Going through Customs with a photo bag


When you’re traveling far in order to satisfy your complementary needs for exoticism and photography, you will have to go through the Customs and/or boarding controls of the airplane. A few things would be good to keep in mind in order to ensure this is a better experience. Here are mine:

  • Pack everything really fragile in your cabin luggage, but only that: Your lenses are fragile, but your tripod is not.
  • Make sure that all cameras have charged batteries (if you are requested to prove their correct operation).
  • If you still use film, ask for a manual screening to avoid burning them through the X-ray machine.
  • Have all invoices in a pocket (not in the bag in order to limit the consequences of always possible robbery). Customs may want a proof of purchase/cost/taxes and this could avoid your re-paying of heavy customs taxes.
  • Avoid adding a couple of under-the-counter Flash cards from a tax-free country, that may attract the attention of the Customs officer and make them suspicious. You’ll buy cheap during another trip wiht less sensitive hardware…
  • When you are checking-in, politely ask if you can keep the bag as cabin luggage (always ask first, always smile and be polite). You should make it look like a small bag even if it is big and heavy (stand up, shoulders high, bag hung on 1 shoulder only, as if it was empty). If accepted, you win.
  • If not, politely inform the person that the bag contains expensive equipment. In the extreme, you should be ready to ask for insurance to cover the cost of your photo equipment (this last step is often enough to bring a closure to a possible confrontation).
  • In some countries or on some short flights, it may be possible (or necessary if the plane is real small) to purchase an empty seat for a few bags (share with fellow photographers).
  • Be sure that whatever weight, your photo bag stays within the size limits (115 cm adding all sides), it is easier to solve things this way.
  • Never fly with companies that enforce brutally the cabin luggage weight limit. The list may be changing in time, but two companies actually stand out: British Airways seems to be the nightmare of heavy luggage (no more than 5 kg even with a pro Id card and pre-organized pro-check-in; I know a couple of pros who will take a longer flight just to avoid them) and RyanAir (and many low cost companies) finds all possible ways to make you pay taxes on top of your ticket cost. In any case, check in advance with the company (or your travel agent if they are used to photo trips and photo customers).
  • Always be polite. Remember that the person in front of you has to power to ruin your photo trip.

With this it is easier to travel and shoot photos. Do you have some other tip to share?