Customs Officials Jobs / Careers


School Subjects:

  • English
  • Govt.

Personal Skills:

  • Communication/ideas
  • Helping/teaching

Work Environment:

  • Primarily indoors
  • Primarily one location

Min. Education Level:

  • High school diploma

Salary / Range:

  • $22,588 to $35,195 to $49,235

Certification or Licensing:

  • None available


  • Faster than the average


Customs officials are federal workers who are employed by the United States Customs Service (an arm of the Treasury Department) to enforce laws governing imports and exports and to combat smuggling and revenue fraud. The U.S. Customs Service generates revenue for the government by assessing and collecting duties and excise taxes on imported merchandise. Amid a whirl of international travel and commercial activity, customs officials process travelers, baggage, cargo, and mail, as well as administer certain navigation laws. Stationed in the United States and overseas at airports, seaports, and all crossings, as well as at points along the Canadian and Mexican borders, customs officials examine, count, weigh, gauge, measure, and sample commercial and noncommercial cargoes entering and leaving the United States. It is their job to determine whether or not goods are admissible and, if so, how much tax, or duty should be assessed on them. To prevent smuggling, fraud, and cargo theft, customs officials also check the individual baggage declarations of international travelers and oversee the unloading of all types of commercial shipments.


Countries collect taxes on imports and sometimes on exports as a means of producing revenue for the government. Export duties were first introduced in England in the year 1275 by a statute that levied taxes on animal hides and on wool. American colonists in the 1 700s objected to the import duties England forced them to pay (levied under the Townshend Acts), charging “taxation without representation.” Although the British government rescinded the Townshend Acts, it retained the tax on tea, which led to the Boston Tea Party on December 16, 1773.

After the American Revolution, delegates at the Constitutional Convention decided that “no tax or duty shall be laid on articles exported from any state,” but they approved taxing imports from abroad. The customs service was established by the First Congress in 1789 as part of the Treasury Department. Until 1816 these customs assessments were used primarily for revenue. The Tariff Act of 1816 declared, however, that the main function of customs laws was to protect American industry from foreign companies. By 1927 the customs service was established as a separate bureau within the Treasury Department. Today, the U.S. Customs Service oversees more than 400 laws and regulations, including those from 40 different government agencies, generating more government money than any other federal agency besides the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

The Job

Like shrewd detectives, customs officials enforce U.S. Customs Service laws by controlling imports and exports and by combating smuggling and revenue frauds. They make sure that people, ships, planes, and trains—any thing used to import or export cargo—comply with all entrance and clearance requirements at borders and ports.

Customs inspectors carefully and thoroughly examine cargo to make sure that it matches the description on a ship’s or aircraft’s manifest. They inspect baggage and personal items worn or carried by travelers entering or leaving the United States by ship, plane, or automobile. Inspectors are authorized to go aboard a ship or plane to determine the exact nature of the cargo being transported. In the course of a single day they review cargo manifests, inspect cargo containers, and supervise unloading activities to prevent smuggling, fraud, or cargo thefts. They may have to weigh and measure imports to see that commerce laws are being followed and to protect American distributors in cases where restricted trademarked merchandise is being brought into the country. In this way, they can protect the Interests of American companies.

Customs inspectors examine crew and passenger lists, sometimes in cooperation with the police, who may be searching for criminals. They are authorized to search suspicious individuals and to arrest them if necessary. They are also allowed to conduct body searches of suspected individuals to check for contraband. They check health clearances and ship’s documents in an effort to prevent the spread of disease that may require quarantine.

Individual baggage declarations of international travelers also come under their scrutiny Inspectors who have baggage examination duty at points of entry into the United States classify purchases made abroad and, if necessary assess and collect duties. All international travelers are allowed to bring home certain quantities of foreign purchases, such as perfume, clothing, tobacco, and liquor, without paying taxes. However, they must declare the amount and value of their purchases on a customs form. If they have made purchases above the duty-free limits, they must pay taxes. Customs inspectors are prepared to advise tourists about U.S. Customs regulations and allow them to change their customs declarations if necessary and pay the duty before baggage inspection, Inspectors must be alert and observant to detect undeclared items. If any are discovered, it is up to the inspector to decide whether an oversight or deliberate fraud has occurred. Sometimes the contraband is held and a U.S. Customs hearing is scheduled to decide the case. A person who is caught trying to avoid paying duty is fined. When customs violations occur, inspectors must file detailed reports and often later appear as witnesses in court.

Customs officials often work with other government agents and are sometimes required to be armed. They cooperate with special agents for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and public health officials and agricultural quarantine inspectors.

Business magnates, ships’ captains, and importers are among those with whom customs inspectors have daily contact as they review manifests, examine cargo, and control shipments transferred under bond to ports through out the United States.

Some of the specialized fields for customs officials are as follows:

Customs patrol officers conduct surveillance at points of entry into the United States to prohibit smuggling and detect customs violations. They try to catch people illegally transporting smuggled merchandise and contraband such as narcotics, watches, jewelry, and weapons, as well as fruits, plants, and meat that may be infested with pests or diseases. Armed and equipped with two-way communication devices, they function much like police officers. On the waterfront, customs patrol officers monitor piers, ships, and crew members and are constantly on the lookout for Items being thrown from the ship to small boats nearby, Customs patrol officers provide security at entrance and exit facilities of piers and airports, make sure all baggage is checked, and maintain security at loading, exit, and entrance areas of customs buildings and during the transfer of legal drug shipments to prevent hijackings or theft.

Using informers and other sources, they gather intelligence information about illegal activities. When probable cause exists, they are authorized to take possible violators into custody, using physical force or weapons if necessary They assist other customs personnel in developing or testing new enforcement techniques and equipment.

Customs pilots, who must have a current Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) commercial pilot’s license, conduct air surveillance of illegal traffic crossing U.S. borders by air, land, or sea. They apprehend, arrest, and search violators and prepare reports used to prosecute the criminals. They are stationed along the Canadian and Mexican borders as well as along coastal areas, flying single- and multiengine planes and helicopters.

Canine enforcement officers train and use dogs to prevent smuggling of all controlled substances as defined by customs laws. These controlled sub stances include marijuana, narcotics, and dangerous drugs. After undergoing an intensive 15-week basic training course in the Detector Dog Training Center, where each officer is paired with a dog and assigned to a post, canine enforcement officers work in cooperation with customs inspectors, customs patrol officers, and special agents to find and seize contraband and arrest smugglers. Currently most canine enforcement officers are used at entry points along the border with Mexico.

Import specialists become technical experts in a particular line of merchandise, such as wine or electronic equipment. They keep up-to-date on their area of specialization by going to trade shows and importers’ places of business. Merchandise for delivery to commercial importers is examined, classified, and appraised by these specialists, who must enforce import quotas and trademark laws. They use import quotas and current market values to determine the unit value of the merchandise in order to calculate the amount of money due the government in tariffs. Import specialists routinely question importers, check their lists, and make sure the merchandise matches the description and the list. If they find a violation, they call for a formal inquiry by customs special agents. Import specialists regularly deal with problems of fraud and violations of copyright and trademark laws. If the importer meets federal requirements, the import specialist issues a permit that authorizes the release of merchandise for delivery. If not, the goods might be seized and sold at public auction. These specialists encourage inter national trade by authorizing the lowest allowable duties on merchandise.

Customer service chemists form a subgroup of import specialists who protect the health and safety of Americans. They analyze imported merchandise for textile fibers, lead content, and narcotics. In many cases, the duty collected on imported products depends on the chemists analysis and subsequent report. Customs chemists often serve as expert witnesses in court. The customs laboratories in Boston; New York; Baltimore; Savannah, Georgia; New Orleans; Los Angeles; San Francisco; Chicago; Washington, DC; and San Juan, Puerto Rico; have specialized instruments that can analyze materials for their chemical components. These machines can determine such things as the amount of sucrose in a beverage, the fiber content of a textile product, the lead oxide content of fine crystal, or the presence of toxic chemicals and prohibited additives.

Criminal investigators, or special agents are plainclothes investigators who make sure that the government obtains revenue on imports and that contra band and controlled substances do not enter or leave the country illegally They investigate smuggling, criminal fraud, and major cargo thefts. Special agents target professional criminals as well as ordinary tourists who give false information on baggage declarations. Often working undercover, they cooperate with customs inspectors and the FBI. Allowed special powers of entry search, seizure, and arrest, special agents have the broadest powers of search of any law enforcement personnel in the United States. For instance, special agents do not need probable cause or a warrant to justify search or seizure near a border or port of entry However, in the interior of the United States, probable cause but not a warrant is necessary to conduct a search.


High School

If you are interested in working for the U.S. Customs Service, you should pursue a well-rounded education in high school. Courses in government, geography and social studies, English, and history will contribute to your understanding of international and domestic legal issues as well as giving you a good general background. If you wish to become a specialist in scientific or investigative aspects of the Customs Service, courses in the sciences, particularly chemistry will be necessary and courses in computer science will be helpful.

Postsecondary Training

Applicants to the U.S. Customs Service must be U.S. citizens and at least 21 years of age. They must have earned at least a high school diploma, but applicants with college degrees are preferred. Applicants are required to have three years of general work experience involving contact with the public or four years of college.

Like all federal employees, applicants to the U.S. Customs Service must pass a physical examination and undergo a security check. They must also pass a federally administered standardized test, called the Professional and Administrative Career Examination (PACE). Entrance-level appointments are at grades GS-5 and GS-7, depending on the level of education or work experience.

Special agents must establish an eligible rating on the Treasury Enforcement Examination (TEE), a test that measures investigative aptitude; successfully complete an oral interview; pass a personal background investigation; and be in excellent physical condition. Although they receive extensive training, these agents need to have two years of specialized criminal investigative or comparable experience. Applicants with the necessary specialized law-enforcement experience or education should establish eligibility on the Mid-Level Register for appointment grades GS-9, 11, and 12.

Other Requirements

Applicants must be in good physical condition, possess emotional and mental stability and demonstrate the ability to correctly apply regulations or instructional material and make clear, concise oral or written reports.


There are several ways for you to learn about the various positions available at the U.S. Customs Service. You can talk with people employed as customs inspectors, consult your high school counselors, or contact local labor union organizations and offices for additional information. Information on federal government jobs is available from offices of the state employment service, area offices of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, and Federal Job Information Centers throughout the country


The U.S. Customs Service is the sole employer of customs officials.

Starting Out

Applicants may enter the various occupations of the U.S. Customs Service by applying to take the appropriate civil service examinations. Interested applicants should note the age, citizenship, and experience requirements previously described and realize that they will undergo a background check and a drug test. If hired, applicants will receive exacting, on-the-job training.


All customs agents have the opportunity to advance through a special system of promotion from within. Although they enter at the GS-5 or GS-7 level, after one year they may compete for promotion to supervisory positions or simply to positions at a higher grade level in the agency The journeyman level is grade GS-9. Supervisory positions at GS- 11 and above are available on a competitive basis. After attaining permanent status (i.e., serving for one year on probation), customs patrol officers may compete to become special agents. Entry-level appointments for customs chemists are made at GS-5. However, applicants with advanced degrees or professional experience in the sciences, or both, should qualify for higher-graded positions. Advancement potential exists for the journeyman level at GS-1 1 and to specialist, supervisory and management positions at grades GS-12 and above.


The federal government employs approximately 75,000 customs workers. Entry-level positions at GS-5 paid $20,588 in 1999, and entry at GS-7 paid $25,501 per year. The average GS ranking among customs officials was 9.3, which correlates to an annual salary of over $31,195. Supervisory positions beginning at GS-11 and GS-12 paid $37,744 and $45,236, respectively Federal employees in certain cities receive locality pay in addition to their salaries in order to offset the higher cost of living in those areas. Locality pay generally adds an extra 5.6 to 12 percent to the base salary. Certain customs officials are also entitled to receive Law Enforcement Availability Pay, which adds another 25 percent to their salaries. All federal workers receive annual cost-of-living salary increases. Federal workers enjoy generous benefits, including health and life insurance, pension plans, and holiday sick leave, and vacation pay.

Work Environment

The customs territory of the United States is divided into nine regions that include the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In these regions there are some 300 ports of entry along land and sea borders. Customs inspectors may be assigned to any of these ports or to overseas work at airports, seaports, waterfronts, border stations, customs houses, or the U.S. Customs Service Headquarters in Washington, DC. They are able to request assignments in certain localities and usually receive them when possible.

A typical work schedule is eight hours a day five days a week, but customs employees often work overtime or long into the night. United States entry and exit points must be supervised 24 hours a day which means that workers rotate night shifts and weekend duty Customs inspectors and patrol officers are sometimes assigned to one-person border points at remote locations, where they may perform immigration and agricultural inspections in addition to regular duties. They often risk physical injury from criminals violating customs regulations.


Employment as a customs official is steady work that is not affected by changes in the economy. With the increased emphasis on law enforcement, including the detection of illegally imported drugs and pornography and the prevention of exports of sensitive high-technology items, the prospects for steady employment in the U.S. Customs Service are likely to grow and remain high.

For More Information

For career and employment information, contact:

U.S. Customs Service

Office of Human Resources

1300 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW

Washington, DC 20229

Tel: 202-927-2900


Prev.: Crime Analysts

Next: Deputy U.S. Marshals

top of page   Related Articles   Home