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When you arrive in somewhere like the Norway or France, and go to leave the baggage area, you'll find yourself with a choice of two lanes for customs. One will be Red and labelled something like Goods to declare, the other Green and labelled something like Nothing to declare. If you take the red lane, you'll need to speak to a customs officer. If you take the green one, then you'll walk past customs officers (possibly behind a one-way mirror), but unless they decide to check out, you'll keep walking and won't speak to anyone.

With some other countries, such as the USA, Australia and India, before you can leave the customs area you must queue up for a customs officer. Depending on the country, they might take a form, or they might ask you some questions, but you'll have to wait to interact with them, even if they then direct you to exit without further checks.

For passengers, the first style of customs is much more preferable, as if you've nothing to declare then you can often exit the baggage area through customs in seconds. For passengers, the second style of customs is much less popular, as even with nothing to declare you might end up waiting a long time (30+ minutes not impossible in the USA) to see a customs officer who then waves you through.

Why do some countries opt to make passengers wait, while others are happy to let passengers self-identify if they need checks + use random & targeted checks to catch people not properly declaring?

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    I couldn't find any suitably licensed photos of European-style Green and Red customs channels, but if someone does have one, please edit my question to add a photo in! – Gagravarr Jul 5 '15 at 21:53
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    What kind of answer are you expecting? Surely it is a matter of politics and money. Some countries believe the deterrent or theatrical effect of an officer interviewing every entrant is a useful expense. Other countries do not have the resources or the inclination to do this. – Calchas Jul 5 '15 at 22:05
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    @Calchas Ideally something that goes beyond the 2 paragraphs wikipedia has on the topic and explains a bit more as to why. I largely know why, but based on discussions offline this week I've discovered quite a few travellers don't and are confused by it! – Gagravarr Jul 5 '15 at 22:15
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    @Calchas Pretty sure it isn't customs people looking under the lorries in Dover, but immigration! In Dover, the customs officers are the ones looking at the heavily-loaded rented transit vans... – Gagravarr Jul 5 '15 at 22:32
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    For what it's worth, Australia does have a "nothing to declare" line at Sydney airport now. You just fill in your form and follow the line, and hand your form to the guy at the door. Not sure who is permitted to use it though. – Mark Henderson Jul 6 '15 at 0:29
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My informal observations suggest that France unilaterally scaled down checks on its land borders a long time ago, both for immigrations and customs purposes (including on the border with Switzerland, even before it joined the Schengen area or formally associated with the EU). International airports and “external” borders are still actively policed for immigration purposes but not as much for customs. So in general, it's clearly not something France is ready to spend heavily on.

Having lived for a long time in a border town, I know a few customs officers. That's anecdotal of course but it seems that the received wisdom among them is that meaningful catches only come from informants/tips/investigations. They still do some random searches and quite a bit of profiling to deter small time fraud and because they have to but, rightly or wrongly, it would readily explain why systematic checks are not considered to be an effective use of resources. The context is a bit different but the same rationale would apply to red/green channels in airports (I don't know anybody working for the customs at an airport, incidentally).

As to why other countries do not follow the same policy, I can only surmise that it comes down to the context (smaller border/fewer border checkpoints relative to the size of the country), objectives (ensuring the effectivity of the law as a matter of principle rather than simply recovering as much contraband/duty as possible) or perhaps politics (e.g. being seen as tough on everything border related is more important than convenience to travellers or saving money).

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    +1 I agree with the part about working from tips. Here HMRC also use a print-out showing the number of pieces of luggage each passenger checked and how long they were away. – Gayot Fow Jul 6 '15 at 2:14
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    Just as a slight nitpick, I'd guess it has to do more with the frequency of border crossing than the size of the borders. For example, due primarily to the distances involved, it's much less common for the average person in the U.S. to travel to another country than for someone in Europe. By distance, traveling to another country in Europe is comparable to traveling to a different state within the U.S. My guess would be that a large majority of U.S. citizens have never crossed a land border of the U.S., despite the U.S. having around twelve thousand kilometers of them. – reirab Jul 6 '15 at 7:33
  • @reirab That's precisely what I mean by "relative to the size of the country". And there are some cross-border towns which could generate frequent crossings for the local population, very much like in Geneva, Basel, Lille or Strasbourg. – Relaxed Jul 6 '15 at 8:24
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    "ensuring the effectivity of the law as a matter of principle" or maybe they have more to lose? Australia is a island that's trying very hard to keep an isolated biosphere... and a breach can cost a fortune. – NPSF3000 Jul 6 '15 at 8:58
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It also depends on what you are trying to keep out, specifically only the really dumb criminals get caught in customs. but there are some things that If you want them kept out require more diligence, but when my mother flew back to the United States from Belize They were checking all bags for meat. (There was a slight hiccup here as my mother had been caught in a hurricane which although it had not damaged her canned goods, it did remove the labels.) On another flight this time coming back from England, the concern was mad cow, and my mother had been jogging through the countryside. They confiscated the plastic bag she had been carrying her shoes in to keep her suitcase clean, scrubbed her shoes with some obnoxious chemical, and gave her a new clean bag. I am not sure what I think about the meat from Belize, but I appreciate the thing with the shoes.

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