Uniformed officers with serious faces. Confused travelers. Line after line after line. Going through U.S. Customs your first time can seem a little intimidating. Discover all the important regulations and requirements you need to know, and you’ll breeze through Customs like a professional jet-setter.
Before You Arrive Back Home: Fill Out the Form
While you’re on your return flight, the flight attendant will give you a Customs Declaration Form to fill out. If you are traveling with family members or other people that live in your household, you can share the same card.
Grab a pen and write down your passport number, flight information, countries visited, and other required details. On the front of the form, you’ll also find a series of questions – and ideally, you want to answer “no” on every one. On the back, you’ll make a list of the purchases you made while traveling. Be specific, but don’t feel like you have to list every postcard separately.
If you are bringing back more than $800 in souvenirs, one liter of alcohol, 200 cigarettes, or 100 cigars – Customs regulations require you to declare these items in the form and pay tax on them at the airport. You must also declare any food items that you have, and you may run into trouble if that includes fresh produce, meats or plants. To be thorough, check the US Customs current list of required declarations.
If you have any questions about the form, ask your flight attendant. Once everything is complete, put the form in a safe place near your passport.
You can check out a sample Customs Declaration Form here.
TripCase Tip: Use the notes section on your TripCase App to keep track of all the items (and the prices) that you buy during your trip abroad to make filling out the form easier.
Follow the Signs to Passport Control
Upon your arrival to the airport, shake yourself awake and follow the signage that directs you to international arrivals, immigration and customs.
Your first stop will be at Passport Control, where you’ll encounter two separate lines: one for U.S. Citizens, and one for Foreign Citizens. Get in the appropriate line, and keep your smartphone in your pocket – photography and cell phone usage are not allowed in this high-security area.
When you reach the front of the line, hand the officer your passport and customs form. You may be asked a few questions about your trip. Be polite and respectful. The officer will stamp your customs form, and give it back to you with your passport.
At some airports, passport control is now automated. You’ll scan the photo page of your passport through a reader like a credit card, and enter information from your customs form on the touch screen. Your picture will be taken, and then you’ll be allowed to proceed.
Grab Your Stuff at Baggage Claim
Even if you are connecting to another flight, you’ll pick up your checked luggage at Baggage Claim. Find the screens to determine the correct carousel number for your flight, and then wait for your luggage to shoot out onto the belt. Make sure you have the right bags, and proceed to Customs.
Cruise Through Customs
As you approach Customs, you’ll see green lanes marked “Nothing to Declare” and red lanes marked “Goods to Declare.” Choose the appropriate one, and get in line. If you have nothing to declare, you’ll hand your form to an officer and stroll out the exit. If you do have items to declare, you’ll have to pay tax on them before you leave the airport.
At any point in this process, you may be pulled aside for a bag search. Don’t freak out – if you travel enough, you’re bound to have your bags searched sooner or later. Consider it a merit badge on your growing list of travel experiences.
Answer the officer’s questions in a straightforward manner. They will rifle through your belongings looking for contraband, and then you’ll be cleared to re-pack your things and continue out the exit.
Proceed to Your Final Destination
If you are catching another flight, follow the signs towards “Connecting Flights.” Make sure your bags are marked with the airport code of your final destination, and drop them onto the conveyor belt.
If you are at your final destination: welcome home. Time for some comfort food and a nap.
Find more information on the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website here.