How Not Looking Like a Backpacker Gets You Through Customs and Immigration Faster

Profiling by immigration and custom officials is a fact of our travelling lives – and its more pervasive than you think. You’re not just being profiled based on race, ethnicity and nationality, but also by class – class of travel that is. Who do you think gets fussed over more by customs and immigration: a business class traveller with a few grands worth of Samsonite luggage in tow, or a budget traveller getting off a “no-frills” flight taking strain under a 65 litre backpack?

Recently I caught a Jetstar flight from Darwin, Australia to Singapore. While waiting at the luggage carousel at Singapore’s Changi Airport I watched as every traveller sporting a backpack was singled out for closer scrutiny by customs officials. In Singapore you get fined for chewing gum, and put to death if you traffick drugs. Authorities at Changi Airport appear to equate backpacker with drug mule, and suspect that all backpackers are carrying a lot more than just two weeks of dirty laundry on their backs.

So, if you’re a backpacker, what can you do when you arrive in a new country, to avoid having to play “20 Questions” with immigration, and having to air your underwear in public at customs? Understand that this post does not offer you advice on how to smuggle “your shady self”, narcotics, hard currency, or pirated porn DVDs, into another country. Rather this post is for the law abiding budget traveller who would rather not be treated like a “dirty backpacker” at the airport and enjoy a hassle-free run of customs and immigration. Here’s how:

Dress it up a bit – Immigration officers are not hired for their “fashion forwardness”, but rather their conservative outlook and their willingness to tow the line. Men, keep “boardies” and the “flip-flops” for the beach and opt for collared buttoned-up shirts, pants and fully enclosed laced-up shoes. Ladies, immigration is not the place to show off that “bangin’ bod” of yours. If your ensemble reveals your shoulders, cleavage and thighs – rethink it! Less is not more in this case.

Shave off that travel beard – Or at the very least give it a trim. A bushy beard can really change the shape of your face. Expect a few pointed questions and some hard “eye-balling” from officials if you don’t quite look like you did when your passport photo was taken. You’re also less likely to be asked to prove you can support yourself financially in their country if you look all bright and shiny.

Get your story straight – Make sure you have completed all your arrival paperwork fully and correctly. Most importantly you need to be able to put down an address of where you will be staying your first night in their country. Before arriving, book at least one night at a local hostel on Hostelworld.com and print off the email confirmation. Research how you are going to get there from the airport. An officer might quiz you on this. Don’t volunteer any more information than you have to. Stick to answering only what is being asked. You’re less likely to be asked to provide proof of onward travel if you can recite some semblance of an itinerary.

Carry your backpack – If you are walking from the luggage carousel to the exit and you’ve got your pack on your back, expect an customs official to want to look inside it. If you have anything to declare – declare it! If you know you’re not carrying anything declarable and want to get through customs a lot faster, carry your pack. My current pack is an Osprey Waypoint 60. I can tuck all the straps away and carry it like a duffel bag.

Uncomplicated travel begins and ends with respecting a country’s laws, and your first encounter with its laws are its immigration and customs officials. You want to get out of the airport without too much hassle, and officials just want to get through their shift without too much drama. Help them out by researching visa requirements and customs rules before you arrive. Score some points right off the bat by taking a little effort with your appearance and your arrival in a new country will be downright breezy.