Customs inspectors examine baggage, cargo, items worn or carried by travelers, and aircraft, ships and vehicles entering the United States to enforce customs laws. They seize undeclared merchandise and contraband, as well as any airplanes, boats and vehicles containing such items. Their goal is to prevent terrorist weapons, narcotics and other illegal or dangerous materials from entering the country. For goods that are permitted to enter the country, customs inspectors assess the duties and taxes that must be paid on imported merchandise.
Other duties of customs inspectors include documenting and reporting relevant findings, activities, transactions, discrepancies and violations. They explain applicable laws and regulations to travelers, manufacturers and shippers, and question individuals about suspicious activity. They may also assist with criminal and civil prosecutions and work with other law enforcement agencies in dealing with violators of customs laws.
Customs Inspectors Job Summary
- Customs inspectors are U.S. federal law enforcement officers who wear a uniform and carry a firearm.
- Most customs inspectors work at international airports and seaports throughout the U.S.
- They use traditional search methods, including K-9 teams, as well as modern technology.
Work Environment for Customs Inspectors
Most customs inspectors work in international airports or seaports, where they perform physical checks of people and goods entering the country. They may use a K-9 unit to search for drugs or contraband. Those inspecting ships or aircraft may be required to work outside for long periods of time, and may have to deal with heat or inclement weather.
The job of customs inspectors can be stressful because the officer must deal with individuals who attempt to bring prohibited or dangerous materials into the U.S. In addition, there are some hazards to this job because of the possibility for confrontation with criminals.
Education, Training and Licensing
Most jobs with federal agencies require a bachelor’s degree, relevant work experience or a combination of both. Those interested in pursuing a career as a customs inspector could benefit from earning a law enforcement associate's degreeor a bachelors in criminal justice, police science or a related field.
Very good communication skills are necessary to work with a wide variety of people entering the country, and it is helpful for customs inspectors to know one or more foreign languages since visitors to the U.S. come from many different countries. Strong customer service and interpersonal skills are also beneficial.
Customs inspectors should have very good computer skills, since software is used to log transactions and help identify individuals who are listed in various databases. They often have to enter data and process information, and some may be required to program software and set up functions. Excellent logic and reasoning skills are also needed to make quick decisions and assess alternative solutions to potential problems.
Customs Inspectors Job Projections, Outlook and Earnings
According to research published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), detectives and criminal investigators – a group that includes customs inspectors – held about 112,000 jobs in 2008. Most customs inspector positions were at international airports and seaports located throughout the U.S.
The BLS predicts that employment in this field will grow between 14% and 19% from 2008 to 2018, which is faster than the average for all occupations.
National salary data on Salary.com shows that the median annual wage for customs officers was $33,620 as of November 2009. The middle 50% of professionals in this field earned between $30,456 and $42, 456.