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Whenever you enter the US, you are required to fill out Form 6059B, which asks for your personal details and whether or not you're bringing in any restricted goods. Whenever you are entering the UK, you are required to fill out a landing card and passengers entering Canada fill out an E311 Declaration Card. As far as I can tell the immigration officers usually completely ignore whatever details you wrote in those forms and simply scan your passport to enter your details into their computer. It therefore looks like a complete waste of time, as the majority of passengers have no goods to declare anyway and therefore the immigration forms get thrown away right after you get your passport stamp.

So what's the point of these forms/declarations? Why require absolutely everyone to fill them out? As a bonus question explain why car passengers are spared from this obligation and are instead asked verbally if they have something to declare.

Update: no more landing cards in the UK! Now just waiting for US and Canada to remove their outdated practices.

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My understanding is that the forms primarily exist for two purposes:

  1. For tracking. This is increasingly obsolete as records become digital, and while bureaucracy moves slowly, some of these forms are disappearing: eg. the US paper I-94 is long gone and Australia no longer has departure cards.
  2. For making it easier to charge you with crime. For example, if you bring in drugs and state on your declaration form that you're not bringing in drugs, that's two offences right there, and it's apparently often easier to charge you with the bureaucratic violation than the actual contraband. (See also: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marihuana_Tax_Act_of_1937)

I do agree that the forms often seem pointless in practice: yesterday I dutifully declared I was bringing a meat product to the US, twice at that (Customs paper form and ESTA machine), and nobody even bothered to ask me what it was (jerky), much less inspect it...

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    You can charge people with a crime by putting up a sign like "If you cross this line with goods to declare, please fill out a form". That's how they charge people who cheat public transport systems which don't have ticket barriers. And that's how it works in the Schengen area. – JonathanReez Mar 21 '18 at 4:15
  • You don't need to do it twice at US airports - the customs form is for those ineligible to use a kiosk – Crazydre Mar 21 '18 at 14:20
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    @JonathanReez: A signed document, filled out entirely in the suspect's handwriting, and then presented by the suspect directly to a CBP officer, is a foolproof piece of evidence. It makes the whole plea bargain process much faster and easier than if you have to argue over whether the suspect read and understood the sign, whether they crossed the line at all, and so on. – Kevin Apr 2 at 6:03
  • @Kevin the Schengen area somehow manages to run their customs/immigration checks without requiring any forms. Likewise the US itself doesn't require a form if you're driving across the border, so it can clearly be done. – JonathanReez Apr 3 at 0:29
  • @JonathanReez: I never said otherwise. – Kevin Apr 3 at 6:45
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In the UK, there are situations where the landing card is recorded - a so-called coded landing. This happens when, above the date stamp, you get a "custom" rectangular stamp with the landing card number on it rather than the plain-text 6-month stamp.

This happens when there's been suspicions about a person they nevertheless chose to land, and always happens when a visa national is admitted for visa-free landside transit (until 23:59 the next day) as well as when a non-visa national is admitted for visa-free study for up to 6 months (short-term study).

As for the US, either the customs form or the APC/Global entry receipt has to be collected by the customs officer (for what purpose, I do not know) - hence the need to fill that one out.

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