Wednesday, July 24, 2013

People have Customs; Customs are People

Anyone who has traveled internationally has encountered customs officials.

Usually they look stern and impassive and, when we meet up with them, we feel like we're being interrogated (which I suppose we are).  To most of us, they're intimidating.  We look on customs officials as wooden, bureaucratic and cynical - people who can find guilt in the most innocent of people.

However, there IS a human side to customs personnel if you give them a chance to show it.

One of the companies I worked for sold equipment and I regularly carried a demonstration system with me whenever I traveled.

On a couple of occasions, when I was going through US Customs, I was asked to get a document called a carnet, which is basically like a passport for equipment and which demonstrates that the material listed in the carnet is only entering the country for a limited time and would be returning to Canada with me.  The carnet came with a cost (which was not huge), but my boss did not see the need for the carnet because he had had no problems taking equipment across the border himself.

One morning, I was going through US Customs for a week-long trip to the East Coast and was refused entry because I did not have a carnet and it had been documented that I was supposed to get one.  I had never been refused entry to the United States before, so this was a major personal blow, though I did end up driving down and managed to see all the customers I had planned to visit on that trip.

If I thought I had it bad, another person going through about the same time as me was heading to a trade show in New York with a number of hand-tooled saddles.  She had no documents to declare the value of the saddles and was unable to satisfy the customs official that the saddles would not be sold at the trade show and be returned to Canada.  He told her the only way he would allow her to enter the United States was if she used a box cutter to cut into the saddles to make them unsalable.  She obviously wanted the saddles in pristine condition to display at the show.  I don't know how here experience played out - whether she declined to go to the show or if she damaged her merchandise to be able to participate in the show.

My case for getting a carnet was now much stronger, and we got the document.

Using a carnet requires the carnet-holder to clear Customs in his/her home country and then Customs in the destination country, reversing this on the return journey.  Each time Customs takes a fiche or page from the carnet and stamps the document so the other customs officers can verify that procedures have been properly followed.

When flying, the carnet can only be cleared through designated international airports that have a customer office, which restricts where a carnet-holder can depart.  At Laguardia Airport in New York, the US Customs office is about a half mile walk from the terminal in a separate building, but usually Customs is somewhere inside the terminal building.

From a Customs officer's perspective, the carnet is a professional way to handle temporary importing of equipment or tools.  It demonstrates the carnet-holder's openness about declarable items as well as being properly prepared for customs inspection.  And you get more of an opportunity to interact with Customs personnel.

One one trip to the US - just before Thanksgiving - I had a pleasant chat with the customs inspector about holiday preparations and got his recipe for smoking a turkey.

One time I was driving and declared to the primary inspector what I was travelling with.  He asked, "Plasma. As in the 4th state of matter?", which caught me a bit off guard.  It turned out he was a science buff and watched a lot of Discovery Channel.  I asked if he'd like to see the equipment and I could explain to him how it worked.  We spent a pleasant 15 minutes together.  He could show his supervisors he'd done a thorough inspection, he learned something new and I got my equipment across the border so I could make my sales calls.  We both won on this exchange.

On a return journey from the US, the time getting customs documents was taken up by comparing notes on operations the customs officer and I had had.

Coming back into Canada one time, I was standing in line in secondary waiting for my turn and one of the officers called out, "Is that a carnet you have there?" When I confirmed this, I was whisked to an officer who I guess had had a full day of going through passenger's luggage looking for prohibited food, alcohol and tobacco and for her, it was a welcome relief to deal with someone who had things in order.

Customs people have a tough job to do to protect our countries.  They are trained to be wary so they can spot potential smugglers or criminals and often this wariness is what we see when we go through Customs.  But they are still people.  If you treat them with respect, it's possible for the human side to shine through.

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