I am just curious why everybody coming into the U.S. must fill out a customs declaration, while in the E.U. you make your declaration by walking either through "Nothing to declare" or "Things to declare" (and sometimes there is a separate lane for intra-E.U. travelers).

It seems like it would be much easier to get away with smuggling things into the E.U. than into the U.S. as often at the E.U. I never see anyone there. On the contrary, in the U.S., I've been pulled over a few times for a random inspection. In the E.U., how do they catch someone if there is no one there?

Edit: I should also note: How do you know what to declare when you are not given a form? Not everyone has access to the Internet (although that is becoming less and less of a problem).

  • 6
    The US is hardly unique here. Non-EU citizens have to fill out a landing card when entering the UK. Everyone queues up to show their bags to a Japanese customs inspector when entering Japan and about 30% are opened in front of you (much higher proportion than US). Everyone puts their bags through the X-ray in front of a customs inspector in Brazil, China, UAE.
    – Calchas
    Aug 9, 2016 at 15:25
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    Yes but I bet many people get pulled over for random inspections; I've almost never seen that in the E.U. Furthermore, often, the customs station isn't even manned, so how are you supposed to declare something when there is no one there?
    – user49558
    Aug 9, 2016 at 15:36
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    "How do you know what to declare when you are not given a form?" There is a poster next to the custom gate telling you the details. But as with all laws: You are supposed to know that (and those forms don't tell you the whole story anyway).
    – neo
    Aug 9, 2016 at 16:47
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    It's not any more difficult to fill out a US Customs card with nothing to declare, than it is to walk through a nothing to declare section. Anecdotally I have never been stopped by US Customs, I have been stopped a few times in the EU (I'm a UK citizen resident in the US). In fact the US Customs refused to take my declaration even when I did have something to declare. I think it must have been too much paperwork for them. Aug 9, 2016 at 18:24
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    You write "I never see anyone there." When going through customs at many European airports you pass in front of a one-way mirror. You don't know whether there are customs officials on the other side ready to inspect your bags if you act or look in a way that arises suspicion. Aug 10, 2016 at 12:13

6 Answers 6


Random inspections do happen. Their frequency depends on the ratio of customs officers to passengers at that time of day and on other factors.

There are also x-ray checks of some or all of the checked luggage. When the inspector finds something "potentially interesting," they make a note of where that suitcase goes. If the person carrying the suitcase goes into the "nothing to declare" gate, the odds of a spot check go up.

There is no difference between walking through a "nothing to declare" gate and filling a form, in both cases the passenger makes the declaration that there are no taxable items.

  • 3
    I believe that "other factors" includes the origin countries of the flights whose bags have just been delivered in baggage reclaim.
    – Ian Cook
    Aug 9, 2016 at 19:11
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    I can confirm that this answer is valid in Serbia as well. I tend to carry an item that's interesting to customs in my suitcase and am constantly pulled over for not-so-random inspections at "nothing to declare" gate.
    – AndrejaKo
    Aug 9, 2016 at 19:46
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    "other factors" include skin color (better be white), hair style (not too long, not too short), age (children and old people are better off), means of transportation (bicycle: less likely, bicycle with trailer: much more likely), people you travel with (add a couple of crying children and you are safe), temperature (on icy winter mornings the offices are much more comfortable than checking people beside the road), which kind of border passing, etc.
    – Nobody
    Aug 9, 2016 at 21:58
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    @Nobody, I was thinking of airports. What you describe sounds like a ground border or perhaps a ferry port. On the ground you get e.g. customs officers for undeclared cash transfers to Switzerland, which look for other people than officers looking for drugs or untaxed cigarettes.
    – o.m.
    Aug 10, 2016 at 4:58
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    Actually, Inspections are not that Random. At least in Paris CDG with the PAF (Police aux Frontières), the checks are very targeted. people coming from Bamako or Rio have a higher chance of being targeted than from NYC or LAX, and since CDG is very big with many exits, it is easy for them to know which exit to control in priority.
    – guigui42
    Aug 10, 2016 at 10:13

The EU states tend to be small with a great deal of international travel between them. All except Malta and Cyprus have open road borders with other EU states making hard enforcement between states rather pointless (and indeed legally dubious). Searching everyone at the airport would be a very lengthy process requiring a lot of resources.

Also, the law for transporting goods between EU states is different from the law for transporting goods from outside the EU. For example, if I go to France, I can buy as much wine as I can personally drink and bring it back to the UK without paying any duty. But if I go to Argentina and buy wine there, I can only bring in a mere four litres before I have to declare it and pay excise duty (customs tax) on the whole lot.

However, there has never been any move to centralise customs at first entry to the EU (probably because then your destination country would become important, as different EU states can have slightly different customs formalities for importing non-EU goods). Therefore a flight from London to Paris may have UK-made, internal EU goods on board mixed with transfer luggage from an American family.

Now why the EU states do not bother to methodically search people on arriving: it is really up to the member states on how they wish to distribute their resources. The Scandinavian countries do tend to have customs officers waiting when you enter their customs area. However, the UK thinks it is a waste of money to ask people when you could just search their bags before they are delivered to the carousel and arrest the culprits before they leave the airport.

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    Thanks for the detailed reply. However, sometimes when I travel intra E.U. (between Germany and Italy), there is sometimes absolutely no one at the baggage claims nor at the customs lanes. Therefore, if you want to declare something (because hypothetically you are a good person), how can you?
    – user49558
    Aug 9, 2016 at 15:50
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    @user49558 There's usually a telephone or something that you can use. Aug 9, 2016 at 16:00
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    @user49558 Look for the red telephone in the red channel.
    – Calchas
    Aug 9, 2016 at 16:11
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    The EU is also a customs union. In other words, in small regional airports which only serve intra-EU traffic, you never have to declare anything.
    – detuur
    Aug 9, 2016 at 19:37
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    @detuur Except for a handful of airports, and in Scandinavia who make their own arrangements, that is not true. You might be connecting (possibly indirectly via several points in the EU) from an intercontinental destination with goods to declare.
    – Calchas
    Aug 9, 2016 at 19:47

how do they catch someone if there is no one there?

Well, the simple answer is that if nobody is there, they don't catch anyone there. The aim is to do enough random inspections, that relatively few people will take on the risk of smuggling and so the problem is somewhat managed. X percent occupancy deters more than X percent of potential smugglers, up to a point, and 100% occupancy certainly doesn't deter 100% of smugglers. I don't think any EU country claims that its target is to catch all drugs, or all untaxed products. I mean, they wouldn't turn it down if you offered it, but it's not possible. They just aim to stop it getting ridiculous. OK, so you've never been stopped at EU customs, but if you're not confident you never will be then it's job done.

There are at least a couple of failure modes for this. One is that if you want to enforce bio-controls then you pretty much have to search everyone, because (if my second-hand information about Australian customs is anything to go by) a fairly high proportion of travellers seem to be idiots who bring their illegal lunch into the country without seriously considering the risk. There's no deterring idiots. So staffing customs X percent of the time only stops X percent of that illegal stuff coming into the country, which probably isn't enough if X is low.

The other is that organised drug (or other) smugglers will do their best to take advantage of your procedures: either by guessing when customs will be unattended or by using large numbers of mules who are coerced or otherwise have little to lose. Catching these people is a matter of combining random checks, good old-fashioned detective work, and playing the averages with staffing customs in places which genuinely are entry points for smuggling. Drug sniffer dogs seem to do a reasonably good job for way less money than physically searching everybody as they pass customs, and can be applied to luggage out of sight, as well as occasionally patrolling passenger areas.

It's not necessarily the case that the most effective way to spend a given budget, is on staffing more customs points. Especially for intra-Schengen border crossings, where the whole point of Schengen is supposed to be to save effort and admin on the part of both customs/immigration and travellers, by throwing one big barrier around the whole lot. Yes, the barrier is somewhat leaky, but as with borders elsewhere in the world (for example US-Mexico) the important question is how much you want to spend on making it somewhat less leaky. It'll never be airtight so it's up to politicians and administrators to define "good enough".

  • For drugs they have sniffer dogs before it hits the carousels. You don't see them.
    – RedSonja
    Dec 18, 2017 at 8:08

I've flown through the next INTL airports on "domestic(EU)" flights and on international flights :

  • Barcelona - El prat T1
  • Barcelona - El prat T2
  • Madrid - Barajas T2
  • Madrid - Barajas T4
  • London - Luton (unkwnown terminal)
  • London - HTRW T3
  • London - HTRW T5
  • London - HTRW T4
  • Brussels Zaventem (unkown terminal)

And so far my experience has been that EU as a whole doesn't really care about what individuals take in/out as long as it's legal*.

*legal : no knifes, no drugs, no big filled bottles, no live animals, etc...


Completely personal opinion, i'm no lawyer, but from my POV, the human and technological cost of stopping James Notfakename from bringing a pork sandwitch into europe or an ipad from hong kong is way too high to even care, the effects on the economy will be completely unnoticeable if that horrible sandwitch sneaks security, and even if you managed to disguise something like a toad, the EU has so many varying ecosystems in the 28 member states that yet another invasor animal won't hurt, also the ecosystem here is stronger than in some very complicated places like australia, where leaving two rabbits alone can lead to rabbitgeddon. the TSA thinks otherwise though and threw my EU regulated, air-sealed, purchased on the duty-free zone, pack of deer butcheries.

waves fist on air angrily...

how do they catch someone if there is no one there?

People must pass X-rays, cameras, bioscanners and dogs.

of course, sneaking a small bag of pot from a local airport to another can be easy, but as soon as you reach some INTL airport chances are they already know even your underwear size once you cross the gates.

How do you know what to declare when you are not given a form?

There are big, multi-language walls on the airports telling you what you should declare, what items are banned , and what needs special sealing to get in.

EU law also works differently than in USA; not knowing a law/regulation doesn't mean you don't have to follow it.

Example : We've got no miranda rights statement here, everybody should know their rights and duties beforehand.

  • well hello completely random downvote.nice to meet you.
    – CptEric
    Aug 10, 2016 at 13:20
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    Not knowing a law here in the US also doesn't mean you don't have to follow it.
    – phoog
    Aug 10, 2016 at 17:56
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    @CptEric I think you're misunderstanding the Miranda warning. It's required for statements made during an interrogation in police custody to be admissible as evidence in court. It's only for that very specific situation; it's not a general free pass for ignorance of the law. Aug 10, 2016 at 18:50
  • it was just a crappy example, i know, but it's true that usa has a more "if X isn't explicitly told, it isn't enforced" culture, whether in europe it's more "X is enforced, and it's your duty to know it is. deal with it."
    – CptEric
    Aug 10, 2016 at 20:01

Customs officials in Britain favour intelligence-led searches, rather than random searches. That is, they will look for patterns in the flight data, x-ray/dog-search particular bags, observe behaviour on CCTV, and then stop selected people. I think this is the approach in the rest of the EU.

I can't find a better write-up than one in the Daily Mail: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/moslive/article-2014741/Nothing-declare-To-catch-smuggler-On-frontline-customs-officers-Gatwick-Airport.html

"If we get a positive the bag goes back on the belt and is watched in the baggage hall before the passenger is pulled as they walk through the customs channel."

  • They know what to watch for. I watched a documentary about Frankfurt AP recently. For example two ladies flying in from New York, all dressed up in designer clothes and bling, shiny handbags. "Any thing to declare, madam?" "Nooo". They took them apart, and clearly enjoyed doing so.
    – RedSonja
    Dec 18, 2017 at 8:11

I cross the border between UK and France twice a week and I've never seen anyone declaring anything or even beeing randomly checked.

Sometimes there is an officer on the UK side behind a desk, but never saw him pulling someone.

I've been to other EU countries as well and I've never been checked except in Andorra (which is not technically an EU country if I remember correctly).

  • 5
    That's a journey within the EU Customs Union though, so it doesn't count for "smuggling in to the EU"
    – CMaster
    Aug 10, 2016 at 9:09
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    You don't need to declare anything when traveling within the EU, unless it's a huge amount of alcohol or cigarettes.
    – JonathanReez
    Aug 10, 2016 at 9:18
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    I can tell that you've never taken the coach from Amsterdam to London
    – Separatrix
    Aug 10, 2016 at 11:15

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