Passports. Most travel between nations requires a passport, which is an internationally recognized travel document that verifies your identity and nationality. In the U.S., it is issued by the U.S. Department of State (http://travel.state.gov) and costs $60 with up to six weeks to obtain. (For other countries, check your diplomatic service office.) To avoid last minute delays, apply for or renew passports well in advance of your trip.
Visas. Some countries require a visa to enter their borders. They are required in most nations, if you plan to stay longer than three months. They also may be required to leave - if you don't have your entry visa, you don't leave the country (at least, not without a lot of legal hassle).
Visas are official endorsements made on your passport in advance of your visit by the embassy or consulate of the host country, or slips of paper issued by the immigration officials upon entry at the border. They give tighter control over foreigners, showing that your documents have been examined and found to be correct. To obtain a visa, you must state specifically why you are visiting and the time period you plan to be there.
Proof of Return. When attempting to enter a nation, you may be required to prove that you will be leaving at specific point in time. Whether you plan to return to your homeland or continue your trip elsewhere, your travel ticket is generally sufficient proof - but don't assume ... ask.
Pets. Another concern is traveling with a pet. The best solution is to leave the animal at home; however, more and more people are taking pets along on extended trips. Check rules governing animals early. Some requirements may include quarantine of the pet to ensure it is free of disease.
The Documents. Documents may be checked at both entry and exit of a country. Carefully check the document requirements with the embassy or consulate of each country you plan to visit, as well as the diplomatic service office of your own domicile.
In 1995, I traveled to the Yucatan in Mexico. For a U.S. citizen at the time, I only had to provide a photo driver's license and birth certificate to enter the country. My birth certificate was only a "certificate-looking paper" with few details. Though it had always fulfilled citizenship requirements within the U.S. and my travel agent thought it would be okay to use, I decided to obtain an "official" birth certificate from my county and state of birth. Good thing I did. At the entry booths to Mexico, many people were turned away and not allowed to enter the country. They had unofficial certificates similar to what my parents were given at my birth. Their only option was to return home.
You must ensure you have all of the correct and required documents. Never assume or guess at what will be required of you. Do not depend upon travel agencies and never assume countries within a same region have the same laws. Since 9/11 and the increase in terrorism, entry laws change frequently. So, check them when you begin your plans, periodically during the planning stages, and right before you leave.
Just as important as immigration laws are the regulations governing goods. Immediately after you pass through the booth of entry to a nation (whether host or homeland), you must go through customs. Custom officials have two roles - look for contraband and collect duty on goods.
Contraband. Contraband is any item that is within your possession that cannot be legally brought into a country. It's important to note that by the time you reach customs, you are now on foreign soil and subject to foreign laws, such that may not exist in your homeland. You are at the mercy of a foreign nation and must abide by their rules.
Many countries have strict laws governing the transportation of drugs, alcohol, tobacco and agricultural products. For most contraband, the items are confiscated and you won't get them back. (Even prescription drugs should be carried only in their pharmacy containers with the prescription label attached and in your name.)
For other illegal goods, you may experience especially harsh laws and punishments, including imprisonment without recourse. If you should get into trouble, you will not be granted special privileges, regardless of whom you are. Your one hope is to contact your homeland's consulate for assistance. However, be aware that they:
Only give assistance if they believe your rights have been violated under the host nation's laws,
Provide no legal assistance, and
Will not find you legal counsel.
They may, however, contact for you a family member, friend or associate, who should retain an attorney, who practices international law, in your homeland. This attorney can do a better job in retaining appropriate and good counsel for you in the host country in which you are imprisoned.
Custom Duties. Duties are tariffs/taxes levied on particular goods. It may be cheaper to purchase these items after entering the host country, rather than pay the duties. Know the laws ahead. Think about your purchases while traveling and the duties they will incur, especially when touring several countries. Don't argue or act offended when you are asked to pay duties, and especially don't offer a bribe of any type to an official - the consequences (even if you're joking) could be dire.
Shipping Goods. You may wish to ship goods, especially if you purchase a lot of souvenirs during your travels. You pay duties only once, if you ship your purchases home before leaving each nation you visit. Otherwise, you could be liable for duties on some goods each time your enter another country.
For such shipments, you may wish to use a customs broker in the nation that will receive the goods (generally, your homeland). A broker will advise you on how to comply with the country's requirements. They handle all the paperwork for the shipment(s) and, if needed, deal directly with the customs officials for you. Brokers know their jobs and save you a lot of headaches. Retain their services well in advance.
Money. A foreign country may limit the amount of currency that you may bring in from your homeland. The embassy or consulate of the host country may assist you with this concern.
You also may be limited in the amount of currency from the host nation that you may retain upon your departure, and be alert to the ploys to encourage you to spend your money there.
During my trip to Mexico, I found that almost any establishment (including my hotel) exchanged my U.S. dollars for Mexican currency. Only specific, official, hard-to-find exchanges, however, would trade the currency back to dollars. So, exchange your money in small amounts ... only what you need each time. Too much left over and you may be forced to spend it before leaving or lose it at the border.
Before You Travel. When checking embassies and consulates for entry requirements, ask about their custom laws, what is contraband, upon what they levy duties, and how much the duties are. Don't let customs regulations ruin your trip or even your life. Check the laws before you travel.
It doesn't matter where or how you plan to travel outside your homeland, knowing the immigration and customs laws that will govern you during your trip is essential. Ensure your trip is as pleasant and stress free as possible. Know what documents you will need and which goods are subject to their laws before you enter a host country and return to your own. Plan ahead to enjoy your trip.