Stopped and searched at customs?

In Privacy on July 25, 2006 at 1:01 pm

Each year, around 40,000 people are stopped and searched by UK customs officials. A search may take many forms, from a simple pocket search to an intimate body search, or just an examination of the contents of your suitcase.

Of course, such searches are a matter of proceedure for these officials in order to protect our borders and prevent illegal goods from entering the country. However, this doesn’t stop most people feeling distressed or humiliated in this situation, and wonder why they have been targeted. In this post, I will outline the reasons and proceedures for searches at customs, and explain your right when faced with such a situation.

Why might you be searched?

A customs officer may decide to search you if they have reasonable suspicion that you may be carrying an item (or items) which are liable to customs or excise duty in excess of the duty free allowance, or goods which are prohibited/restricted from import/export, such as illegal substances or pornography.

The customs officer does not have to be certain that you are carrying illegal goods to request a search, but they must have some strong basis for suspicion which directly relates to you. Your appearance, ethnic origin, the country you are travelling from, etc do not in themselves amount to reasonable suspicion. But combined with other factors, such as suspicious behaviour, unexplained journeys abroad or an unreasonable amount of luggage, the suspicion may be formed.

If you are stopped and asked to be searched, this does not mean that you are under arrest. The customs officer should tell you if you are under arrest. You can refuse to be searched, and the officer may let you go, but they would be within their rights to arrest you, and could also charge you with obstructing or impeding a customs officer.

You should only be detained for a reasonable length of time, which is usually however long it takes for the search to be carried out.

Search proceedures

You will usually be taken to a private area for the search to be carried out. If the officer wants to search your luggage, you will be asked to open it for them to inspect the contents and will probably be asked questions about the contents. A pocket search requires you to remove all items from your pockets. A ‘rub-down’ search will entail a customs officer frisking you whilst in your clothing for any concealed objects. You could also be asked to remove your outer clothing to be searched.

A strip search is a visual search of your body. If asked to do this, you will be accompanied by two customs officers of the same sex and asked to remove all clothing from your body. You should be offered a blanket to allow you some discretion, or you may request that your top and bottom halves be searched individually so that you are never completely naked. If these options are not offered, you should ask for them.

An intimate search should be conducted by a doctor or nurse of the same sex and would involve an inspection of your nasal cavities, ears, mouth, genital areas and anus. No person of the opposite sex who is not a doctor or nurse should be present, nor should there be anyone present who need not be there. A person who is disabled, mentally handicapped or a juvenile should be searched in the presence of an appropriate adult. An intimate search can only be conducted if an officer with at least the rank of a senior executive officer has authorised it. You can refuse to be intimately searched, though this would risk you being arrested, especially if the search has been authorised by a magistrate. If you do not consent to this search, it is not likely that the doctor or nurse will consent to the search.

What should you be told

The customs officer must tell you what you are suspected of. For example: “I have reason to believe that you are carrying restricted goods”. You should ask why you are suspected of this, though the officer does not have to tell you.

You should be informed that you have the right to go before a senior customs official if you do not agree with the search. Also, if you are asked to be strip searched, you should be informed that you have th right to go before a magistrate or senior customs officer who will decide if the search should take place. You should only expect to wait a reasonable amount of time for a senior customs officer or magistrate. If you are informed that there will be an unreasonable delay, you would be within your rights to leave before the search, providing that you inform the ustoms officer that this is the reason you are leaving, otherwise you could be arrested.

What happens if you are arrested

If you are arrested, the customs officer will have the same rights to search you as described above, and you also have the same rights to go before a senior officer or magistrate if you disagree with the search. You will only be arrested if the customs officer believes you are commiting, or have committed an offence, and you should be told why you are being arrested.

You have the right to inform someone of your arrest, and to private consultation with a solicitor.

You may be arrested so that you can be searched, or for up to 24 hours. This increases to 36 hours if you are arrested for an offence, and up to 96 hours with the approval of a magistrate.


If you feel that you have been unreasonably subjected to a body search, or have been treated unreasonably by customs officers, you should complain in writing to the Collector, the person in overall charge of the airport or port at which you have been searched. You may also like to complain to your local MP.

Some advice for travellers

  • Of course, it is always best not to attempt to bring anything illegal, or avoid paying duty on anything you are bringing in/taking out of the country!
  • Suitcases and luggage is routinely scanned at airports, sotry not to pack any items which may look suspicious through an x-ray scan, or any organic products which may lead to your being searched at customs.
  • Lighting a cigarette while waiting for your luggage may indicate to customs officials that you may have more than your quota of tobacco products!
  • It is best to co-operate with customs officials, as it may put you under further suspicion and inconvenience if you do not.
  • Further sources

    1. I think that traveling with something that is not an okay object to have at an airport is just saying HEY arrest me, or hey search me. After everything that has happened with Osma bin Laden now adays, people still will try stupid things. If you want to kill yourself, feel free but dont bring anything on an airplane to kill other people. If you havent heard already, they are installing a new thing called a backscatter into airports. It is an X-ray machine that sees through your clothes to produce striking, near-nude images of the body. The goal is to locate anything a terroist or criminal might hide there. They already have this WONDERFUL device at the Phoenix airports and will soon be heading to New York and LA. Some people are against this, but its not like anyone is seeing you nude but the machine. I think its a great idea and I will feel a little more comfortable flying. If you dont like this idea, well dont blame the TSA, Blame Osama bin Laden. We lost our innocence when the planes hit the twin towers. Now we’re losing our modesty.!

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