If like most people, you have nothing to hide, getting through customs can feel like a drawn-out process with an unnecessary barrage of questions.
However, knowing what questions to expect and having useful information to hand can really speed up the process.
We’ve put together some of the most common and unusual questions asked at airport customs so that you’re fully prepared for your next international flight.
Often, customs officers will ask a question and be more interested in the manner in which you respond than the answer to the question itself. So, as long as you’re being truthful, there’s really nothing to worry about!
Regardless of your situation, it’s always best to answer questions with 100% honesty, even if your situation is complicated. What you thought as a little white-lie, helping to speed the process up can actually turn into more questioning and hassle.
This is a common question that’s asked to determine whether you’re flying from a high-risk country, or, just out of interest.
You should answer with the city and the country. For example, ‘I’ve flown from Montevideo, Uruguay.”
Customs officers will want you to be specific on this, so make sure you know the address of where you’re staying. You might also be asked to put this on your immigration card.
If you’re backpacking and haven’t decided where you’re staying yet, it’s worth noting down a hostel or hotel that you’re intending to stay at and give the address of that. If you’re staying on a cruise ship, put the name of the ship, cruise company and the port.
While this can be answered with a simple ‘leisure’ or ‘business’, the more specific you are, the less likely additional questions will be asked. For example, ‘I’m travelling to explore the city’ or ‘I’m here for a business meeting on Tuesday’ is more likely to cover the details that they’re interested in.
This is one of the most common questions at airport customs. You don’t have to be exact with the number of days — for example, an answer of ‘three weeks’ should be okay. But if the length of your stay isn’t in compliance with visa rules and the country’s immigration policies, you might be asked further questions.
This might be used to give an indication of your income and to see if it fits with your answer to the amount of money that you have (see later). But for the most part, this is a prime example of when customs officers are more interested in the manner in which you answer the question, rather than the answer itself. They’re looking for quick and direct responses, without hesitation.
In certain jobs, such as law enforcement, you might also be asked to provide proof of your occupation in the form of identification or documentation.
Depending on where you’re travelling to, there may be certain items that aren’t allowed in the country or have to declare tax on.
It’s imperative that you check the country’s rules for the items that you’re importing, as bringing something illegal into the country or failing to declare is against the law and you’ll most likely be fined.
This is another example of a question that is asked to see how you respond. Any hesitation will likely raise suspicion. And, of course, if you give a date that doesn’t match your passport you’ll be questioned further.
Even if you feel ultra-prepared and think that you know any and every question that gets thrown your way, you should still expect the unexpected. Occasionally, an officer might ask you a question that will throw you off guard. Remember — there isn’t a fixed list of questions that they ask. So, as long as it relates to your travels, they can pretty much ask you anything that they like. Regardless of how irrelevant or unusual it might seem.
Frequent flyer and Director of Marketing for Speek, Edward Sturm told us that he was asked this question a lot when travelling through Eastern Europe, where there are specific rules for each country.
For example, in Belarus, it’s mandatory to have health insurance that has a minimum value of €5,000 EUR and covers the length of your stay. In this case, it’s an essential rule that you’re hopefully already aware of, but you might also be asked about a less obvious rule that exists. That’s why it’s worth brushing up on the rules of the country beforehand. And, if you’re caught off guard, ask the customs officer for more information and the steps that you need to take in order to comply.
You might be asked this question in two different senses.
The first is asking how much physical cash that you have on you. This is a fairly common question, as each country has its own rules on the maximum amount of cash that you can bring into the country before you have to declare it.
The second way you might be asked is how much money you have in your bank account. The reason a customs officer might ask this is that they want to know that you’ll have enough money to fund your trip and to leave the country when you’re supposed to. Customs officers can get pretty particular about this, travel blogger Zachary Stafford told us that when in Ireland “I jokingly asked the customs official if he wanted me to log into my bank account to show him how much money I had”. He said “yes.“
99% of the time you would have packed your own bag. So, if you have packed your own bag, answer with a prompt ‘Yes. I packed my own bag’.
However, there might be an occasion where someone has helped you pack your bag, or a partner or family member might have packed it for you. What they are really asking with this question is whether you know all of the contents inside your bag, which is something you should definitely make sure of before flying.
The key to answering this question is to avoid being ambiguous. If you didn’t pack your bag, don’t answer with a simple ‘no’. This will lead to more questioning. Instead, answer “no, I didn’t pack the bag myself, my partner did. However, I’m aware of all of the contents inside the bag.’
It’s not just the customs officers that ask the questions. Grant Patterson, who was a customs officer at the Canada Border Services Agency shared with us some of the most common questions that he was asked in his seventeen years at Vancouver International Airport (YVR).
Hopefully, by answering them here, we can save inquisitive travellers of the world a bit of time when passing through customs.
Customs officers are looking for anything that is prohibited by law to import or export. The big concerns are drugs, illicit cash, weapons, child sexual abuse material and any evidence of terrorist activity, as well as people who are trying to enter the country under false pretences.
Some of the questions that are asked at customs may seem trivial and ‘stupid’, but its the sheer volume of those questions that is designed to catch out those who are lying. The idea is that if a person is lying, they can only be coached to lie to a certain extent and by continuing to ask questions, they’ll slip up eventually.
In most countries, the laws behind border searches are much less-strict than inside the country itself. This means that customs officers have the right to search you without the need for a warrant. Strip-searches only require a supervisor’s approval and only really invasive searches — such as internal body searches — require a warrant or consent.
Grant tells us that almost all referrals are based on what’s called a ‘multiplicity of indicators’ articulable in court.
If you do believe you’ve been singled out for harassment, it’s extremely important to find out the complaint process and file an official complaint. Grant assures us that these complaints won’t be ignored and are dealt with very seriously.
At the moment, it’s illegal to import marijuana for recreational use anywhere in the world, even if you’re flying between two destinations where it’s legal. For example, if you’re flying between two US states where marijuana is legal, the drug is still illegal by federal law, which makes it illegal to fly with. The same rules apply when flying with marijuana between the US and Canada.
Tip: Find out more on our flying with cannabis page.
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