Entering a Foreign Country
It struck me as I was leaving the plane on a recent international trip that no matter how many times I’ve went into a foreign country, the procession through what is that country’s equivalent of customs and border protection. This includes processing through customs and border protection check of immigration and citizenship, baggage claim and customs and is probably one of the most stressful experiences on the trip. It doesn’t have to be.
In most places, there are two steps when entering the country. First is processing through their immigration and citizenship status section, then you’ll pick up any checked bags and proceed to a baggage inspection area. Two words of advice…first, just relax! I know you are tired and might not understand the signs (even those in English). However, just take your time and ask someone if you need to. Second, be prepared. Be prepared for: long lines, people rushing, wondering if you’re in the right place or line.
Tip: Have your passport and immigration and customs forms either easily accessible or carry them in your hand. Also, have the name, address and phone number of the place(s) you will be staying if you know them. It is a good idea to check out the U.S. State Department’s site for any special info or circumstances you may need to know for each country you’re visiting.
It’s almost go-time
On every international flight I’ve ever traveled on to a place that I have to go through customs and border protection check when I get there, the flight attendants have passed out the customs and immigration forms the country you are entering requires. On flights inbound to the U.S., the flight attendants may inform you that no form is required. This means you can either answer when you get there and input it electronically, or use the U.S.’s new “Mobile Passport” app – more below on this topic.
Whether it is a form, or an app, complete it on the plane before landing so you’re not scrambling while in line. Yes there’s been a few places where I’ve been first in line and having the paperwork already completed was great. One other word of advice, I highly recommend having at least a 2 hour layover between arriving at an international destination and then taking another flight or other scheduled travel…especially when flights might depart late from your origin point.
In some countries you’ll breeze through and have an hour and a half to grab a coffee or breakfast and saunter to your next flight, and others you’ll arrive at the gate right as they’re finishing boarding. It really depends on how many international flights arrive at the same time as yours. One final thought on cutting it close…the immigration and customs folks don’t care if you’re going to miss your flight. They don’t work for the airlines and it is not their problem that you cut your times close.
Tip: If you did leave plenty of time yet still missed your connection (flight took off late for example), once you’re through immigration and customs, just proceed to the nearest ticket counter for that airline in the airport, or call them if you’re having trouble finding them or there’s a long line ahead of you in the same situation.
You’re there, now what?
First step in entering a country is obtaining approval to enter via an immigration and citizenship check. They’ll essentially check your passport to make sure it’s valid and that you’re not a criminal or wanted. Next, they’ll usually ask a few questions like where are you from (country or nationality), what airline you flew on and what city did you fly from, and what you’re doing in their county…leisure, vacation, holiday, pleasure or business.
Just answer honestly, be friendly (but not chatty), and you’ll be on your way in no time. The immigration official will normally stamp your passport and may or may not (depending on the country) give you a paper noting your entry into the country.
Tip: I highly recommend hanging on to this paper. If there is any concern when you leave the country as to your arrival date (stamp in your passport was missed or illegible, or you lost your passport), this paper is a nice back-up to have.
After the citizenship check
The next step normally is to proceed to baggage claim to pick up any bags you checked. In most countries you pick up your bags and take them through customs, even if your next flight is on the same airline and they are checked to your final destination. Let me repeat, you pick up your checked bags even if they are checked to another destination. Once you pick the bags up you will proceed to customs.
At the customs check of your bags, the officer’s will ask you things like did you bring any fruits, vegetables, animal products, seeds, etc. from the last country you were in. If you did, you really should admit it. If you did not, then a simple ‘no’ is easy too. They will hopefully not go through your bags if you answer no, however, if they do, you pretty much have no choice but to stand there, observe their search / inspection and wait until they’re done.
If you happened to forget that apple you picked up at your origin airport and left in your bag by accident, it’s normally no big deal. However, if you’ve told them you didn’t bring anything in and they find a whole garden of vegetables in your bag…they’ll probably have at least a few more questions for you and may search your bags and anyone in your party’s bags too.
Tip: Once you’re done with the last customs and border protection checks, secure your passport and any paperwork used or received. Beyond customs is either your next flight, or if you’re at your final destination, the next doors you go out will put you into the main lobby of the airport and ready to start your adventure.
U.S. Mobile Passport App:
First, it does not replace your current paper passport (i.e. you’ll still need to carry it). Second, I’m sure it will catch on quickly, but upon entering Houston on a recent return flight from Chile our family was the first and only ones in the “Mobile Passport App” line and breezed through the immigration check. You’ll need to upload your passport information into the app (preferably before boarding your flight and/or landing at the destination you’ll need it) for you and any family members travelling with you if you’re the head of the household.
Once you land, you’ll complete an electronic version of the customs form and submit it to the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. A key point is to submit this AFTER you land at the airport. I filled ours out on a recent trip as the plane was landing and then submitted it once I turned off airplane mode on the phone. Once we arrived at the immigration and citizenship checkpoint, I simply opened the app. As the officer reviewed each of our passports I scanned a QR code from the app at the desk for each person in our party. Once we finished, we proceeded to pick up our bags…it was pretty easy and very quick.