Understanding the Airport Customs Process

If this will be your first time leaving your home country, or your first time backpacking Europe, then chances are you don’t know what to expect when you first step off that plane in Europe. You’ve finally arrived, but now what happens? Right now it’s all a big mystery, which is possibly a little scary, but also what makes it so exciting. You’ve probably spent months planning and saving. You’ve imagined all the incredible sights you’ll see abroad, and all the good times you’re bound to have. However, you might not have thought much about what actually happens when you first arrive in a foreign country. What does it mean to go through Customs? What’s a landing card? Personally, I hadn’t given it much thought, which caused me to feel a little uncomfortable when I landed in London for the first time. I didn’t really know or understand the whole customs process. Now that I’m familiar with it, it’s much less intimidating, and I feel a lot more comfortable and confident when I arrive in a foreign country. So, what happens when you first arrive in Europe?

You’ve just landed…

When you first arrive in a European country, assuming the majority of people will be arriving by plane, you’ll disembark and follow signs to get to Customs/Passport Control. All the passengers on your plane will also be heading that way, so follow them if you get confused. You’ll walk through a maze-like passageway through the airport to get to Customs.

What is Customs?

Customs is a place at the airport where officials check all incoming travelers, as well as luggage, from international countries, and allows them official entry into the country.

Getting from your plane to where Customs is located in the airport can sometimes take up to 10 minutes to walk to, depending on how large the airport is. It’s designed to lead you directly to Airport Customs, so any other exits will be blocked off. There are usually restrooms along the way, but occasionally there won’t be a restroom until after you get through Customs. Plan accordingly.

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When you arrive at Airport Customs, there can sometimes be a long wait, up to several hours. I’ve had to wait over 2 hours to get through Customs at the Gatwick Airport in London several times. After just getting off a plane, standing around and slowly inching your way up the line isn’t very fun. Especially, when you’re just dying to get outside and explore the new country. (Or when you’re completely jet lagged, and just want to fall asleep standing!) I usually read a book while waiting in line. If you’re flying into less popular cities or smaller airports, it takes far less time. If you’re lucky, there won’t be any wait at all.

Landing Card…

When you first arrive in a country abroad, you’ll be asked to fill out a landing card, which you’ll have to turn in to a customs officer. The flight attendants on your plane will usually pass them out before you arrive. If not, there are stations set up when you first get to Customs. You can go ahead and fill one out at the tables they provide, before getting in line. However, if you happen to have a pen with you, grab a form, and fill it out while you wait in line. I’ve had an entire plane disembark and come rushing to get in line to go through customs, while I was filling the form out at the table. There went another hour of waiting… awesome.

Make sure you have the address of the hostel, or the place you’ll be staying while in the foreign country, easily accessible. I usually pull up a confirmation email of the hostel on my phone, which has the address. However, more than once, my phone has died before I’ve had a chance to fill out the form. I’ve had to find somewhere to charge my phone in order to get the address. So, I’d recommend having a written down copy of the address just in case. You’ll also need to know which flight (name and number) you arrived on, so make sure to keep your plane ticket.

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Going through Customs…

There will be at least two different lines to wait in. One for citizens of the country you’re visiting, and other for foreigners. In Europe, there is a line for E.U. (European Union) citizens, and another for foreigners. Make sure you get in the right line. It’s usually pretty obvious which line is for foreigners, but if you’re confused, look at the passports of others in your line, or ask a customs officer standing nearby.

Once you get up to the counter, the customs officer will ask for your passport, landing card, and visa if it’s required. They will sometimes ask how long you plan on staying in the country, what you plan on doing, and where you plan on going once you leave. If you haven’t booked a ticket out of the country yet, it’s good to just be confident about when exactly you’re leaving and where you’re going, even if those plans might change later. That way there aren’t any problems. They just want to make sure you won’t overstay. Once they’ve looked over your documents and asked any questions they have, they’ll hand you back your passport and you’re free to go through. It usually only takes a couple minutes. It’s nothing to stress over!

So, at this point you still haven’t left Airport Customs. You’ve gotten yourself through, but now you need to get your luggage through customs. Follow the signs to baggage claim, where you’ll pick up any bags you might have checked on your flight. Even if you didn’t check any bags, you’ll still follow the signs to baggage claim, since that’s the way out. (The baggage claim area is specifically for international flights.) You’ll then continue on to finally exit Customs. If you have any goods to declare, you’ll exit through the red channel, where you’ll declare any items you need to. If you don’t have anything to declare, you’ll exit through the green channel. Occasionally, if you exit through the green channel, officials will be waiting to check to make sure you don’t have any restricted items in your bags that aren’t allowed to be brought into their country. Some countries are stricter about certain things. I always walk straight through “Nothing to declare” and I’ve never been stopped. (Actually, I was stopped once when I returned home to the U.S. They checked my bag, and found an apple from abroad in it. I had to throw it out. No big deal.)

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Customs Exit…

Once you exit Customs, you will be in the international arrivals section of the airport where families and friends are gathered outside waiting for their loved ones to arrive. Once you’ve passed all of them, (which is sad and depressing at first, if you’re traveling solo, because you realize you’re completely alone with no one waiting for you) you’ll follow signs for the metro, train, or bus to the city center.

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The hostel you booked should have provided you with directions, so you should be all set to find your way to the hostel. If you’re not sure where to go, find an information booth at the airport (they’ll speak English), and ask for directions before you leave.

Safe Travels!

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About Devon Nicole

Hey! My name is Devon. I'm a 20-something girl from the sunny state of Florida, USA. In 2012, I made the scary decision to backpack Europe SOLO. Now it's 3 years later and I've traveled to over 30 countries in North America, Europe, Africa, and Asia! I created this blog to inspire other young women to travel abroad solo too. There's a whole world out there just waiting to be explored!

6 Comments

  1. Do you happen to know if contact lenses need to be declared upon arrival? Also, I just recently discovered your blog and I must say, it’s been extremely useful so far as I plan my first extended trip out of the country! Thanks!

  2. I’m going to be flying from Charlotte into Munich and then about 4-5 hours later get on a short flight from Munich to Berlin. Do I go through customs in Munich and then back through security for that short 2nd flight?

    • Good question! I believe you will have to go through customs when you land in Munich. However, if you’re checking a bag, the bag should go through to Berlin. (Make sure that is does when you check in.) Right after you exit customs (have your passport checked and stamped), you’ll look for the Domestic Connecting Flights sign or something similar, which will take you back to the departure gates where you will have to go through security again. It’ll be like a security for all connecting flights passengers, which is smaller and doesn’t usually take much time to go through.

  3. hello! is this the same process even if your layover is in London? And have no plans leaving the airport?

    • If I remember correctly, when I had a layover in London, you follow signs for “transferring flight connections” or something like that. Then you’ll go through another mini security check and proceed to your gate. I don’t believe you’ll have to go through customs.

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