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8 Ways to Breeze Through Customs Quickly

Getting through Customs Quickly
Allianz - Getting through Customs Quickly

When you’re in a hurry, waiting in the customs and immigration line at the airport is absolute agony. There are three agents for 300 travelers, and they’re taking their sweet time. You can’t help wondering: Isn’t there some way to speed this up?

To some degree, customs lines are inevitable. Still, that doesn't mean you have to suffer; there's a lot you can do to get yourself toward the front of the line and streamline the actual customs encounter.

The basics are simple: Fill out your paperwork online, if possible. Keep travel documents close at hand. Avoid checking bags. And when you land, head straight for the customs line without bathroom detours. Here are 8 more tips to try.

And if something catastrophic happens — such as losing your passport and getting stuck overseas — don’t panic! Allianz Travel Insurance can help. Traveling soon and don’t yet have travel protection? It’s not too late. Get a quote now.

1. Fill out customs and immigration forms in advance.

More and more countries are asking travelers to fill out customs declarations and immigration forms online instead of on paper. Canada, for instance, now requires inbound international travelers to use the ArriveCAN app to provide travel and public health information. The free CBP Mobile Passport app speeds your re-entry to the U.S. by submitting your passport and customs declaration information online.

Take a few minutes to research your country’s entry requirements before you travel. Look up your destination in the U.S. Department of State’s country information database. You can also check our interactive map for the latest information on travel requirements and entry restrictions for international destinations. (Content is provided by Sherpa, an affiliated third party).

2. Get in line faster.

Remember your mother chiding, “It’s not a race!” Well, when it comes to getting through customs quickly, it is a race. The faster you can deplane and reach the passport control area, the fewer people will be ahead of you in line. This doesn’t mean you should shove other passengers out of the way, but you can speed up the process if you:

  • Use the restroom on the plane before disembarking
  • Choose a seat toward the front of the plane
  • Wear good walking shoes, especially if there’s a super-long trek from the arrival gate to the customs and immigration area (we’re talking about you, Toronto Pearson).
  • Keep all travel documents close at hand and organized, so you’re not searching for them in your suitcase.

If you have a disability and/or mobility challenges and require assistance getting to and through customs, inform your airline before you travel. U.S. Customs and Border Protection asks travelers to inform a CBP officer of any special accommodations needed.

3. Ditch the food.

Did you hear about the woman who accidentally brought a Subway sandwich from Singapore to Australia? She forgot to declare it, and as a result was fined $1,840.[i] Don’t let this happen to you! Throw away any fresh fruit, vegetables or meat before you get to customs, either on the airplane or in a designated trash receptacle in the airport.

If you’re in the customs line and you realize you have a prohibited item with you, don’t try to conceal it. Ask the customs officer what you should do.  

4. Know the questions they’ll ask.

Upon arriving in a foreign country, you can expect customs officers to ask you some or all of the following questions:

  • What is the purpose of your trip? Be honest and succinct, whether the answer is vacation, work, seeing friends and family, etc. The customs officer doesn’t need your life story.
  • How long do you intend to stay? Know the date of your departure. If you’re staying for a long time (say, a month or more), you may be asked about your planned activities.[ii]
  • Where will you be staying? Have the exact address on hand. A vague answer, such as “with friends,” may raise red flags.
  • What’s your occupation? Give a clear, simple answer, because if you stumble you may be asked additional questions.
  • Do you have anything to declare? Be aware of what items may be prohibited or controlled at your destination.

Upon your return to the United States, you may be asked more questions about the nature of your trip and anything you’re bringing back with you. One common question is, “Have you visited a farm?” Customs won't deny you re-entry to the country if you've visited a farm, but you may lose some time while they clean your footwear to make sure you're not accidentally bringing any biological contaminants into the country. Invasive species and illnesses are very real hazards. If you’ve visited any farms, admit it and accept the possible delay.

5. Retain your receipts.

Each country allows you to transport a certain dollar amount of purchases across the border without paying duty, which is a tax levied on purchases made or gifts received while you're abroad. Keep your receipts and track how much you've spent. This way, you can prove whether you fall under the duty limit or how much you may be over the limit.

6. Put your phone away.

Want to have an up-close-and-personal visit with a customs agent? Just whip out a camera and start taking pictures; it'll get their attention quickly. If you'd rather have a quick and hassle-free experience, leave your phone and camera tucked away until you're all the way through customs.

7. Become a trusted traveler.

If you want to make everyone else in the customs line turn green with envy, consider applying for the Global Entry program. You'll have to pay $100 and submit to a background check, and not every airport supports Global Entry. Nevertheless, if you're accepted into the program and traveling through a major airport, your trip through U.S. customs boils down to a quick stop at an automated kiosk to confirm your identity and make any necessary declarations. The NEXUS and SENTRI programs, also offered by the Department of Homeland Security, offer similar benefits when you’re entering Canada and Mexico.

Learn more: The Simple Guide to Trusted Traveler Programs

8. Keep your cool.

Travel is frustrating. Long waits in customs lines are even more frustrating. Add to that the indignity of having a customs agent rummage through your suitcase and ask you invasive questions, and you might be tempted to snap. Don’t! Take a deep breath. Remain calm and cordial. The ACLU has a handy guide that explains your rights when going through U.S. immigration and customs.

Remember that Allianz Travel Insurance is here to help when international trips go awry! Call 24-7 assistance for help with translation, replacing lost or stolen travel documents, and more. Assistance is included with every plan—find the right protection for your next adventure.

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