International Travel – Tips and Tricks for Navigating Customs and Immigration

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Big Ben at sunset.

When looking to travel internationally, there’s an overwhelming amount of information you need to gather, supply, and keep track of. This can mean losing forms, losing time, and losing your mind. Avoid that by sticking to these tips and tricks for navigating customs and immigrations as you travel internationally.

Getting Through Customs

Getting through customs can seem like a painstaking process, and to some degree, it is! Your feelings of overwhelm and frustration are understandable and almost anyone would feel the same way in that position. There are a few things you can do to make getting through customs easier for yourself.

First, you can always fill out your customs and immigration forms in advance. There are various entry requirements depending on the country you’re entering into, so be sure to check that information. You can use the U.S. Department of State’s country information database to make this a bit easier for yourself. This page includes a list of U.S. Embassies and Consulates, information by travel type, a traveler’s checklist, and information regarding driving and road safety along with lodging safety. There’s also the Mobile Passport Control available through the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which allows you to submit your passport and customs declaration information through their free, secure app.

Second, make sure you do your best to get in line first. A few things can impact how quickly you get to the front of the line: using the restroom before you leave the plane; trying to score a seat towards the front of the plane; wearing quality walking shoes; and finally, keeping all of your travel documents close to your person in a briefcase or other secure bag.

Keep in mind the kind of questions officers are likely to ask, which may include but do not limit to the following:

  • What is the purpose of your trip?
  • How long do you intend to stay?
  • Where will you be staying?
  • What’s your occupation?
  • Do you have anything to declare?

Keep your answers honest, succinct, and to the point. Try to avoid fumbles, since that leads to lengthy and time-consuming follow-up questions that will just cause you unnecessary stress and frustration. Try your best to remember everything you did during your trip abroad, since you’ll be asked what kinds of activities you participated in. Perhaps, if you’re a big planner, you could have an itinerary prepared as part of your documents upon your return.

Keeping receipts handy is also important, since countries allow you to transport only a certain dollar amount of purchases across the border without paying duty. Make sure you’re within those limits and you should be fine.

You can also opt to become a trusted traveler through the Global Entry program. It’s a $100 fee, and you must agree to undergo a background check. Bear in mind that not every airport supports this program, but if you’re traveling through a major airport, your trip through U.S. customs will boil down to a stop at an automated kiosk station to confirm your identity and make any required declarations.

Customs is all about being honest, straightforward, and level-headed. It may seem daunting and terrifying at first, and that’s okay! Just keep these tips in mind and you’ll be just fine.

Navigating Immigrations

Getting through the immigration process isn’t much different from getting through customs. According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service’s website, they issue many types of immigration documents, including: Form I-551, Permanent Resident Card (Green Card); Form I-776, Employment Authorization Document; Form I-94, Arrival/Departure Record; and Form I-797, Notice of Action.

Making sure you have all your documents in order and ready to go is key to getting through immigrations with the least pain possible. You’ll also need to keep in mind that if you’re flying, you need to collect your checked bags before you go through customs, so make sure you get off the plane in an orderly fashion to get to your bag collection point as quickly as you can.

Double-check all documents before leaving for your trip to ensure the information on them is accurate and up to date. You can often renew your passport online, if that’s a concern; you can check out the online application for either a new or a renewal passport at Travel.State.Gov. The information on this site is fairly comprehensive and helpful, and has specific information regarding how to handle your passport needs in regards to how soon you’re leaving for your trip.

Keeping your government-issued identification card(s) up to date and accurate in regards to home address is also key. Since some documents come through the mail, it would be awful for you to miss something because the home address on file was wrong. Making sure you enter all your data correctly the first time will help avoid these types of errors.

If you can, as previously stated, get all your documents printed, filled out, and signed and/or notarized by the appropriate parties in advance. This will hugely help the immigration process because then, you’re not stuck filling out paperwork at the airport or other travel center.

Remember that it’s not just you who has to go through this process – everyone arriving at a port of entry to the U.S. is subject to an inspection by Customs and Border Protection officers to ensure compliance with immigration, customs, and agriculture regulations. If you’re looking for forms not geared towards immigrants, you can look over the Admission Forms page provided by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

If you’re worried about time, you can check out lists like the one on Upgraded Points’ website. For example, this table states that the worst airport for waiting time for immigration and customs is FLL (Fort Lauderdale), with the average wait time in minutes being 31.95 minutes. They also provide helpful data like the best time to go through – for FLL, it’s Wednesdays from 10-11am – and the worst time to go through – again, using FLL as an example, the worst would be Wednesdays 7-8pm.

Using UP’s table again as an example, the best airport to use would be PHX (Phoenix International Airport), with their wait time averaging only 5.09 minutes! The best time to go through would be Saturday, 1-2pm, with the wait time averaging roughly 1.20 minutes during that time; in comparison, the worst time would be Tuesday, 9-10pm, because that wait time is roughly 22.0 minutes.

This data also has the average time times split by month, day, and hour. OVerall, the lowest wait time would happen during the month of February (averaging 14.88 minutes) with the highest being in July (20.92 minutes). Sundays also seem to be the fastest day, with an average wait time of 16.13 minutes. The peak waiting hour is 5-6am, capping out at 24.86 average.

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