First-time international travelers wonder, “What is customs at the airport?” and ask what going through customs entails. Don’t worry! It’s a quick and easy process when you have the right documentation.
See the step-by-step customs process and learn how to prepare for smooth sailing when it comes to international travel in this complete guide.
What Is Customs at the Airport?
Customs at the airport refers to Customs and Border Protection (CBP), a government agency responsible for checking and clearing passengers and their packed items before allowing entry to a country through an airport.
Customs has an important job: Ensuring that the movement of people and goods into the country doesn’t put the nation or its security at risk.
Customs works in conjunction with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to keep airports safe and control the flow of goods and illegal items.
Custom and Border Protection agencies use advanced biometrics and facial recognition data, detailed information on passengers and their itineraries, and careful inspections of passengers and their packed goods in their process.
In the United States, Customs and Border Protection is part of the Department of Homeland Security. That means the customs clearance process is taken very seriously and all passengers arriving in the US are subjected to it.
So what does customs look for and do?
Customs and Border Protection ensures people entering the US aren’t posing a threat to the nation’s safety and security, carrying illegal drugs or prohibited items, or breaking laws.
As soon as you enter or prepare to exit a country, you will pass by facial recognition cameras that match live images with photos in the CBP system.
Once the system successfully matches your face with your passport photo, you’ll proceed to customs inspection or be permitted to exit the US.
You may go through customs at the airport before or after arriving at your destination. At some airports, CBP Preclearance – a process that allows you to skip the usual CBP and TSA security checkpoints – is available for faster entry.
Going through customs at the airport can be stressful if you’re not sure which items are prohibited or what the process entails. Let’s take a look at the general customs clearance process to see how it works.
How the Customs Process Works at the Airport
The Customs and Border Protection agency has a simple process for airport passengers that uses biometric technology, information gathered from passenger forms and travel data, and inspections to clear passengers through customs.
There are 3 general steps involved in the customs process at the airport:
- Fill out the Customs Declaration Form
- Go Through Passport Control
- Proceed to Baggage and Customs
As long as you’re not carrying any prohibited or undeclared items, have the proper travel documents, and are cooperative with any random searches or inspections from CBP officers, this process won’t be difficult at all.
Here’s a look at how the customs process works at the airport and what you can expect when you go through customs.
1. Fill Out the Customs Declaration Form
When you board an international flight, your flight attendant will hand you a rectangular Customs Declaration Form card on the plane.
Fill it out (1 form per family), being honest about the items you’re carrying, your entry and exit points, and your passport and flight number.
The form covers other info, like the countries you visited, the amount of money you’re carrying and the total value of goods purchased abroad, and asks you if you’re carrying items with restrictions (food, seeds, soil, drugs, etc.).
You can ask your flight attendant if you have questions about whether or not items you’re carrying are allowed or prohibited. It’s important to “declare” or check off any items you’re carrying that may have restrictions.
2. Go Through Passport Control
When you get off the plane, you’ll follow the signs to the first checkpoint (Passport Control). You may see 2 or 3 lines: US citizens, foreign citizens, and an expedited line for passengers with connecting flights.
Move to the proper line and present your passport and filled-out Customs Declaration Form to the official.
They will scan your passport and validate your Declaration form (with or without luggage inspection) before returning both documents to you. International passengers may have an electronic I-94 form filed with their passport.
You’ll be asked:
- The reason for your travel
- How long you’re staying in the country (if you’re a visitor)
- Activities you plan to do and where you’ll be staying (if you’re a visitor)
If you have documents to support your statements, you can show them to the inspection officer. This could be hotel booking confirmations, tickets to attractions, or proof of reason for travel (like a graduation or visiting family).
The inspection officer will digitally fingerprint and photograph you if you’re visiting the country and run it through the biometric database.
3. Proceed to Baggage and Customs
After speaking to Passport Control officials, you’ll move on to collect your luggage at the baggage claim carousels corresponding to your flight.
Bring your luggage to the customs security checkpoint. Get in the proper line according to your filled-out Customs Declaration Form: “Nothing to declare” or “Goods to declare.”
If you have nothing to declare, CBP officers may look over your Customs Declaration form, return it to you, and allow you to enter the country without an inspection.
While you’re in either line (nothing to declare or goods to declare), you may selected for a random search by CBP officers. They might search your luggage with an X-ray machine or physical inspection.
Hand your validated Customs Declaration form to the officer. You may be asked more questions about your trip – what you plan to do or did on the trip, reason for your visit, what you purchased, and how long you’ll be in the country.
This doesn’t mean you’re in trouble or are suspected of committing a crime. It’s just part of the CBP process and moves quickly when you cooperate with officials.
If officers do find prohibited items in your luggage, the items may be seized and/or you may be required to pay duty or fines for the items.
After this, you’re free to leave the airport or board your connecting flight!
The Customs Preclearance Process
At some foreign airports (15 airports in 6 countries currently), Customs and Border Protection stations officers to inspect and clear passengers that are boarding flights to the US.
Preclearance utilizes biometrics data and Passenger Name Records (PNRs) and Advance Passenger Information Systems (APIS) to quickly check and clear passengers heading to the US.
Preclearance allows passengers to skip the normal customs and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) process upon arrival in the US and head straight to their destination or connecting flight.
About 16% of air travel passengers are able to go through the Preclearance process and skip the usual customs and TSA inspection processes after arriving in the US.
Preclearance locations currently include airports in the following countries:
- Bahamas (Nassau)
- Canada (9 airports)
- Ireland (Dublin and Shannon)
- United Arab Emirates (Abu Dhabi)
If you’re able to go through the Preclearance process, you’ll save time at the airport and be able to quickly enter your destination or get to your connecting flight.
How Long Does It Take to Go Through Customs?
While long customs lines strike fear into the hearts of airline travelers, it’s usually a relatively quick and painless process. For most airline passengers (about 53%), the customs clearance process doesn’t take more than 15 minutes.
Customs and Border Protection tracks average Airport Wait Time data by the hour and found that it takes passengers about 17 minutes and 53 seconds to clear Immigration and Customs.
The wait time can be higher or lower depending on the airport you’re traveling through, when you travel, your packed items and declarations, and how busy the airport is at the time.
How to Avoid Customs Fines and Delays
If you want to move quickly through customs and avoid delays or fines for undeclared or prohibited goods, it’s essential to be honest and thorough when you fill out the Customs Declaration Form.
Don’t try to bring anything in your luggage or on your person that isn’t allowed. This varies, but you can find a complete list of prohibited and restricted items on the Customs and Border Protection website.
If you’re bringing items that are restricted – allowed under special circumstances or with proper permits or licenses – make sure to declare them and know that it may slow down the customs clearance process.
First-time violations typically receive lower fines, but they can still be thousands of dollars (depending on the violation and the quantity of prohibited goods carried).
Things to Consider
Going through customs at the airport can be nerve-wracking if you don’t know what to expect. Keep these tips in mind to make the process move faster and more smoothly when you travel outside the country.
- Customs and Border Protection is serious. You can’t bypass customs entirely – while Preclearance and digital forms can save you time, they still subject your travel plans, luggage contents, and information to CBP officers. Don’t try to bring anything prohibited and if you have restricted items, have documentation (licenses, permits, etc.) ready to show officers.
- Clean your shoes before you go to the airport. If you visited a ranch, farm, or outdoor recreation area while traveling, there’s a good chance you have soil or dirt left on your shoes. You’ll need to clean them to pass through customs and ensure no pests or disease linger in soil caked on the bottom of your shoes.
- Be wary of counterfeit goods. Buying items from vendors and markets while traveling can mean you end up with counterfeit products that must be surrendered to customs at the airport.
- Know what’s legal where you’re going. Illegal drugs (even if the drug is legal in the country you’re flying out of) are prohibited. Attempting to bring illegal drugs into a country can result in seizure, hefty fines, or arrest and may lead to you being deemed inadmissible.
- When in doubt, declare it. Not declaring prohibited or restricted items will slow down your customs clearance process and may result in hefty fines or even arrest. If you’re not sure about whether an item should be declared, declare it anyway and let the CBP officers sort it out at the checkpoint.
Frequently Asked Questions
Asking “What is customs at the airport?” is just one common question international travelers have. Take a look at the other frequently asked questions to learn more.
What happens when you go through customs at the airport?
When you go through customs at the airport, you’ll provide info to CBP officers about what you’re carrying in your luggage, show your passport and travel documents, and answer questions about your trip.
Customs officers might ask you how long you’re staying and where, the reason for visiting, how much money you’re carrying, and physically inspect your baggage.
Does everyone go through customs at the airport?
Every traveler who arrives at a US point of entry will go through customs at the airport. This includes US citizens coming home after international travel and foreign citizens who are traveling to the US.
How long does it take to go through customs?
On average, it takes around 15-18 minutes to go through customs at the airport, according to Airport Wait Time data from Customs and Border Protection.
It may take longer to go through customs if you don’t have proper travel documentation, are carrying restricted or prohibited goods, enter through a busy airport, or are selected for a random search.
How long does customs take?
Customs takes 15-18 minutes on average for people arriving at a US airport, but Crowley Logistics found that customs clearance for packages takes about 24 hours on average.
Proper paperwork, invoices, and labeling for packages can help speed up the customs clearance process if you’re shipping items internationally.
Do you go through security again after customs?
If you’re boarding a connecting flight after clearing customs at the airport, you will recheck your baggage and go through a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screening.
This involves an X-ray screening of your baggage, passing through a metal detector, and may include inspection of your baggage or personal items.
So, What Is Customs at the Airport?
Customs – clearance by Customs and Border Protection officers at the airport – is a safety-focused process that is designed to prevent dangerous or prohibited items and people circumventing security rules from entering the country.
Customs at the airport can be overwhelming, especially for first-time international travelers. But now that you’ve got answers to “What is customs at the airport?” you’ll know exactly what to expect.
Remember – when in doubt, declare it and do some research before you travel to avoid carrying prohibited items or restricted items without the proper permits or licenses.
As long as you carry the proper travel documents, are respectful and cooperative with CBP officers, and understand the average wait times and steps in the process, going through customs at the airport will only be a blip on the radar of your international adventure.