Welcome to Customsland

I have friends who just can’t seem to get a break whenever they try and visit faraway places, because when they try to enter these lands, customs deny them entry.

One might ask why, because, after all, they are no obvious threat to anyone, have no criminal background, are not a visible minority and they do not look destitute.

I have listened to their tales of woe with great sympathy and have added my own.

I was denied entry into the US once when trying to cross on foot the bridge between the two Niagara Falls due to insufficient funds even though I had only intended to visit the American Falls and return back to Ontario that same day.

I was almost denied re-entry into my own home and native land, into England and Australia, because customs didn’t like the fact I didn’t have reservations at a hotel on their territories or contact persons within their lands.

There is no denying that customs procedures have, post 9/11, become stricter, increasingly paranoid, uncomfortably invasive and often nonsensical.

There is a mentality at customs where it is assumed everyone is a potential threat regardless of the illogic of such paranoia.

Full body scans, removal of shoes, removal of all metal, disposal of liquids, a body pat-down, luggage-sniffing dogs, “random” choosing of passengers for closer cross-examination and increased rummaging through their possessions are all part and parcel of the modern travel experience.

Customs officers who deal with hundreds of arrivals every day are trained to study body language, verbal cues and criminal behaviour.

Nothing haunts an officer more than the thought that because of his negligence a criminal got into his land and caused sorrow to his countrymen.

Each officer truly believes that he is the last defence of his nation and views his responsibility as almost a sacred duty.

(Though, of course, there do exist some sadists even amongst the ranks of these mostly honourable individuals.)

So, what to do?

You really want to visit Country X but worry that customs may deny you entry?

A few tips from a fellow traveller:

1. Remember this is a situation where you have no control, no power.

As invasive and uncomfortable and time-consuming and unfair as this whole process feels, impatience or worry will clearly mark you out for additional scrutiny.

Stay calm.

Show deference to their authority.

Follow instructions.

2. Customs officers generally have no sense of humor.

Because of their guard dog mentality to protect their nations from any potential threat to national security or the economy, they have neither the tolerance nor the time to engage in or listen to clever banter.

And the use of trigger words remotely connected to a threat, even if said and meant in a humorous way, are surefire ways to give you unwanted attention that might even involve incarceration.

Don’t f–k with these guys.


3. Documents are God.

Inform yourself before you try to enter a country exactly what documents are needed to be shown at customs.

Your first stop is an embassy or consulate of the nation you plan to visit.

No argument, however emotional or rational it may be, will sway a customs official if you do not have the required paperwork, in the form of visas, forms, certificates, letters of confirmed reservations, depending upon the particular requirements of the country to be entered.

4. Just as a dog is satisfied once it is fed, a customs officer is satisfied once he has sufficient information as to your intentions in his country.

Prepare a detailed itinerary and memorize it until it becomes second nature to you.

Now, you might argue that an itinerary steals away the spontanteity of the travel experience.

But this itinerary, once you’ve hurdled past customs, is not “written in stone”.

Customs in a democratic country does not have the manpower or the inclination to follow each and every visitor every moment of their visit.

Only lands where the citizenry themselves are endlessly scrutinized will an itinerary’s veracity need to be constantly accurate.

What should an itinerary include?

Most importantly, names, addresses and phone numbers.

Now you might argue that who you see and what you do is your own damn business and asking for this information is an invasion of both your privacy and an affront to your dignity, but here’s the thing, bunky…

The officer doesn’t give a damn about your feelings on the matter, because he is too busy trying to protect his country from threats.

So, if you know people in the country you plan to visit, have these names with addresses and contact numbers ready to show.

If you don’t know anyone, then have a list of accommodation of where you will sleep during your stay there, with at least the first night confirmed in print.

In this day and age of electronics most places of accommodation have access to the ‘Net and operate on the assumption that you’re wanting to stay with them means you have confidence that customs will allow you to do so.

Customs feels that a clear indication that you are acting like a tourist means you actually are a tourist, even if your natural inclinations lean more towards the spirit of a footloose and spontaneous Jack Kerouac mentality.

5. Look the part.

I am extremely reluctant to tell anyone how they should comport themselves or how they should dress, but I think it is fair to say that if you appear like someone your grandmother would be nervous to sit beside on a crowded bus, then you might not be doing yourself any favours when you appear at customs in a similar fashion.

Customs has little to do with fairness or your personal rights to express your individuality.

It has everything to do with the impression you give to the customs officer you are dealing with.

6. Create a distance away from the border as soon as possible before acting spontaneously.

So, if money is an issue and you plan to hitchhike, wait until you are more into the interior of the country before doing so.

Otherwise, border patrols will gladly haul your a– back to customs.

7. Plastic is fantastic, but also flash some cash.

You might be the type who plans to travel using more wits than wealth, but this kind of courage usually makes customs nervous.

Have a piece of plastic you can produce for perusal, indicating you have access to funds electronically.

(They cannot know what amount in reality actually is in your accounts.)

I would also recommend at least some of the local currency already in your possession which both reassures customs of the seriousness of your intentions and also is a comfort to you should the nearest ATM happen to reject your plastic offerings.

8. Have proof of intention to leave the country.

A ticket that shows you don’t intend to remain in the country indefinitely calms a customs officer considerably.

So, I hope these tips help.

Again, you have my sympathy in regards to the whole unfairness of customs and border crossings.

But, just get into the country and I promise I will gladly listen to you complain once you do.


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