When you enter a new country, after passing through immigration/passport control, and they’ve decided you personally can enter the country, it’s time for them to look at what you’re bringing in. Of course customs officers are looking for obvious things like drugs and guns, but they’re also concerned with smuggling other things, bringing in items that could pose an agricultural or health risk, or a variety of other categories of items.
Before working through a typical form, let me be clear: you should always be honest on your form. Failure to declare something could result in you being fined for taxes on the item(s), the item(s) being seized, and possible fines in addition to the value of the items. In the US, they typically will seize the item and may charge you a large fine.
This form is from the US, but is going to be basically typical of the forms of other countries. This form is passed out during the last part of the flight, before landing. Often you will receive a form in your most comfortable language, or a bilingual form. A flight from the US to a Spanish-speaking country will probably be available in English or Spanish. If you’re flying a different language mix, and there is no form available when you’re in flight, once you land there will probably be assorted extra forms before you pass through the checkpoint for you to fill out.
Questions 1-10 ask basic information about you. When traveling TO another country, be sure to have available your address where you will stay, or at least the first place you will stay.
Question 11 I am bringing:
11A Fruits, vegetables, plants, seeds, food, insects – this is about preventing pests or possibly infected seeds from impacting our agriculture. If you have ANY food in your bag, declare it. If it’s something that is allowed (like chips or dried snacks) they’ll let you go with it.
11B Meats, animals, animal/wildlife products – this is to prevent things like mad cow disease or CWD from getting into our country. These will probably not be allowed, even if commercially packaged. This is where I lost some ham on the way home from Spain.
11C/D Diseases, soil – probably not a major concern on student travel. Don’t bring disease cultures or dirt back with you.
12 Near animals – making sure you’re not bringing any possible diseases back with you without being aware.
13 Money – Odds are you’re not traveling with over $10k, but if you are, just know it’s legal to do but you must declare it. They will just want to verify it isn’t the proceeds of a crime. If you can prove it’s legally yours, you’re good!
14 Commercial merchandise – this is asking if you’re bringing stuff back to sell. If you are, these items will be taxed as imported merchandise. Don’t do this.
15 Value of your goods – As a US resident coming home: Estimate what you spent on souvenirs and gifts while abroad. A large amount may be subject to sales tax but normal souvenir purchases are usually fine. They often won’t bother with a minor amount of small purchases. On the back of the form you’ll have to describe exactly what these items are. When entering another country: declare items you’re bringing and planning to leave there.