Travel Tips: A Beginners Guide To Passing Through European Country Customs

What you and your family can expect when you go through customs at a European airport.

If you're planning your first visit to Europe, the prospect of going through Customs can be a daunting one. The increased security and military presence at major airports in light of terrorism threats can send a mixed message of both safety and fear, as well as lengthen the processing time to get on to your destination. All said, of course, the ritual of going through Customs is to ensure not only the agricultural integrity of a country but also decrease the entry of undesirable visitors.

Prior to landing, your airline flight crew will distribute forms relative to the purpose of your trip. The form will also inquire how long you plan to remain in the country and where you will be staying. While first-timers may deem these questions as nosey and intrusive, these statistics not only enable the host country's office of tourism to address and more effectively accommodate the needs of future visitors but ensure that those who are planning to work for a specified duration or to legally emigrate will be checked for possession of the proper paperwork. You will additionally be asked whether you are bringing any plant materials, animals, firearms, etc. Answer honestly, as your bags will be subject to random search.

If you are married or traveling with family, the requested information can be filled out on one form.

Upon arrival, airport signs will direct you where to go for processing through Customs. The lines are usually long so if you have someone picking you up, let them know that you may be delayed. Just like airport check-ins, travelers are called forth one at a time for questioning. The exceptions are married couples and families. This brings up the interesting question of married couples with different last names and/or couples who are not wed. For couples with different surnames, you may want to take along a Xeroxed copy of your marriage certificate. This is always a good idea anyway in the event that you are involved in a serious accident and/or need to be admitted to the hospital during your stay. For unwed couples, you're staying together through Customs pretty much depends on whichever official you get. Some are strictly by-the-book and will ask to see you separately; others really don't care. If you and your significant other do get separated, don't make a scene. It's only for a few minutes.

Have your passport out and available for inspection. Random searches may be done on your bags. Be prepared as well to answer some of the same questions called for on the form. If you are going to be a student or have a work permit or extended visa, you will be asked to show them to the requesting official. Your passport will then be stamped and you will be allowed to enter the country. In some cases, an official may need to take your passport or hand you off to a supervisor for further questions. Follow whatever instructions you are given.

When your vacation, schooling, or business trip is concluded, you will go through a similar system to exit the country and re-enter your own. Whereas the first part of your trip was to determine what you were bringing in, the second half is to discern what you are taking out, including foreign currency. Did you keep receipts or a record book while you were doing all of your shopping for souvenirs? I hope so. You'll be asked to declare what you bought and assign a monetary value to these items. In the event your purchases exceed your allotted exemption, you will be required to pay 10 percent of the difference. Exemption amounts vary from country to country and also include the fair market value of any items that were given to you as presents during your overseas stay (i.e., your aunt in France gives you her tiara for your birthday).

There are also rules and restrictions against items that can't be taken out of the country. Among these are narcotics (including non-FDA approved drugs), plants, animals and antiquities.

Be aware that complications can occasionally arise with items that you actually brought from home but which officials believe instead were purchased abroad. Let's say, for example, that you packed your best choker of diamonds for a gala event you knew you would be attending in Vienna. Unfortunately, the Customs official who opens your carry aboard and finds this piece of jewelry believes that it was purchased in Austria and that you are trying to avoid declaring it. While truth and documentation will ultimately prevail, the fact of the matter is that they're not going to let you leave the airport with it if you can't prove its origin.

There are two things you can do to sidestep an ugly scene. The first is to take along pertinent copies of sales receipts or insurance documents verifying the date of sale or ownership. The second alternative is to request a Certificate of Registration (a Form 4457) when you initially arrive in the foreign country. These are available from the Customs office at the airport terminal. After you have filled out this form, a Customs official will ask to see each of the items you have identified. This will not only save you time upon your departure but validate the ownership of your treasured travel possessions.

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