Declaring Items at Customs – Australia & New Zealand

Every port of entry has two things, immigrations and customs, both have completely separate functions but utilise the arrival card you frantically fill out while in line to get your passport stamped. In this post, I will cover the customs side of international arrivals, what to declare and what you can avoid in New Zealand and Australia. Figured it was a good time to cover declaring items at customs after a man declared a World War II bomb he found while abroad to customs agents at Auckland International Airport today causing the international part of the airport to shutdown.

The above gallery shows both the Australia and New Zealand arrival cards. (Can you find the odd thing to declare on the Australian arrival card?)

From the examples, you can see that there are quite a few things that one must declare upon arrival. Obviously chances are extremely high in Australia your bags will be searched and/or x-rayed. It is best to declare anything that will show up in either of these situations, such as food. In fact, the best advice I can give is toss any food you have in the bins provided, it just prevents the whole hassle of customs deciding what is safe and what isn’t/ My bags have been once x-rayed in Australia, once searched by hand and once I got a free pass to exit the customs area with no search at all (didn’t have my main bag as it was it decided to take a side trip). The time my bag was search by hand, customs officer Bill found two powerbars which I didn’t even know I had on me (always empty your bags before packing them). I got lucky that time, he just lectured me on the importance of declaring food items, most of the time you get an on the spot fine. My brother Davy didn’t declare his Oreos once, that too resulted in a lecture only to my parents since Davy was underage at the time. I think the more bags you have with you, the higher chances you will encounter an x-ray or bag search. It also depends if you tick yes or no on each box on your arrival card

As for New Zealand, ALL bags are x-rayed before entering the country, there is no chance here, it will happen. New Zealand is even more strict that Australia when it comes to food and dirt items. When I arrived in New Zealand, an individual indicated he had been on a farm the previous day. Needless to say, I saw the customs officer cleaning the fellows shoes which was funny to watch. Best to dump your items in the bins provided before reaching the customs checkpoint.

Illegal drugs are also highly sought after by customs agents and let me clue you, they will find them. Drug sniffing drugs are employed regularly and if you are caught, you risk deportation, jail and a fine. It’s just not worth it so never cross international borders with drugs, even if you think you can get away with it because you won’t and will be caught. Heed my warning, the past two times I’ve been in Australia, I have seen people hauled off for carrying pot on them. In addition to sanctions by the host country, you risk permanently losing your passport as the United States has laws against trafficking illegal drugs as well across international borders, whether it occurs in the United States or not. Just say no to drugs.

There are limits on the amount of tobacco and alcohol you can bring into the country as well. If you exceed the limits, you will be expected to pay a duty. In Australia, they recently changed the amount of cigarettes you can take in (as of September 1, 2012) and I heard stories where people bought a full carton of cigarettes at the duty free shop, the shop didn’t tell them about the new rules and they were forced to pay an additional $100 in duty fees. The cigarettes were still cheaper than buying them inland but still, if you are a smoker and going to Australia, you’ll pay through the nose. Even if you don’t smoke, in some countries it’s worth it to buy a cartoon especially if packs are expensive, resell them for quick cash and quite a turn around on investment (that’s for another article however). As for alcohol, it is very expensive in New Zealand and Australia. Even if you don’t drink much, buy as much hard liquor as permitted, another way to make a quick buck.

Australia also asks about any convictions you may have against you in another country. Contrary to popular belief, the only way another country will find out if you have any convictions is if you are wanted by Interpol (in that case you have bigger problems) or you declare it. If you declare it, be prepared to answer some questions. If you served more than one year in jail/prison, you will be found inadmissible to Australia and will be sent back home on the first flight. As for New Zealand, the same holds true for terms longer than 4 years even though they ask if it was for 12 months or more.

Regardless if you served time or not, don’t bother declaring you have a criminal background as it probably isn’t worth the third degree from some customs agent. Technically, even speeding tickets are supposed to be declared as a criminal conviction and most people don’t tick the box so why should someone with a measly shoplifting conviction? If they really didn’t want to have you in their country, they would partner with your home countries criminal database to figure it out when issuing your visa. One thing to note however, if when applying for your visa you did indicated you had a criminal conviction, YOU MUST declare it on the arrival card as well! Failure to do so will result in a fine and deportation. The country will have this in their immigration computers if you have previously declared it so if you already told the truth, it’s best to just continue with it.

Medicine is usually not a problem in New Zealand or Australia. Don’t bother declaring medicines unless it’s really strong stuff such as morphine as otherwise it’s just another waste of time.  Obviously in some foreign countries, you need to declare all medicines but that is beyond the scope of this specific article. Do keep in mind that if cannabis is legal in your country as medicine, it is not legal in New Zealand or Australia and is considered an illegal drug. Do not travel with it or simply dispose of it in the rubbish bins provided.

Another good one: the age old deportation question, have you ever been deported or removed from a country? Unless you have a deportation stamp, were previously deported from the country you are now trying to enter or declared it on your visa application, tick no. Just another annoying question you should avoid if possible. Again, if they really were interested in keeping you out, they would make an effort to share information with other countries but they don’t.

Finally, what prompted me to write this article in the first place, traveling with dangerous goods, i.e. an unexploded World War II bomb. Although you need to declare it, after all it will show up on x-ray, it probably is NOT a good idea to travel with it in the first place. How this individual got it on a plane in the first place is beyond me but crossing international boundaries with explosives, firearms, ammunition or anything else that goes boom is a strict no no in my book. You usually need permits to get that stuff in and out of countries and without them, you can land yourself in a whole lot of hot water. It’s best to leave that stuff at home or better yet, avoid being around it in the first place. Things that go boom are dangerous and unless you know what you are doing, stay away from them, especially unexploded World War II artillery.

In short, leave the following at home or toss on arrival:

  • Anything that goes boom
  • Illegal drugs
  • Food items (this includes drinks along with water as well)
  • Plants, soil or wood

Declare the following if required:

  • Food (if you still want to try and bring it in for whatever reason)
  • Tobacco if over the concessions
  • Alcohol if over the concessions
  • Criminal history only if the country previously knows about it (you told them upon entering before or in your visa application)
  • Dirt/Plants (some people like to collect beach sand, you should declare this to be on the safe side)

Don’t bother declaring the following:

  • That you’ve been on a farm in the past 48 hours (unless you reek of cow)
  • You have a criminal conviction (only if they don’t know about it)

Follow the above rules and going through customs will be a breeze. However, if you don’t take my advice, it can turn into a costly nightmare and you may end up waiting 2 hours to have your bags manually searched. It’s always best to travel with the bare essentials and take care of restricted items before hand. As always, keep up to date with what you can and cannot bring into Australia at www.customs.gov.au and New Zealand at www.customs.govt.nz. Always check these sites before your trip as laws tend to change at a moments notice.


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