Updated: Feb 26, 2021
If you've traveled abroad in the post-Septermber-11th world, you know that you don't have to be an international criminal to provoke suspicion and paranoia from border agents. And if you've been traveling as long as I have, you have probably noticed that some border agents sorta hate everyone, period.
While all border crossings are a tad neurotic, international airports are the worst of 'em. It's just an endless clusterfudge of gazillions of people scattering in all different directions like ants (always with some huge thing they're carrying / pulling) as sizable groups of authorities watch and route them through a labyrinthine obstacle course. Walking through those endless corridors, punctuated with bland food courts and overpriced retail pavilions, I feel the same as I do inside those gargantuan Vegas casinos -- like they're pumping extra oxygen in (or out of?) this huge enclosure that makes us all a little lightheaded and slap-happy. A bit agitated, constantly hungry (but tortuously unclear for what??), vaguely wary of everybody (patrons and workers) -- and overall "restless". It just doesn't seem like a natural or a particularly healthy environment, you know what I mean?
So, if the traveler who only gets to spend a few hours in an airport gets this special brand of anxiety, imagine how it must get for the personnel who work there. All that crazy social energy combined with mind-numbing "screening" routines must get a little bonkers after a while...
Which is why it's important not to catch their attention and give them any reason -- real or imagined -- to pick you out of the endless line of faceless travelers as "unusual" or even just "annoying". It will slow you down and give you anxiety in a place that's already slow-moving and anxiety-inducing -- who wants that grief?
And so, here are four rules of thumb I've developed over the years (by trial and error, of course) in order to not aggravate customs authorities and sail through all the checkpoints with minimal nerves.
1. Have all your documents in order and readily available to be inspected
This may seem like a no-brainer, but some people still get caught unprepared to produce all the necessary documentation. Yours truly has been guilty of this a couple of times, so no judgment -- but beware: not having your mandatory travel documents on hand will get you turned away at the border -- and that's not even the worst case scenario.
And so, before you get on a plane / bus / country / boat to a foreign country, look up your destination paperwork requirements ( https://travel.state.gov/content/travel.html ) and make sure that:
Your passport does not expire any time too soon. Some countries want you to have at least 3 - 6 months before you travel document expires, even if you're visiting for just a week. And if (as it happened during the COVID-19 pandemic) you get stuck abroad longer than expected, believe you-me, it's a great relief to not worry about your passport expiring on top of everything else going on!
You have the proper visa(s) correctly displayed / printed out. Typically, US Passport holders have an easy time crossing most international borders (pandemic times not withstanding). Some countries don't require you to do anything in advance: they will either sell you a visa once you land at your destination -- or issue it automatically without separate payment / paperwork. Others need you to go through the proper steps and obtain a visa in advance -- either by getting it stamped / stickered into your passport -- or by printing out an e-visa separately. It all depends on where you are going: the point is to know exactly what's required and to follow the instructions to a tee.
You carry all the proper medical documents. This is not super common but some countries that have especially high risks for something -- for example yellow fever -- will require documented inoculations before they let you in. Other countries require you to show proof of shots if you have recently visited or are traveling from a high-risk yellow fever area. And you can't just go to any medic -- these shots must be received and documented by CDC-approved doctors / facilities.
Now that we live in pandemic times, many airlines / international checkpoints require recent (taken within 72-36 hours) COVID tests proving that you are in the clear of the virus. In general, expect health records to become more crucial to international travel in the future. There already exist "medical passports" (booklets providing all your medical history, insurance info, emergency contacts, etc.) -- and it may soon be that our medical histories will be fully integrated into our cloud-based travel passports altogether.
If you are bringing medication that's not over-the-counter, it's best to keep it in original containers that have your name on it -- otherwise, bring the actual prescriptions, in case you are asked to justify the pills in your bag.
If you are transitioning sexually and your passport has your old legal name but your appearance matches a different gender -- expect bewilderment from the customs authorities that may have to be ratified with a note from your doctor clarifying the situation and vouching for your identity. Be ready to explain any body binding undergarments or prosthetic appendages you are rocking as well, as they will show up on scanners and likely raise some questions with attending personnel. This has got to suuuuuuck -- but it's best to anticipate and nip all the potential confusion in the bud. Authorities do not like to feel / look "stupid" -- and this scenario is likely to be over a lot of people's heads at this juncture in history -- so help them understand before they get flustered. Check out the super-informative "Traveling While Trans" video for first-hand discussion and advice on this very topic.
You bring hard copies of other relevant materials that will instantly illustrate / prove whatever you might need to communicate. This applies to print-outs of your airline tickets and hotel reservations, for example, not to mention back-up copies of your other travel documents. Even if you have them saved as an image on your cellphone -- sometimes you have to hand someone this information -- what if they want to walk away to show it to someone else? Do you really want to be putting your precious cell phone in strangers' hands, when you could just give them a replaceable piece of paper?
As an ex-Soviet, I never underestimate the magic of "a piece of paper": it carries special powers over the minds of bureaucrats who don't trust anything else. Plus, the airport and customs personnel appreciate having something concrete to look at during communication -- especially if there are language barriers / hard-to understand accents involved (without having to touch random customers' sticky cellphones...)
2. Be on your best behavior and as cooperative as possible
Basically, stay away from any shenanigans that would have gotten you in trouble with your parents when you were a kid for "acting out" in mixed company. No hurky-jerky spazzing out while waiting your turn in line; no interrupting with irrelevant questions, no trying out a new comedy routine -- and most definitely no pranks. This is a rare exception when you should try to be a "sheeple" and keep a low profile in the "herd". Answer when being addressed, make calm -- but not defiant -- eye contact, move along when prompted, etc.
For one, this is to genuinely help make the officers' jobs easier. We don't live in a super wholesome world, and keeping an eye on national security with thousands of individuals pouring through on a daily basis is actually a complicated and nerve-wracking task.
But also, do it for the sake of not provoking the wrath of some miserable authority figure that's just itching for an excuse to throw a wrench into someone's long-awaited vacation. It is my strong impression that more than a couple of border agents despise travelers simply for traveling. Watching all these people on their way somewhere makes these guys feel like they themselves are going nowhere -- and they resent that!!
"We aren't all rich enough to go fucking around on gap years," sneered a Houston Airport customs officer as I was re-entering the US after an eight-month absence. Did it matter that, in the purely financial / material sense, he is incomparably "richer" than my perpetually broke and benefit-less ass? Of course not. The truth is that real rich people don't get spoken to this way. No, this is some "divide and conquer" crap where non-rich people hate on other non-rich people for living out their dreams...
At any rate, just know: border-crossing personnel do not usually do empathy or humor. So, while you don't have to kiss up to them, take care to treat them with utmost seriousness.
3. Don't pack any specified "no-no's" into your hand luggage
Another seemingly "obvs" point that, evidently, bears repeating since everyone (including yours truly) thinks they can fly under the radar "this one time" with their exotic fruits and spicy sauces.
It's not a huge deal and it won't likely get you into serious trouble. But if you don't like to watch your favorite pocket knife / delicious foodstuff / precious liquid / (even your beloved vibrator in select countries...) being unceremoniously tossed into the garbage bin in front you, resist cramming it into your bag with the words "surely, they won't have the heart to take it away from me!" O ye of too much faith!! As determined earlier: having a heart is not this profession's strong suit. On the contrary, some customs gatekeepers seem to delight in trashing brand new unopened items still in their packaging, just to watch you squirm and cringe.
Also, let's just accept it: current rules (however odd) about items you can and can't bring over a border / onboard an aircraft are there for safety reasons (however unlikely). So, as tempting as it is, let's put the offending object down and resist the fantasy that the authorities will break national security protocol for the compelling justification that "this mango is just too ripe and juicy to leave behind".
4. Bring proof of a return / onward ticket
This one I've learned the hard way, more than once: just because you are technically allowed to purchase one-way airline tickets doesn't mean that each individual country is cool with that.
Some nations indicate in their requirements that a traveler must present a return or onward ticket out. Other countries state that a return / onward ticket is "recommended" -- and that's where you can run into potential trouble! From numerous experiences with this very situation, I can tell you that it is pure lottery whether or not you will be asked to show proof of a return ticket by the processing clerk. I have been turned away from the check-in counter for this exact thing -- and no amount of pleading / pointing out that it's "recommended, not mandatory" made any difference.
It does make sense that governments do this: tourists overstaying their visa is a common thing -- and one way to ensure that everyone who enters will leave before their time is up is to enforce scheduling a departure date. It's the proverbial "you don't have to go home but you can't stay here" scenario.
Nonetheless, there are any number of reasons for a traveler to not want to commit to a return ticket. It's a pain in the ass for those of us who have no intention of overstaying the visa but don't actually know exactly from which city, by which transportation, where to and on what date we will be moving on from a given destination.
Despair not, fellow one-way-ers: there's a stupidly easy "travel hack" to take care of the return ticket dilemma. It's not even a secret at this point, but no one seems to care (yet...)
Here's what you do. Buy yourself a one-way ticket to your travel destination however far in advance it suits you. On the day of the flight, book yourself a return ticket on one of many airline / travel websites that give you a 24-hour cancellation policy on purchases. Make sure your return ticket is for a date that's within your legal stay limit. Print out a copy of this ticket confirmation / itinerary and show it to whomever questions you on both sides of the border.
Once you're crossed all the checkpoints, go online and cancel that return ticket. Make sure it's within the 24-hour period -- you don't want it charged on your credit card!! Some travelers who use this method don't even wait to cross borders: they cancel the ticket as soon as the confirmation email is in and the ink dries on that print-out -- because no one at the airport verifies the validity of these reservations (so far...) In the future, the integrated cloud-based travel passport may contain these data too. For the time being, though, they don't seem to have the technical capability to cross-check such things in their databases and ain't no one got the time for looking them up individually.
Personally, I wait until I'm fully cleared through both sides before wiping out that return ticket. Life has taught me that, when dealing with authorities, you've got to err on the side of caution and cover all bases. Unless you're rich and powerful, that is -- but that's not an option for us "broke babes".
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Unfortunately, doing nothing wrong and even being a "model" commuter still does not guarantee one a dignified border crossing. Cultural, national and religious xenophobias continue to exist. Racial profiling still happens. Homophobia and ignorance toward the trans community are alive and well. And, as mentioned before, there are those who hate all travelers for nothing more than "having a life".
At the end of the day, we can't control other people's attitudes, nor even take their hostility personally, since it's never actually about us. All I can say is: cover all the legal necessities required on your end and try to have the chillest border crossing possible -- but if you still face rudeness and insensitivity from those who operate it, don't let it dampen your spirits. If for no other reason than: they don't deserve the satisfaction! But, more importantly -- because you don't deserve the grief. Just remind yourself that it's only a couple of hours of your life -- and after that, you're free to enjoy your trip!