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Much has changed in the world of international travel since Congress established U.S. Customs in 1789. Every day, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is responsible for 1.1 million entries into U.S. borders. For the estimated 240,407 air passengers who arrive daily on American soil, a snafu in customs can be costly, worrisome and the cause for long delays. But with smart planning, basic preparations and thoughtful packing, you can keep your international travel schedules smooth.
The five P’s of planning. The most important aspect of hassle-free travel is researching before your trip. “The best adage is ‘prior planning promotes positive performance,’” says Leman “Chip” Bown, managing director of regulatory compliance for FedEx Trade Networks. Bown’s department is responsible for the regulatory oversight of the entries of commercial cargo filed with U.S. Customs and Border Protection on behalf of FedEx Trade Networks.
Bown recommends the CBP website as the ultimate go-to spot for accurate international travel information. “It’s a great resource for finding out what’s allowed regarding visas and passports, as well as the basics on importing and shipping goods,” he says. The CBP website lists some 600 frequently asked questions and answers, as well as extensive checklists for international travelers.
Pack smart. Travel documents, including passports, work permits and forms, should be easily accessible. Liquids should be carried in separate clear plastic bags. Travelers with goods to declare should try to pack those goods separately and to carry receipts. “Make sure you have work permits, proper documentation and information ahead of time,” says Carl Craig, who owns Planet-E Communications and travels on a minimum of five international flights per week.
Craig’s company is based in Detroit, where he records, produces and releases electronic music. Including himself, he has several artists on the record label with an international fan base. For the past 20 years, he's traveled throughout Europe, South America and parts of Asia to perform his music for fans. “Know the rules and take necessary precautions,” he says of the customs process.
CPB advises travelers to register some belongings before travel — including watches, cameras, laptop computers and CD players — according to serial numbers at the CBP office. Travelers should also request a Certificate of Registration for Personal Effects Taken Abroad.
Expect the unexpected. The CPB website provides estimated wait times at airports, but anything goes — early arrival is essential to avoiding stressful delays. And, when it’s time to communicate with a customs agent, a cool head is advised. “The first thing is to be calm,” says Craig. “You have to be prepared to tell them where you’re going to be traveling, and have hotel and travel information easily accessible for customs agents.”
Customs practices vary depending on the airport. Arrival signs will indicate additional screening points or other rules. “Every airport has its quirks,” says Craig. “In some places, such as Amsterdam, they have metal detectors at every gate.” And it's often advised to leave valuable goods at home that may require extra examination. “Don’t travel with anything too precious to your business which you can’t fathom being taken apart. At some airports, when you carry electronic equipment they’ll take it apart to look at it.”
For travelers who take precautions and still run into excessive trouble in customs, the National Ombudsman and Regional Fairness Boards accept comments about unfair practices. They can be contacted at 1-888-REG-FAIR (734-3247).
Tamara Warren is a New York-based writer who has contributed to The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Delta Sky, Vibe, Stuff, Time Out New York, and a long list of other newspapers and magazines. She's also the co-founder and editor of the car and culture blog Gotryke.com. For more info, visit her website.
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