What is Customs?

Probably the oldest administration in the world, Customs are responsible for ensuring that everything that crosses the border complies with all the laws of the land. There is thus a distinction between the function (compliance) and the institution (the administration that discharges on that mission). Also, while the main compliance is fiscal (payment of duties), there are other obligations (abiding with different laws, and regulations, such as standards, prohibition, phytosanitary requirements, immigration regulations, etc.). This is the reason why over the years, other specialised agencies have joined Customs in the control of goods, with the risk of duplication of checks.

Another aspect is the placement of Customs within the administration: Customs may be standalone, placed under the ministry of finance (the majority of cases), merged with the tax administration under a concept of autonomous revenue agencies, or possibly merged with immigration authorities. There have even been in the past hints of eliminating Customs altogether, in the (proved wrong) belief that the generalisation of VAT would make border control obsolete, as discrepancies in values would be self-adjusted in subsequent transaction steps.

An important feature is that, in all cases, the goods act as the collateral for the payment of duties and taxes, and can only be released when all obligations regarding compliance are either satisfactorily discharged, or guaranteed.

Also, Customs are at the cross-roads between different missions of enforcement, protection of the land and society, fiscal compliance and revenue collection, gathering of foreign trade statistics, cooperation across borders (as Customs systems are usually very similar all over the world, and use international tools to describe and assess the goods), in the process of which they are normally guided by overarching principles of standardisation and trade facilitation.