Australian Border Force: My experience of dealing with customs

With the mass movement of holidaymakers about to begin for summer, this is a missive to those people whom I depend upon to make the exit and entry a smooth one – our airport border protection officers.

Despite new uniforms and hard-line branding as the Australian Border Force, I have to say, that in all the years I've travelled, I've never met a difficult or cantankerous frontline worker at any Australian airport. Testy, maybe, but usually those moods are confined to times when the arrival hall is overcrowded.

Perhaps I've been lucky but I generally find our immigration and customs officers good-humoured, which is not always the experience I have in other countries. I'm an Australian coming in and out of my own country, so I'm aware I'm under less scrutiny than I would be if I entered Argentina, for instance. So I can't speak for the experience of foreign nationals, who can be singled out, certainly at Customs.

I almost always get ushered through Customs quickly, while other nationalities are channelled towards the X-ray machines. I assume this is due to the high likelihood that certain visitors don't understand our quarantine laws, even though they have been informed before arrival, or are apt to try to smuggle in food anyway. 

Our ground-breaking television program, Border Patrol, seems to uncover an inordinate amount of sausages, cheeses and cash. 

I do find that quickly navigating Immigration and Customs quite often depends upon the time of day my plane is departing or arriving. On the past few trips, I've gone through departures at Sydney airport with the speed of lightning. In fact, the lines have been so short both at Immigration and the security check, that on the occasions when I've had an express pass I've withheld handing it over, instead saving it for another, busier, time.

Once upon a time express passes were gold, but the new, automated security gates have sped up the process tremendously, both for arrivals and departures. You're less likely to have to meet an immigration officer at all, unless the gate rejects your photograph. (This happened to me in the early days.) I do sometimes miss my little chats with the immigration officers, though.

The SmartGates are now open to visitors of various nationalities, including Chinese, Japanese, Swedish and French, making the movement of people even speedier.

I often marvel at the patience of the security personnel manning the scanners, who have to keep the lines moving and deal politely with confused, stubborn and plainly clueless people at the same time. The airport process does tend to dazzle you a bit – so many lights, people, different instructions – and travellers are apprehensive and a bit extra-sensitive, so patience from the people controlling the flow is essential.


I often become impatient myself with fellow passengers, who have their liquids scattered willy-nilly throughout their carry-on, wear elaborate outerwear that takes minutes to unbutton, or boots that can't quite be unzipped, and express surprise that they need to take out their laptops or iPads, which means they need to unpack the whole lot on the conveyor belt or floor to extract the devices from the bottom of the case. 

School holidays are often the times when various airport unions choose to strike. Border officials (or the lack of them) often take the full brunt of travellers' frustrations. It's no fun adding an hour or two to an already long trip standing in line waiting for the borders to open and process your passport.

So, every time I travel, I keep my fingers crossed it won't coincide with industrial action, however justified that action might be. I'm travelling before Christmas, so I suppose I'm tempting fate by writing this.

If you really can't hack it and like the idea of whirling through the airport on a buggy or having someone cut in line for you, or you're unable to stand in a queue, there are premium airport meet-and-assist services available for a fee. The service is available worldwide for any passenger on any airline in any class.

Although navigating the airport departure hall looms as an ordeal to be overcome before the real business of travelling begins, I prefer to see it as the gateway to a new adventure, and the arrivals hall a portal to a welcome return home.

Which is why I'm always happy to see our border officials – as long as they're happy to see me.