Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Customs and Border Security

It didn’t occur to me the first few times I left Australia, but after being back in the US twice, I had a revelation:  Australia is the only place I’ve been (that I can recall) where you go through legitimate customs on the way out.  Usually, you just check in as normal and head through security to your gate, right?  Not in Australia.  You have to fill out an Outgoing Passenger Card and stand in line at Customs and Border Protection and have your passport checked and stamped and all that jazz.  And then you go through security.  Leaving America, they don’t check your passport at all, and I think that’s pretty much the same for most countries.

Customs in Australia are very strict – extremely strict actually.  This can be partially attributable to Australia’s unique biodiversity and ecosystems and the desire to prevent foreign species (plant or animal) from invading.  Australia also has tough laws on drugs and the like, and wants to strictly enforce those and prevent smuggling.  Finally, a comprehensive visa system allows authorities to easily track who enters and leaves the country – to help discourage illegal immigrants.  For example, when I went to get my Aussie driver’s license, the lady at the RTA (the Aussie version of the DMV) knew exactly when I had entered and departed Australia just by quickly swiping my passport into her little machine.  She didn’t even look at the stamps!  I’m being stalked.

The major airports at Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, and Cairns actually have separate domestic and international terminals – maybe to prevent comingling of international and domestic travellers?  At least at Sydney and Perth, these are quite far apart, requiring either a car or train to get between the two.

When coming back into Australia, you have to fill out an Incoming Passenger Card and answer a list of questions.  Most of these are pretty straight forward, but answering incorrectly can have grave implications.

1.  Are you bringing into Australia goods that may be prohibited or subject to restrictions, such as medicines, steroids, illegal pornography, firearms, weapons, or illicit drugs?

Ok, so most of those are no – like weapons and illicit drugs – but what about the porn?  I got very nervous with the porn question, because like most men, my laptop has some porn on it.  And by some, I mean a fair amount.  I’m not going to lie.  Yours probably does too so stop judging, fool.  I later found out that it’s only illegal pornography, which would be kiddie porn or porn featuring women with small breasts.  Not even shitting you – because women with small breasts apparently resemble children in pornography – WTF Australia?  So, yeah, seeing as children make me cringe and I have no desire to see breasts large or small, I’m good on that question.  I can enter safely with a hard drive full of Brent Corrigan.

2.  Are you bringing into Australia more than 2250mL of alcohol or 250 cigarettes or 250g of tobacco products?

No.  No.  And no.

3.  Are you bringing into Australia goods obtained overseas or purchased duty and/or tax free in Australia with a combined total price of more than AUD$900, including gifts?

Ok, so I may have purchased lots of clothes at Macy’s, but I cut the tags off so that doesn’t count, right?

4.  Are you bringing into Australia goods/samples for business/commercial use?

This one gets people all the time.  If you’re here to do any sort of business, you need to be on a business visa.  If you come in on a tourist visa and they catch you with commercial goods/samples, they can deny you entry and send you back to your country of origin.  Suckers!

5.  Are you bringing into Australia AUD$10,000 or more in Australian or foreign currency equivalent.

I wish I had that kind of money in my wallet.

6.  Are you bringing into Australia any food – includes dried, fresh, preserved, cooked, uncooked?

This is the one I hate because I always have some sort of American food with me and it’s always packaged and purchased at the grocery store and totally safe (like chocolate or Cheez-Its) but I have to answer “yes” even though I know they are just looking for the idiots with bags of nuts or meat or fruit or vegetables.  And the customs officers see my yes answer and because I’m American they assume it’s jerky.  Not even shitting you.  My friend Jess got asked twice if she had jerky when entering the country, and I laughed because she’s from Arkansas where lots of people probably eat jerky and I assumed that’s why they were asking her.  But then this most recent time they asked me that question and I got all offended and was like “No, I’m from a blue state.”  If you answer “no” and they catch you with food – even food that is totally legal – then they can fine you a few hundred dollars and put you on a black list which means they’ll do extra checks on you each time you enter.  Big brother will be watching you.  So always answer “yes”.  Chances are, if you tell them what you have, they’ll just wave you through without any extra checks… if you’re white.  If you’re Asian or Indian, be prepared to get screened more thoroughly.  Not to be racist at all, but a lot of people from Asian countries attempt to bring in all sorts of weird food items that you can’t get here and they are the ones always getting busted.

7.  Are you bringing into Australia wooden articles, plants, parts of plants, traditional medicines or herbs, seeds, bulbs, straw, nuts?

No, I’m not a hippie.  But does my flatmate need to declare the wooden penis keychain that he bought for me in Bali?

8.  Are you bringing into Australia animals, parts of animals, animal products including equipment, pet food, eggs, biological, specimens, birds, fish, insects, shells, bee products?

I don’t like most living things.  So no.

9.  Are you bringing into Australia soil, items with soil attached or used in freshwater areas i.e. sports/recreational equipment, shoes?

I’m not that outdoorsy.  So again, no.  But in New Zealand, their ecosystem is far more fragile so they actually make you scrub the bottom of your shoes when entering if they feel your shoes are too dirty.

10.  Have you been in contact with farms, farm animals, wilderness areas or freshwater streams/lakes etc. in the past 30 days?

Have you met me?  I’ve been in contact with the outlet mall and The Cheesecake Factory only.  Why the fuck would I ever go on a farm?  The closest I’ve been to farm is probably when my flight from Los Angeles to New York flew over Kansas or Iowa or one of those other corn-growing states in the middle.

The best part of Australian Customs is watching it on television.  Oh yes.  They have their own TV show.  It’s called Border Security and it’s actually extremely entertaining.  The cameras mainly focus on Australian Customs and Border Protection at the major airports – filming passengers as they enter the country and get searched.  Sometimes they also focus on the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service at the international mail centres, or the Department of Immigration and Citizenship as they raid workplaces suspected of employing illegal immigrants.  Can you imagine something like this being allowed to be filmed in America?  There would be privacy lawsuits out the wazoo!

Watch the whole thing if you have 22 minutes to spare and haven’t ever watched the show before.

In every episode, there’s usually some sort of drug bust – the best when found in a cavity search.  (No, they don’t actually show the cavity search.)  An episode I watched last week focused on the international mail centre.  There, one small box that was part of a massive shipment of frozen fish from somewhere in Asia had a few million dollars’ worth of heroin frozen into it.  And they found it because they scanned each and every box on that giant pallet.  People hide things in the lining of their suitcases or in chess sets or other places.  Or they just tape drugs to themselves and assume that they won’t get caught.  A young American girl tried to smuggle in some drugs, but was caught after being questioned as to why she had a layover in Panama.  She was sentenced to a few years in prison.

There was the suitcase full of live lizards and snakes wrapped up in socks.  Someone was trying to smuggle endangered species out of Australia and into Asia.  Do they not know that suitcases get scanned going out?  Then there are your standard, run-of-the-mill cases.  There was the Vietnamese man who was coming on holiday, but upon further inspection, border security found that his hotel booking was phoney and his phone had text messages saying that he intended to work in Australia for 2 or 3 years.  He was denied entrance to the country and shipped back the next day.

But my favourite are the simplest of the simple:  the food idiots.  Again, not to be racist, but they generally show Asians and occasionally Indians declaring that they have no food and then ending up having a whole suitcase full of things like nuts and berries and tea leaves and all sorts of prohibited items.  And then they play stupid like their English isn’t that good and they didn’t know what the question meant (meanwhile their English was fine a minute ago).  And then they start to cry when they get a fine of a few hundred dollars and all of their stuff gets confiscated and destroyed.  And the harder they cry the harder I roll my eyes and chuckle.  Ha!

Moral of the story:  declare EVERYTHING.  Also, try to be white.  Seriously, if you’re white AND travelling from a western country and you firmly tell Customs that you do not have any jerky on you, then you’ll breeze right through.  If you’re Asian or traveling back from an Asian country, you’re totally getting extra scanning and questions.  Just look at the people in the line for extra scanning at Customs.  They are disproportionately Asian.

And in America, every airport would be sued for racial profiling.

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