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Every time I've gone through customs, it has been a relatively quick and friendly series of basic questions and credential verification. However, I have heard people complain about delays due to problems with their paperwork or having their luggage searched (I am assuming that they had nothing to hide).

What can international travelers do to expedite going through customs?

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Is there a specific country you have in mind? I've never been stopped for luggage checks in the UK or Europe - but have been in India and New Zealand. So it depends. –  JoseK Aug 9 '11 at 16:13
    
@JoseK No, I didn't have a specific country in mind. I am looking for general tips and advice. –  Beofett Aug 9 '11 at 16:17
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3 Answers

up vote 10 down vote accepted

First of all, you should be prepared:

  1. You must know which things you are allowed to bring, and which are prohibited.
  2. You must know the quantity for the things you are carriyng - for some of them (like alcohol) there are restrictions.
  3. You must know about quarantine rules - for the meals, animals, and so on.
  4. You must know about local culture - for example, not every customs personnel in Russia likes the smiles.
  5. I think there is more things you must know about.

For second, you should be smart on customs - check every possibility to minimize your time. For example, customs have 4 windows to get passengers through, but most part of people goes only through 3 of them, and no one notices the fourth.
Get your luggage with you, and avoid heavy and massive things - more volume brings more problems.

For third, be polite and know your rights. Good luck.

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Also, on local culture, know where discreetly passing a banknote in your wallet will speed up the processing, and where it will land you in jail. –  Gilles Aug 10 '11 at 0:10
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even with all that, there's places you just have to put up with waiting. And places where it's completely random. Visited Tashkent last year, took us nearly 4 hours to clear customs simply because of the glacial pace at which they worked. Our guide had arrived the day before on the same flight and had needed only about 20 minutes. Same airport, same load, different people at the stations, 10 times faster handling... –  jwenting Feb 13 '12 at 6:58
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If you are traveling between Canada and the US, get a Nexus card. Eliminates the lineup and (almost always) the conversation with a human. There's a very small fee ($50? $100?) and about a half a day out of your life for the interview, and you will gain the time back on your first trip.

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Some general tips regardless of the border you are crossing:

  • in places with multiple individual lines, when choosing which line to join, don't just look at the length. A line of 30 people who form ten families will go quicker than a line of 30 individuals. With experience, you may be able to spot the person who will have a longer conversation with the officer, and avoid their line.
  • do not lie. Ever, even about something tiny. They can tell. It may not result in charges or fines, just in getting searched, which is a delay.
  • be consistent. If you are here on vacation to see your sister, why are you wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase? If you're here for a wedding, why do you have a hiking backpack with a sleeping bag etc attached to it? If you don't look the part of what you've written on the form, they'll investigate. Again, not saying they will fine you or refuse you, but they'll investigate.
  • don't be too slick. Answer what you're asked, and try not to have prepared sentences ready. If they think you've rehearsed a cover story, ... well, you know.
  • declare everything. Most stuff is allowed in. I write clues on the form. For example on my most recent trip I checked yes to food and wrote WINE, CANDY next to it. I learned this after seeing what they do when you check yes and they ask you about it.
  • when you're coming home, you're right that they have to let you in no matter what. But it doesn't have to be fast. So all of this still applies coming home.

For the sake of those behind you let me add: be prepared. Have your form filled out, your passport in your hand, and so on. This can all go nice and quick if we all do the right thing. When you're held up, everyone behind you is held up too.

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Also packing you bags in a way that make them easy to search especially for countries that are known for having a look (New Zealand) –  Stuart Aug 11 '11 at 9:45
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Declaring everything is guaranteed to slow you down, especially in busy airports where most people are not checked. In some places, it may also mark you as an easy extortion/bribe target, whether what you're carrying is legal or not. –  dbkk Feb 13 '12 at 17:03
    
Only once have I declared less than I might have needed to. I was given something that couldn't be bought - a prototype. Related products with less functionality were $900 and my limit was $750. I declared it as $700 and hoped for the best, and wasn't checked. I felt so bad doing that - if it happens again I will make up a number that doesn't make me feel bad, and pay duty if I must. Yet with this strict "always declare" policy I have never experienced any slowdown anywhere. Occasionally I get asked one question. Eg "what is this you said yes to?" "I have some seashells from the beach" "OK". –  Kate Gregory Feb 13 '12 at 20:15
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