What you need to know about going through international travel customs with kids

To some parents, the thought of navigating immigrations and customs with kids is intimidating. For some, the first experience in customs will be during a trip to Mexico, or Canada. For all of us, it can be tiring, especially after a long travel day (or night). But by knowing what to expect (and having the forms and documents you need) going through travel customs with kids can be a breeze. Here’s what you need to know:


1. Finding customs will be easy.

To frequent travelers, this may be obvious, but I’ve been asked by several parents how they’ll know where customs is. The answer: you can’t miss it. Airport security won’t let you. Once you deplane, the only way to go will be through immigrations and customs (through an international arrivals terminal). On the way, don’t delay, if you can help it. There are usually restrooms just before you enter the customs line, but if everyone’s good to go, it’s best to keep moving to avoid a long line.

2. You’ll go through Passport Control/Immigration first.

Get in the line that applies to you (foreign citizen or American citizen, depending on where you are and who you are). Have your customs declaration form ready (one per family, given to you on the plane), plus everyone’s passports. Keep your cell phone off, and pay attention to when it’s your turn. Keep all carry-on luggage with you (just as you would elsewhere in the airport).

When it’s your turn, hand the immigration agent all the passports and the customs declaration form, and be ready to answer some basic questions, such as why you’re in the country, how long you’ll be there, and where you’re staying. The agent may ask questions of your children, as well. He or she will give you the customs declaration form back.

3. Head next to pick up your bags (if you have any).

Again, you won’t be able to miss this step. On the other side of immigration, the baggage carousels will be waiting. Get your bags before heading to customs. If your bag is delayed (bummer!) be sure to have your baggage claim form handy. You will have to pick up your bags whether or not you’re in your final destination. If you’re connecting to another flight, get the bags, go through customs (explained below), then follow signs to ‘connecting flights’ or ‘luggage drop off’.

4. Go through customs.

Get in the proper line (do have something to declare, do not) and turn in your customs declaration form. Declare everything you might have bought in the country, including duty-free items. Our souvenirs never add up to much, and we’re always waved through without much fanfare.

5. Head out and connect with your next flight or ground transportation!

That wasn’t so bad, was it?

If you’re traveling without your children’s other parent:

Learn from my mistakes, because this is where we’ve hit a snag. If you share custody of your children (either in a custody arrangement or as married parents), but you’re traveling without the other parents, you MUST have a signed letter stating that you have permission to take your children out of the country. If possible, get it notarized. We were delayed and ‘interrogated’ (using that term loosely) when I neglected to have a letter from my spouse on a recent trip to Canada.

If your teen is traveling alone:

In addition to his or her passport and customs declaration form, any teen traveling without a parent or guardian should also have a notarized letter from both parents (if both have custody) explaining his or her purpose in the country. He or she should also have a document with the names, addressees, and phone numbers of whomever he or she is meeting in the country. We also send our son with a photocopy of his passport, carried in a different bag on his person.

Will your child be flying as an unaccompanied minor? Read our tips for kids flying solo.

Photo credit: J Aaron Farr