Reader Mail : What Is The Difference Between Customs & Immigrations At The Airport?

This week’s Reader Mail comes from Molly in Ireland who asks “Immigrations and customs seem to be used interchangeably at the airport. I’ve notice when entering many countries they wear the same uniform. Is there a difference?”

Well Molly … While many nations have merged Immigrations and Customs into one larger agency, such as US Department of Homeland Security and Canada’s Border Services Agency, their roles are quite different at the airport.

In short, here are the roles of the Customs and Immigrations …

The Customs Service’s role is to control items from entering a nation.  Customs often is involved with seeking out contraband items, such as drugs, counterfeit money, however Customs also plays a very important role in collecting taxes on taxable items entering a country. While you see Customs in the airport, Customs agents play a larger role in a nation’s seaports and dealing with matters of a nation’s commerce.

Immigrations is responsible for ensuring people entering a nation due so legally. Immigrations officers check passports, visa, and other documentation. Their job is to verify people are who they say they are, questions those who may have unusual travel habits based on their passport or have questionable documents and stop those who may be flagged in a system for secondary questioning. Immigrations is also responsible for deporting those who may not meet entry requirements into a nation.

I hope this clears up the difference between Customs and Immigrations.

Below are two photos I’ve shot depicting the different roles the agencies play. The first is of US Customs inspecting a woman’s bag who entered the country with counterfeit currency at New York’s JFK International Airport, the second photo is of passengers at the Passport Check at South Korea’s Incheon International Airport.

Happy Flying!


  1. Oliver,

    The photos shot of US Customs at JFK were done so with access granted by the Department of Homeland Security while photographing a story pertaining to US border security at gateway airports.

    Happy Flying!


  2. Oliver, that was totally my first reaction! I tend to travel with my SLR hanging around my neck as a way to avoid it counting against my luggage allowance, and I’m frequently warned by agents in the baggage pickup area NOT to use it.

  3. Helen,

    There are ways to shoot photos in the ‘No Photo Zone’ in airports, however its hard to shoot agents questioning a woman about the contents of her bag with a white Canon 70-200f2.8L without being noticed … and that was not the case, I was granted access during a multi-day assignment at JFK Airport documenting Immigrations & Customs.

    Happy Flying!


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