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I have done plenty of international travel in my lifetime. In the last 12 months alone, I have flown over 75,000 miles, all international, at least 10 countries (I've lost count). I've crossed countless borders, passports control, all of that. And an observation hit me recently: I haven't had my bag checked or seen anyone else's bag checked at customs in all of those miles!

Does customs check anyone's bags any more?

You would think that in all of that travel, it would have happened to me at least once. Or have seen other people that have been stopped. But every customs in every airport I've been in has been empty or lightly staffed or simply not used. I just walk right by and no one says anything.

My gut tells me that bag checks & x-rays that they do behind the scenes (and maybe even some of the passenger tracking) has become very sophisticated and those "public" checks are no longer needed. I mean, surely they have to be doing some sort of checks, right? So, what's going on here?

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    It really depends A LOT on the country. In Indonesia you need to fill out an online form, get a QR code, run your stuff through an X-ray and then line up for an interview with customs officer for an interviews. In Germany, you'll have a hard time hunting down an officer if you have something to declare. There is also A LOT of visual profiling happening, some more obvious than others.
    – Hilmar
    Commented Sep 15, 2023 at 19:15
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    @Hilmar: And then you have Mexico, where they make you press a button, and it randomly lights up green or red (to determine whether you get screened or not).
    – Kevin
    Commented Sep 16, 2023 at 2:50
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    It's fascinating to see how customs processes differ throughout the world. Mexico's random button system sounds like a unique approach, while Indonesia and Germany have their distinctive methods. Each country adds its flavor to the customs experience
    – puja dev
    Commented Sep 16, 2023 at 10:55
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    In my scruffily-dressed, mildly-long-haired youth, I got my bags X-rayed a fair few times. Now I look like a boring middle-aged businessperson and customs officials don't even make eye contact with me.
    – Sneftel
    Commented Sep 16, 2023 at 12:21
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    [This covers EU, UK, far east & USA] Anecdotally, back in the 80s I was in a rock band. We were checked at every customs, every time, presumably based on 'rock band == drugs'. There was never anything to find. In the 90s working for a multinational instrument/electronics manufacturer, we'd be stopped to show them the electronics we were carrying, usually so they could ooh & aahh at them. Since then, no-one has ever paid me any heed. I haven't seen staff in a customs hall in 20 years - so much so that on tourist holidays I just use it as an excuse to fill a suitcase with fags & booze ;)
    – Tetsujin
    Commented Sep 16, 2023 at 17:46

7 Answers 7

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It happens in some places, like China, Malaysia, Indonesia, etc, where all arriving passengers are asked to put their luggage through x-ray machines right before exiting. In other places seemingly random passengers are asked to do so.

In Japan it's one-on-one interviews with a Customs officer, who may decide to go through manually through your stuff, or not, and even pat you down.

In some countries like South Korea, Indonesia again, and I suppose plenty more, luggage is x-rayed right off the plane, and suspicious luggage tagged for secondary inspection. Happened to me in both places.

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    If you want to get pulled out of line, bring bags of metal-twined pipe cleaners in your luggage. I'm pretty sure they CT scan everything at all the major ports.
    – Mazura
    Commented Sep 16, 2023 at 1:09
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    some places??? i see it regularly... like everywhere. lately i traveled around europe and turkey. Commented Sep 18, 2023 at 10:43
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I have seen inspections happen in the Netherlands, (the airport I used most,) but not often.

It was almost always people with carts overflowing with suitcases, often also from non-European ethnicity.

I myself have had luggage checked in the USA and Australia, both cases after I had indicated that I was carrying something they might be blocking out of the country and after inspecting, and allowing, said item there was a bored and not too detailed check of the whole luggage.

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  • +1, my carry-on bags were checked by Customs in Schiphol/Amsterdam this month flying out of the Netherlands to England… they didn’t care about my dozens of kroketten (food) but they thought my apple tart might have drugs in it 😆 One swab of the appeltaart on the drug machine and a quick conversation about Dutch delicacies and I was on my way 😝 (I had no suitcase, easyJet charge more for a bag than a flight) Commented Sep 18, 2023 at 5:19
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    I had to go hunt down a customs inspector when leaving schipol, to declare the cat I was bringing in to the country from the UK - it was kind of amusing, having to duck through the restricted bit to knock on the little cabin he was in to get some help - I guess they're deployed for higher risk flights? Was a great customs officer, though - super friendly, big hit with our normally demonic cat.
    – lupe
    Commented Sep 18, 2023 at 11:20
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Secondary inspection has never happened out where you can see it. That one person who is standing around near where you just swan on by can and does tell some people "right this way, please."

I got sent to secondary twice entering the US and once entering Australia. It is quite likely the people around me didn't even notice. I just went through a different door or over to a different line up. I understand that sometimes people are invited back to secondary before they even line up for primary -- eg from the baggage belt or even the jetway -- thanks to tech like facial recognition, xraying bags, and so on, as well as the usual "looking nervous" heuristic.

As an experienced traveller who isn't carrying a lot of stuff, you and I are among the least likely to get secondaried. But I'm quite sure it's still happening.

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    But that's what I'm saying, there isn't even a line-up! There's no secondary search because I've never even seen a primary search. All I see is bunch of empty tables and maybe 1 or 2 guards standing around talking with each other. But I just don't see anyone stopped any more or any lines for either primary or secondary. Commented Sep 15, 2023 at 15:07
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    At DFW they have remodeled the international arrivals to eliminate the customs lines that were there ~5 years ago that everyone had to go through. I wasn’t paying close attention, but walked right over to the Global Entry portion of immigration without seeing anyone being diverted, or even a place to divert them to. All quite welcome but it felt really weird.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Sep 15, 2023 at 15:08
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    there are still doors, and arches and such. They get you from the public area to the private area very quickly and discreetly. Those guards will flip from casually talking to each other to "come with me please" in a heartbeat. And you are being assessed, it's just not obvious while you stand at a table with papers out. Commented Sep 15, 2023 at 15:28
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    @JonCuster, by grabbing your luggage and leaving the area you indicate you have nothing to declare. If you have something to declare you go to an officer and declare.
    – Willeke
    Commented Sep 16, 2023 at 10:04
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    @Willeke that feels like it's trying to trip you up. In some airports you have to go through a door that says "nothing to declare" and there are posters saying what you have to declare. Commented Sep 16, 2023 at 15:11
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I have been stopped in:

  • USA (Boston)
  • UAE (Dubai); there were five officers that came over and actually split open my wallet looking for weed... but never checked my pockets
  • UK (Manchester) my local airport and Heathrow almost every single time I return, including with sniffer dogs
  • Australia (Melbourne)
  • Turkey (Antalya)
  • Japan (Tokyo)

Probably others that I can't now recall. Twice this year alone.

Yes. Trust me, you can still be pulled in Customs; you can imagine I also have the same "fun" while trying to board the plane through Security, too. I have an unfortunate combination of:

  • I'm very underweight because of digestive issues
  • I have blotchy skin on my face, probably due to the former
  • I used to keep my contact lenses in on the plane, which could make my eyes bloodshot with the dry air. I've since taken them out and put them back in on landing... that approach hasn't worked at all, so that theory is out.

I guess I just look like a quintessential drug smuggler :/

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    The “never checked my pockets” is real. Once coming into Liverpool my friend and I were searched, made to take off our coats, emptied our bags, but didn’t check our pockets. I asked why, and I will never forget her response: “If it’s that small we’re not interested”. Commented Sep 18, 2023 at 15:04
  • @DannyBeckett I was mega stressed having 5 guys from security come up to me and I was travelling alone for work. It doesn't matter if you're innocent, the pressure is high. It was only afterwards that I was really bemused about how stupid the whole search was when they split all the lining of my wallet but never asked about my pockets
    – roganjosh
    Commented Sep 18, 2023 at 15:07
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In Frankfurt, there are two big doors leading out of the baggage collection area, one marked bright red with a large sign reading "Goods to declare", the other marked bright green "Nothing to declare".

I have seen multiple times people getting stopped and questioned, pulled aside into a side room, or both, when going through the green door.

I would assume the frequency and thoroughness of those spot checks depends on what flights recently landed. For example, coming back from Australia via Hong Kong, I saw a lot more customs officers than coming back from Dresden.

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    A flight from Dresden wouldn't have any need for customs because it's domestic... which is why they apparently don't bother to staff the customs checkpoint at that time. Commented Sep 16, 2023 at 15:10
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    @infinitezero you could, but then you would have to declare your goods at the first entry point in the EU (Frankfurt or Munich). Commented Sep 17, 2023 at 11:14
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    @matteroffact I was under the impression that your luggage gets automatically transferred. How would you declare it? Commented Sep 17, 2023 at 11:18
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    @matteroffact customs formalities for checked baggage in the EU are typically handled at the final destination, where the passenger retrieves those bags. The answer concerns flights from Dresden to Frankfurt, and there probably is no airline that will sell you a ticket from a non-EU airport to Frankfurt via Dresden nor check your luggage through on such an itinerary. Therefore, no luggage on the plane would be subject to customs inspection. Even if such a flight is somehow possible, it will be very unlikely as there is far more capacity to Frankfurt and Munich.
    – phoog
    Commented Sep 17, 2023 at 11:51
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    @matteroffact It is in the final destination, not in the first entry point. The customs staff look for people with bag tags from outside of EU when flights from well-known international hubs based in EU arrive. And people without any tag are the most suspicious because they might have thrown it away to avoid the check. Often, the check is only an interview, it depends how the customs got satisfied. Commented Sep 17, 2023 at 16:50
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I had a custom officer talk to me at Osaka/Kansai and ask me to open my luggage. Another time was in Singapore when everyone put their bags in X-ray machine for inspection. So conclusion is sometimes custom officers check passengers bags.

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Coming from China to the US we have gotten plenty of agricultural inspections. Admittedly, we haven't gone since the great yuck.

(Hey, guys, I was referring to Covid, not the previous occupant of the Oval Office!)

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    First time I've seen Trump described that way.
    – user127796
    Commented Sep 16, 2023 at 19:11
  • If "the great yuck" is Trump, why not say Trump? Without the aboves comment I've never understood what that might be.
    – Max
    Commented Sep 18, 2023 at 12:17
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    I read it as Covid.
    – Willeke
    Commented Sep 18, 2023 at 14:22
  • @Max It’s a joke, possibly in reference to Trump calling Covid “kung-flu” Commented Sep 18, 2023 at 15:06

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