If you are traveling into the United States by vehicle whether for a vacation, relocating, or any other reason, there is a good chance your vehicle will undergo a customs inspection. This article provides details on what typically happens during a US customs vehicle exam to help travelers understand the procedure and be well prepared.

Purpose of Vehicle Inspections

The main purpose of US customs inspecting vehicles is to enforce laws regarding imports and prevent prohibited or restricted items from entering the country. They are looking to intercept contraband, from undeclared cash to illegal drugs, firearms, or other dangerous/hazardous goods. Agricultural inspectors also check for foreign plant and animal materials that could introduce invasive species or disease.

US Customs Vehicle Inspection – Inspection Process

When crossing the border by car, you will drive up to a customs officer at primary inspection. They will ask basic questions like where you are traveling from, if you have anything to declare, and may visually scan the vehicle from the outside. Most of the time travelers are simply waved through at this stage if nothing looks suspicious.

However, some vehicles get referred for a secondary examination, where customs officers do a more thorough search. You will drive to an inspection area and be asked to open the trunk, hood, and doors so they can rummage through luggage, containers, and inspect compartments and areas of the vehicle. Electronic devices like phones or laptops may also be powered on to check contents.

What to Expect During Secondary Inspection

If selected for secondary inspection, remain calm and be respectful towards the officers. Have documents like your ID, vehicle registration and insurance ready to present. Officers are looking for contraband but also want inbound traffic to move smoothly. The search process usually involves:

  • A canine team circling the exterior of the vehicle with a customs dog trained to detect drugs, currency or agriculture.
  • Inspecting the trunk, engine bay, undercarriage and other compartments both visually and with specialized tools.
  • Scanning electronic devices and media or manually searching files and photos.
  • Questions about travel plans, occupation and purpose for entering the country.

Most secondary exams are completed within 30 minutes, but some complicated cases could take over an hour. Be patient – officers are simply doing their job of border security enforcement.

Reducing Your Inspection Risks

While random selection does play a role, you can take steps to avoid extra scrutiny from customs that may lead to a secondary exam:

  • Declare all goods you are transporting on import forms, especially foods, plants or medicines.
  • Do not bring prohibited goods like illegal drugs, undeclared cash over $10k or unauthorized weapons/ammunition.
  • Ensure your vehicle is clean both inside and out with no foreign debris that could indicate smuggling.
  • Be honest, polite and cooperate fully with primary inspection questions to avoid raising suspicion.

Knowing the inspection process and reducing unnecessary risks can help inbound travelers pass through US customs smoothly and get on their way more quickly.

US Customs Vehicle Inspection – Other Tips When Going Through Customs

Here are a few additional tips that may be helpful when crossing the border by vehicle:

  • Prepare any import paperwork, travel documents and information about your trip ahead of time.
  • Remove valuables from plain view and lock away if selected for secondary to avoid theft chances.
  • Travel during off-peak hours as volume is lower and wait times may be reduced.
  • Install a car phone mount and charger for ease of use if officers need to look through your device contents.
  • Bring snacks, books or entertainment for potential longer delays due to thorough searches or system issues.

Following this guidance should optimize smooth passage for legal travelers going through the US customs vehicle process. But remember, final admissibility is at the officer’s discretion based on applicable import laws and security protocols.