Do You Need to Go Through Customs When Leaving the U.S.?

Updated on January 7, 2024

At a Glance

  • Customs control regulates the entry of items into a country, and passengers typically go through customs when entering a country.
  • When flying to the United States, all travelers must clear customs upon arrival, involving a declaration form, passport control, and baggage and customs checks.
  • Within the Schengen Zone, there are generally no immigration or customs procedures when traveling within the zone, except when leaving the airport.
  • If a flight is delayed or canceled, passengers may need to go through customs and immigration if they leave the international terminal.

Traveling to new countries can be a confusing process. There are important documents and procedures that you have to understand. One of these procedures is customs inspection. It is important to know do you go through customs when leaving the U.S.

When Passengers Need to Go Through Customs

Customs is the process of controlling what food, plants, and other materials can enter a country. You can think of it as immigration control for objects. The key to knowing do you go through customs when leaving the U.S. is to understand when passengers need to go through customs. Generally, you only go through customs when entering a country, not when you leave. A few scenarios are outlined below.

When Flying To The United States

Everyone traveling to the United States must go through customs clearance. A federal agency called Customs and Border Control (CBP) is responsible for customs inspection at U.S. ports of entry (airports, borders, etc). In the U.S., the immigration and customs procedures are not separate like in other countries.

If you are flying to the U.S. from most airports in the world, you will need to go through customs when you arrive at the U.S. airport. This is true even if you are connecting to a U.S. domestic flight.

However, two airports in Ireland offer customs pre-clearance for travelers heading to the U.S. If you depart from Dublin or Shannon on a flight to a U.S. airport you will go through the U.S. customs procedure before you board the flight.

The customs clearance process takes more time than the normal boarding procedure. If you are departing from a pre-clearance airport, you should arrive at the airport earlier than usual to ensure you do not miss your flight.

When Flying Within Europe

Many European countries are part of an economic and political union called the Schengen Zone. Within the Schengen zone, the borders between these countries are soft. At a soft border, there is no physical or legal barrier preventing the free movement of people between one nation’s territory and its neighbor.

That means that when you are traveling within the Schengen zone, there are no immigration or customs procedures, even when crossing national borders. You only undergo these procedures when you enter the zone.

If you have a connecting flight inside a Schengen zone country from a country outside the zone (e.g. the U.S.), you only need to go through customs if you leave the airport. 

When a Flight is Delayed or Canceled

In Schengen zone countries (and most others), if you are in transit and have an international connection, you do not have to go through customs or immigration. As long as you remain in the international terminal you just have to wait for your connecting flight to a different country.

If you miss your international connection, you may be able to wait in the international terminal until you can board another flight. However, you may have to leave the terminal to find accommodation until you can get on another flight. 

To leave the terminal, you must pass through immigration and clear customs. This may not always be possible if you do not have the correct visa or a visa exemption.

How to Go Through U.S. Customs

If you know that you must go through U.S. customs clearance, it is useful to know what to expect. The U.S. customs procedure is explained below.

Filling out a Customs Form

Most international passengers at an airport in the United States need to fill out and submit a customs declaration form to complete the customs clearance procedure. The time it takes to clear customs depends on several factors and could vary from a few minutes to hours. 

If you have goods to declare, it usually takes longer to clear customs than if you only have normal luggage. 

The time it takes to clear U.S. customs also varies depending on the airport, and how many passengers there are. The time to clear customs may increase a lot during the holidays when many people are traveling.

One way to speed up the procedure for yourself is to make sure your declaration form is filled in before you arrive. You can print out the form yourself from the CBP website. On some flights, flight attendants from the airline hand out these forms for passengers to fill in before they disembark. You can take a look here for guidance on how to fill out U.S. customs forms.

It is also helpful to have a pen when traveling, just in case there are not enough to go around and you have forms to fill in.

The customs declaration form can seem quite complicated and intimidating. However, all you have to do is follow the instructions and answer the questions honestly. The form will explain what kind of goods you must declare and if you have to pay any customs duties.

Going Through Passport Control

In the United States, the customs clearance procedure is integrated with the immigration process, also known as passport control. The absolute minimum you need to clear immigration is a valid (not expired) passport. 

For citizens of most countries, you also need a valid U.S. visa in your passport. Different types of visas allow you to stay for different lengths of time in the country. 

Whether you are a U.S. citizen or not, you need to go through both customs and immigration control. You may not need to fill in a customs declaration form. 

When going through passport control, there are different lines depending on the country that issued your passport. If you are a dual citizen, make sure to join the line for the passport you are currently using. 

At passport control, the immigration officer will ask you a few simple questions about yourself and your trip to the United States. For example, they may ask:

  • Why you’re visiting the United States 
  • How long you are planning to stay
  • If you have ever been in the country before
  • If you are traveling alone or with others.

Depending on the visa you have, the immigration officer may also give you an I-94 Admissions form to fill in. Finally, you may be required to have your fingerprints scanned and have your photograph taken to verify your identity.

The customs part of the procedure takes place after immigration. You go through immigration first, then collect your checked-in bags and go through customs.

Passing Through Baggage and Customs

When clearing customs with your luggage, you will join a specific line depending on whether you do or don’t have goods to declare. A customs agent will ask you a few simple questions. 

Here are some examples of the kinds of questions they will ask you:

  • What you’ve brought with you to the United States
  • What countries you have visited recently 
  • If everything in the bag belongs to you 
  • Whether you packed your bag yourself.

You should answer the questions promptly and honestly to make sure the process is quick and smooth. You don’t need to explain every detail. The officer will ask for details if required. 

You may be selected for a more thorough search based on the answers to the questions, or at random. It is usually best to cooperate and be polite to the customs officers as they go about their work.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Do travelers need to go through customs when leaving the U.S.?

No, travelers do not typically go through customs when leaving the U.S. Customs inspections are primarily for incoming passengers. However, you will go through airport security and may be subject to checks by TSA (Transportation Security Administration).

Is there an exit immigration check when leaving the U.S.?

The U.S. does not have exit immigration checks for departing passengers. Your departure is recorded electronically, based on the travel documents used to board your flight.

What kind of checks can travelers expect when leaving the U.S.?

Travelers can expect security screening by the TSA, which includes scanning of carry-on items, personal screening, and possibly questioning about your travel.

Do I need to declare anything when leaving the U.S.?

While there are no customs declarations when leaving the U.S., it’s important to declare currency over $10,000 or more to customs officials before departure.

What should travelers have ready when departing from a U.S. airport?

Travelers should have their passport, boarding pass, and any required visas for their destination country ready when departing from a U.S. airport.

How does the U.S. track departures of international visitors?

The U.S. tracks the departures of international visitors electronically through passenger manifests provided by airlines and other carriers.

What happens if I overstay my visa and then leave the U.S.?

If you overstay your visa and then leave the U.S., you may face difficulties re-entering the U.S. in the future. The length of your overstay can impact the penalties and future visa applications.

Are there any specific procedures for non-U.S. citizens leaving the country?

Non-U.S. citizens follow the same departure procedures as U.S. citizens, including airport security checks. They do not need to go through separate customs or immigration checks when leaving the U.S.

Should I keep track of my departure from the U.S.?

It’s a good idea to keep track of your departure date from the U.S., especially if you are a non-U.S. citizen, to ensure that your travel records accurately reflect your compliance with visa terms.

What should I do if I have items to declare upon departure?

If you have items that need to be declared (like large amounts of currency), inform a TSA or airline representative who can direct you to the appropriate customs official.

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Final Thoughts

If you are wondering “do you go through customs when leaving the U.S.”, the answer is no. All countries have customs inspection procedures at borders and international airports. However, only passengers entering a country are subject to customs inspection. If you are leaving the U.S. you do not need to go through U.S. customs, but you might still have to go through customs in the country you are traveling to.

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Frank Gogol

I’m a firm believer that information is the key to financial freedom. On the Stilt Blog, I write about the complex topics — like finance, immigration, and technology — to help immigrants make the most of their lives in the U.S. Our content and brand have been featured in Forbes, TechCrunch, VentureBeat, and more.