Prepared for American and Canadian Travelers Abroad

An airport is a place where you go through hell to reach your alleged paradise.”
Stewart Stafford

This blog was written before the COVID Pandemic. The COVID epidemics played havoc on the travel business. In 2022, Fifty Plus Nomad decided to focus on traveling and living in Mexico and language learning posts. We will only update these long-term travel-related posts on a time-permitting basis. We would appreciate your comments and updates on these posts.

An Introduction to Airport Immigration and Customs Tips

If anyone asked what is the worst part of living and traveling abroad, I would answer without hesitation: Airport immigration and customs. While I still dread this gut-wrenching experience, over time, I have developed the following airport immigration and customs tips to help fellow Fifty Plus Nomads avoid some of the problems I’ve experienced.

Airport Immigration and Customs Tips #1: Remember that Immigrations and Customs Agents Have a Lot of Power

Realize that these immigration and customs agents have a lot of power. They can (and occasionally will) make you answer many personal questions to determine if you are eligible to enter the country. You have little or no recourse if you feel that these questions are intrusive or unnecessary.

I had this happen once when I tried to enter Canada in Montreal. The immigration and customs agents suspected I wanted to overstay my legally permitted six months in Canada. They grilled me for almost an hour about my life. It was one of the worst hours of my life. I felt like I was in a Kafkaesque trial and almost decided to go home instead of entering Canada. Still to this day, I fear going through Canadian Immigration and Customs. (Note: Both Canadian Immigration and Customs Officials inexplicably grilled me. The grilling may have occurred because it was the same day a terrorist struck down ten innocent passersby with his auto on a major Toronto street).

Airport Immigration and Customs Tips #2: Know Where You Are Going Through Airport Immigration

  • On most flights, you must go through immigration at the Port of Entry. (immigration reviews your passport and visas to check that you are allowed into the country). The Port of Entry is another name for the first airport you land in another country. (In the European Union, the port of entry is your first stop anywhere in the European Union. In other words, if you are flying from New York to Palermo and stop in Paris, your port of entry is Paris). You will have to go through immigration even if you are connecting on the way to another country. In other words, you will go through US and Canadian customs if you fly from Cancun to Montreal via any city in the USA.
  • You will also likely have through customs upon arrival at the Port of Entry, even when you are making a connection within the same country. To go through customs, pick up your baggage, pass through customs or exit the airport. (Usually, all you do is walk by the officials. They will stop you for further inspection at their discretion. Officials usually only stop me when I am coming from a  country with poor relations with the US). If you are making a connecting flight, redeposit your luggage on the other side of customs. (Remember, just after passing through customs, pack any liquids or metal items bought duty-free into your bags. Otherwise, when you pass through security to get to your connecting flight, security officials will confiscate these items). 
  • One notable exception: if you are flying from Canada to the US, you probably will go through US immigration in Canada and will not have to go through immigration in the USA. (This is because most airports in Canada have an agreement with the US ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to provide US immigration services at most ports of entry in Canada).

Airport Immigration and Customs Tips #3: Getting Through Airport Customs

  • Look and act like a respectable businessperson whenever passing through immigration. You will avoid attention if you look clean and dress like a businessperson. (Chinos and polo-type shirts are suitable for men). Also, when the immigration form asks what you do for a living in a Third world country, pick a common profession that does not arouse much suspicion. I always say that I am a teacher or businessman. (I had a friend twenty years ago who said she was an attorney when she tried to enter Peru. The immigration officials harassed her because they had recently had problems with a group of American attorneys involved with drug smugglers).
  • To avoid problems, I suggest you eat or throw away any food or water you got on the plane or at the departure airport before going through customs. I would suggest you not bring any non-commercially wrapped foodstuffs on the flight.

A Final Note

While I have not had the chance to use it myself, I recommend that Fifty-Plus Nomads consider using fast passes to ease their way through US Security, Immigration, and Customs. 

Fifty Plus Nomad offers personalized workshops and courses in Spanish, English, Living and Traveling in Mexico, and Long-Term Travel Book a Two-hour Free Sample Introductory Session

Want Some Additional Immigration and Customs Tips?

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Paul Heller has been a lifelong avid traveler and language learner and teacher, Even as a child, he told Santa Claus that he wanted to visit all the children worldwide. At seven years old, Paul wanted to retire to Mexico. At eight, he memorized the name, capital, location, and some facts about every country worldwide. At twelve, he found a book "Lonely Planet: Southeast Asia on a Shoestring" and started developing his own itinerary for a future round-the-world trip. He remained obsessed with travel; after getting a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from the University of Southern California and working as an administrator, He spent his vacations going to different countries around the globe studying language, touring, and volunteering. In 1994, he quit his job and lived in Russia as a volunteer English instructor. He discovered that he loved teaching languages. In 2004, he decided to make a living out of his travels and founded a community of people who love to travel just like him. He developed 5 three-hour classes about living and traveling long-term worldwide which he taught in over 50 adult education programs throughout the US. After his parents passed, he realized his dream of traveling around the world; cruising and touring some of the most remote places like the North Atlantic, Patagonia, and Oceania; and learning new languages (he knows Spanish, Italian, French, and Russian). Paul encourages everyone to learn foreign languages. He knows that it can be frustrating and slow but that anyone can learn a language if they put in the work and, most importantly, learning a language is well worth the time and effort because it opens up a whole new set of people, ideas, and cultures. He is currently spending the next chapter of his life in Mérida, México. He is excited about using this blog and his classes and workshops to inspire and equip fellow Fifty Plus Nomads with the language, cultural, and psychological skills necessary to be successful and happy long-term travelers and expats over 50.

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