into and out of the country, including:
- Personal effects
- Hazardous items
- Soil/sand/dirt (generally prohibited because it can introduce non-native organisms; you may be asked to clean your shoes, etc.)
Your luggage may or may not be inspected. If you are found to possess restricted items, you may be required to pay duty and/or fines, or to relinquish the items. It is important to declare items as required on the Customs Declaration Form.
- Complete the Customs Declaration form while on the flight.
- Ask your flight attendant or traveling companions questions as needed.
- Declare any goods you have with you that might have restrictions, and/or goods you purchased in-country when returning to your home country.
- Present your declaration form to a customs official.
- Custom officials may or may not inspect your luggage. If they do check your bags and find restricted items, you may be asked to pay duty and/or fines. This is why it is critical to declare items as asked and required.
Each country and airport will have varying processes and requirements for customs and rules around the declaration of items. Review the specific country and airport of entry for specific customs guidelines.
If you’ve got something in your bags that you didn’t declare and you should have, the penalties can vary.