What are customs?

Customs are a tax and safety administration, in charge of several tasks. This entity is tasked with regulating the circulation of goods coming into and leaving a country, as well as with ensuring the population’s safety. They support the country’s economic activity, and collect any taxes and duties pertaining to the circulation of goods.

Customs have greatly evolved over the years, to meet new and contemporary challenges. Nowadays, the French General Directorate for Customs and Indirect Taxation (DGDDI) is attached to the Ministry for Public Action and Accounts. Its activity is governed by the French national Customs Code. This being said, customs are also subject to international decrees, such as those enacted by the WTO and free-trade agreements. In France, they receive 13% of the State’s budget every year, and contribute to financing the Community budget. Their three main goals are good fluidity, safety and quality in all trade operations.

Specificities of customs

Customs are mainly entrusted with three major tasks: a tax-related task, an economic task and a task consisting of fighting against fraud and illegal trade on an international level. They are involved in the following fields:

  • Fighting against drug trafficking;

  • Fighting against tobacco trafficking;

  • Fighting against arms trafficking;

  • Fighting against counterfeiting and other unfair business practices;

  • Protecting populations against sanitary risks, terrorism and criminal activities;

  • Protecting the environment and the country’s cultural and natural heritage.

Examples and practical applications

Customs protect business by encouraging competitiveness amongst companies, within a legal framework. They strive to improve inter-State business transactions in various ways.

  • Their priority is to ensure compliance with the business and agricultural policy rules instated by the WTO.

  • They encourage international trade by ensuring smoother flows and transactions.

  • They create and publish statistics concerning external trade.

  • They give advice to companies through their economic action hub.

  • They enforce anti-dumping laws, to discourage unfair business practices.

What happens during a customs check?

Customs agents are certified to inspect any person on the national customs’ territory - both on land and out at sea. This includes:

  • Borders and their nearby areas known as the customs radius;

  • Airports, railway stations and ports;

  • Public roads: markets, fairs, outdoor café or restaurant areas, etc.

A customs inspection is always signaled beforehand by a board. Customs officers wear a uniform or “Customs” sleeve, and must declare the following to civilians: “This is a customs inspection.” They are entitled to ask for a vehicle to stop, to ask for an ID and to conduct security pat-downs. Customs officers are authorized to search luggage, vehicle trunks and civilians’ personal effects. They can also read private letters, in compliance with applicable provisions regarding correspondence secrecy.

If the customs office seriously suspects the presence of drugs hidden by a civilian, they can order a medical screening test to be carried out. If the transgressor refuses, they will be exposed to a one-year prison sentence and a fine amounting to 3,750 euros.

Regulatory cornerstones

  • Customs code: consolidated version dated 20 September 2019

  • Law for the fight against counterfeiting dated 29 October 2007