You land in Australia and head to customs without any premonitions because you've done this dozens of times. You fill out the customary questionnaire, and send your things through the x-ray machine. As one of your boxes goes through a scowl appears on the face of the customs agent. He leans closer to the screen. He's seen something. He signals an assistant to take the box and you're led to a long metal table where various pieces of luggage are being searched. This assistant - let's call him Kevin - puts on gloves and addresses you in a stern tone: "Did you pack this box?" You say that you did. Kevin is not satisfied so he takes a different angle: "Could any one except you have been able to put something in this box while it was being packed?" You state that to the best of your knowledge you were the only person involved with the box but admit that since it was sitting in your house it's conceivable that someone else could have put something in it. Kevin sternly states that since you believe you were the only one in contact with the box that you will be held responsible for all its contents and announces he's now going to search the box. You watch with a vague unease. You have nothing to declare and yet somehow Kevin has made you feel like a criminal blatantly hiding contraband. When he's almost to the bottom of the box he triumphantly pulls out a gift box that has been tied closed with ribbon and announces, "This is what we saw on the x-ray". What? He explains that they mistook the gauzy ribbon for a coffee filter and were concerned that some granules of coffee may have remained in the filter. This would have been a big no no because we hadn't declared food on our customs form. Kevin offers no apology and instead projects a certain smugness at the thoroughness of his examination.
Sound far fetched? That was an entirely true story from our first time through Australian customs on our way to Papua New Guinea. While I completely respect customs and understand the need to prevent harmful items from entering a country, it seems that things can go a bit far at times. An Australian friend told me that she went through their customs once with a pack of chewing gum in her handbag, and was so harshly berated by an official for not having declared it as "food" that her children began to cry. While traveling with my mother from Papua New Guinea to Australia we were stopped in customs because she had a small bottle of pepper spray in her handbag. Papua New Guinea is an extremely dangerous country with some of the highest crime rates in the world, (something Australians are familiar with due to Papua New Guinea's close proximity to their country) which my mother explained was why she always carried pepper spray and had simply forgotten to remove it from her handbag. She apologized and stated she was happy to throw it away now that she was in Australia. However, the customs official brushed this aside and angrily proceeded to make us feel like devious criminals even shouting at one point, "We could send you to prison for this!". Apparently the reputation of Australian customs is known far and wide because while spice shopping in India, the merchant advised us that we'd have no problem transporting sealed packaged spices home. But after a pause he added, "Unless you live in Australia. Their customs is crazy!".
My most recent visits to Australia have actually been quite a breeze, making me wonder if their customs is taking it back a notch, or if it all comes down to which airport you're at and who's working that day. At any rate, I'm going to provide you with a few tips for tackling their customs in light of past experiences and their tough reputation.
Surviving Customs in Australia
- If in doubt, declare it: you don't get yelled at for over declaring so if you don't know if you should mark "food" for some breath mints then just do it. I don't know if they still ask if you have any shoes with loose soil on them, but I almost always marked yes and had them examine my shoes just in case. You get the point.
- Be prepared to be searched: just expect it so you aren't irritated or flustered if and when it happens. If your bags are locked, know where the keys are. Avoid having your things packed so tightly that when they get searched you have no idea how to re-pack, leading to even more frustration.
- Know in advance items that are prohibited and restricted for import into Australia. Prohibited is self-explanatory. Restricted items require written permission for import. I mention this because you would be surprised at the kinds of things that are restricted for import into Australia: glazed ceramic ware, goods bearing an image of the Australian flag or coat of arms, laser pointers, cigarette lighters, and my personal favorite - erasers resembling food in scent or appearance. What?! And that of course is just a small portion of the list. In fact, the government suggests that its citizens use the web app Can I Bring It Back? to guide their shopping before returning to Australia.
- Stay calm: no matter how frustrating a customs situation may seem, getting angry never helps and will only make officials less sympathetic to your cause.
There you have it. Best of luck in your travels to Australia and if you have any other tips, tricks, or interesting stories about Australian customs we'd love to hear them.