Monday, August 22, 2016

International Travel: Customs and Border Protection: Dos and Don'ts

Recently US immigration stopping Shah Rukh Khan made news. Last week, I watched a series of videos on youtube about Customs and Border Protection agencies in UK, Australia and USA. These videos gave lots of insights as to how these agencies work to protect commercial and biological interests of their respective countries and also threw light on various stupid mistakes travelers around the world do, ending up in being denied entry or having to pay a fine or even get detained and prosecuted. Several Indians were also shown in these videos committing various mistakes and being caught by the officials. In this blog post, I am sharing my findings from these videos and some basic tips/precautions every international traveler should be aware of.
Points I noted from the videos
  1. Most of the time, when immigration officer asks you a question, they already know the answer. They are only checking if you are being honest. Being truthful from the beginning is the right and easiest way out.
  2. Carrying extra/irrelevant documents can cause trouble. If you are carrying your resumes, business brochures etc on a holiday trip, officials may believe you are looking for work/business instead of vacation.
  3. Throwing tantrums- being aggressive/crying/citing medical illness/showing bad attitude will not help in any way. Officers are trained to deal with such people and they will neither get scared, nor will it generate sympathy for you. However, on the other hand if you are being truthful, cooperative and calm, it is possible that instead of a fine you may just get a warning or instead of outright deportation, you may get one or two days of temporary stay.
  4. If you are detained and if you need something- water, food, an interpreter, medical attention etc, feel free to ask. Officers will usually provide the same
  5. Several small things usually make a big difference between being allowed into country vs being sent back. Such as
  6. Meeting a friend vs boyfriend/girlfriend: If you are on a visit visa and officials learn that other person is your boyfriend/girlfriend, they think differently- about the possibility of both you marrying, seeking permanent residency or overstaying the visa etc. It gets worse if they call the other person and his/her idea of relationship is conflicting with what you have told the officer. It is important to keep your closed ones informed about your plans so that the story adds up and can be verified quickly.
  7. Helping”, “working without pay”, “assisting” are all considered a form of working and anyone doing these on a visit visa is likely to be considered working illegally on tourist visa. Any activity that can potentially deny employment/revenue generating opportunity to a local citizen/company is treated as work. Even searching for work is not tolerated. Sometimes, your intentions may be genuine, but if your background is not supportive (you don’t have a job back home, not enough cash, criminal records etc) you might be sent back home.
  8. Indians love food, but for various reasons, food items are subject to lots of scrutiny in airports around the world. Mainly because home-made food, milk products, seeds etc can bring in unwanted diseases, bacteria/organisms into the country and has potential to cause diseases (like foot and mouth disease) or cause destruction of fanua/flora in the country. Thus customs officials are very particular about incoming organic materials. What makes it worse is that most Indians do not declare their food items on the customs card and most of the time, they don’t pack it themselves, inviting even more trouble. Factory processed food with clear labels indicating the ingredients is usually ok. Do not carry food items as much as possible and if you have to, then please declare it on the immigration card to save yourself lots of trouble, fine and time.
  9. Though some of us are ad-hoc travelers- we prefer to take things as they come by, without a fixed plan, while visiting an international destination, it always helps if you a rough itinerary on your mind as to how you’re planning to spend your time there.
  10. Criminal record can prove deadly to your travel plans. Even after you've served your jail term, even if conviction was decades ago, almost all countries are vary of letting people with criminal history in
  11. Drug smuggling is a serious offense world-wide and many people get involved in this without their knowledge. Any stranger giving you a bag to be delivered in your destination, anyone offering cash/plane tickets or other benefits in exchange for some cargo to be taken to destination is almost always signs of drug syndicates trying to use you as a mule to carry contrabands across the borders. Unless you’re exceptionally lucky, you will almost always be caught and will face several years of jail term in most countries and death penalty in a few. Stay clear of such things. Though I didn’t see any Indians getting arrested for drug smuggling in those videos, It was very disturbing that couple of parcels from India- an eye-liner, a piston etc were caught with drugs. In Australia Indian families are regularly caught bringing bag full of food items and not declaring them. In UK, few Indian students were shown being caught violating their student visa conditions.
  12. There was one curious episode in which a gentleman from US arriving in UK had told his wife that he is going to meet a childhood friend, but at the immigration, he said he is meeting a friend whom he knowns only since a few weeks (a woman). Immigration officials recognized that he might be cheating on his wife, but that wasn’t their concern, so they let the man in as they were convinced that he has enough funds to support himself and will return to US as per his return ticket.
There are several scenarios, though not illegal may raise a red flag- such as a student applying for visitor visa soon after his/her studies, someone else packing your bags, traveling to a particular country too frequently or returning to a country just a few days after departure, having recently been to or returning from a country that is identified as high risk for terrorism/smuggling, traveling half way across the world without a clear plan or agenda as to what to see/do etc. Put yourself in the shoes of a customs/immigration officials and ask yourself if there is anything unusual- if yes and legitimate, carry supportive evidence.

Several years ago, in one of the interview rooms, an elderly gentleman from Kerala was applying for a permanent residency in a country. His daughter was in a big post and wanted her dad to come and live with her. But apparently this gentleman was not keen to relocate. When questioned about his intention of travel and if he is looking to move permanently, he said “No No, I want to live and die in my home town- my daughter is forcing me to stay with her, just want to visit her for short time and come back to Kerala”. The officer even got a translator and made him understand the question in Malayali and the gentleman repeated what he had stated. Now the officer had no option but to reject his application as it was under wrong category. Keep your loved ones informed of the type of visa being applied and what that means.

For lots of people, even jail in UK is much better option than living freely in their home countries, because of war, poverty etc. It is very sad to see this great rich-poor divide that makes many people risk their lives and try slip into prosperous countries hoping for a better life. In general I have seen that people manning international borders are usually kind and well mannered, they understand people arrive from all parts of the world with different backgrounds, cultures, languages etc. They do make every possible attempt to verify your story and be considerate, but at the same time, their primary job is to protect their country- from illegal immigrants, contrabands, drugs and all other kinds of anti-national/anti-social elements. Because of this, Customs and Border agencies always strive to be one step ahead of tricksters and smugglers using latest technology, process and human intelligence. Being allowed into a country is not a right, it is a privilege, so it is in best of our interest to understand each country’s applicable rules, comply with them, be honest and cooperate with officials when questioned. Best wishes.

From what I have seen, it seems Afghanistan, Pakistani and Bangladeshi people top the list of countries from where people often attempt (and even succeed) to enter UK either illegally or through falsified documents. A good number of Indians and Chinese are also known to be overstaying UK visas or doing things (like work) they are not supposed to as per their visa restrictions. In Australia Chinese and Philippines people seem to top the list of problem makers. (I could be wrong, this is purely based on few episodes I saw. Philippines is cracking down big time on drug mafia at present.)

I will be curious to know how the impact of UK deciding to leave the EU and its impact on EU residents in UK on work. Also what happened when Mr. Vijay Mallya passed through UK immigration earlier this year- was there any red flag/secondary questioning? Hopefully some episodes in the future will reveal these. I also hope Indian Customs and immigration officials get as vigilant, efficient and smart at par with their global peers. (Of course we have seen occasional capture of gold and drugs in India, but I guess there is lot more they can do to protect India better.)

Responsibilities of every traveler:
  • Knowing the purpose of your visit and obtaining right category of Visa that is required for the intended purpose (tourist, work, transit etc) and being able to justify it on demand (such as cash to support yourself, return tickets etc)
  • Knowing full contents of your bag and being responsible for it
  • Researching to understand local rules and regulations of the destination country- what is allowed and what is not allowed
  • Complying with any visible/verbal guidelines and being truthful while signing declarations in immigration/customs forms
  • Cooperating patiently with customs/immigration officials when demanded
Note: The video series appears to be shot in 2008-2009 timeline, which means it is 7 years old. I am sure Customs and Border protection has adopted much more advanced technology and process since then. So don’t even think that you can use your learning from these videos to outsmart them. One such video below if you'd like to view a sample. Search for Border Security on youtube for more such videos. I am not 100% sure if all videos are uploaded with authority/permission.

 Similar: Hong Kong immigration experience for Indian passport holders * Immigration Museum, Melbourne (Coming soon) * USA immigration history * Australia tourist visa for Indians * 


ವಿ.ರಾ.ಹೆ. said...

Any interesting things happened at immigration check/visa interview in your own experience so far?

SandeepaChetan said...

Informative article. Thank you for sharing. Somebody should come up with comprehensive website about rules and regulations set by every country. Photograph of the passport wall is quiet interesting.

Shrinidhi Hande said...

@vi Ra He... nothing particular... Also these are personal info not to be made public


It is easier to refer to respective countries official pages. Thanks

Shrinidhi Hande said...

VFS is trying to maintain them to some extent, but official sites should be the one to refer when in doubt.

Bhushavali said...

Good one. Just recently an officer at a Schengen border wanted to know why I took visa from another Schengen country!! Just a tourist visa it was. ��

Shrinidhi Hande said...

Thanks Bhushavali for sharing your experience

Mridula said...

What a read Shrinidhi, I intuitively knew honesty would be in my interest and that they already know the answers :D

Shrinidhi Hande said...

Thanks Mridula