January 2012


My favorite German office: the Customs Office

Yes, I know, some members of the expat community are unhappy with the German Customs Office because they weren’t notified that a package was waiting for them: to my friend, Heidelbergerin, I am sympathetic.

I’m annoyed because the German Customs Office seems to have it out for me. Normal mail seems to spend six weeks at different customs offices, aging to perfection, and packages, even those with complete, clear, honest customs forms attached seem to attract even more attention.

My most recent encounter with the customs office was Monday upon my return from Usedom: awaiting me in the post was an announcement that a package was waiting for me at a “nearby” customs office—and so, after reading the form, I called my relative: “What did you send me and how much is it valued.”

“I sent you a calendar and it’s worth $20,” he informed me. “I filled out the customs form and everything.”

“They claim there was no value stated,” I replied, trying to make sense of this form that said the package had no declared value – at least as far as I could understand it.

I decided to try and visit the customs office that very afternoon – it was 16:15 when I made this decision, and the letter assured me that it was open until 18:30.

I actually dashed out the door at 16:25 – and it took me 25 minutes to get from my house to the customs office: 10 minute walk, 5 minute bus ride, 10 minute walk.

It was raining.

I got to the office at 16:50 and the line in front of me, as far as I could see, twisted around the length of the wall of the vestibule and past the inside set of double doors, ending just inside the outside set of double doors.

Being a compliant sheep, I just stood in the line, a woman who came in after me seemed to think she could by-pass the line. She couldn’t, she returned. Then she left, got a cup of coffee. Came back. Talked on her mobile. Talked to the guy behind her. Left. I just stood there, listening to podcasts at full volume in order to drown out whatever she was saying to the guy behind her, whenever she was there—and to drown out her phone conversation which I suspected consisted of statements like this: “I’m in line at the customs office. I have to wait. They don’t realize that I am important.”

I did notice that the doors to the customs office were locked at 17:00 sharp – there wasn’t anything in the letter I received indicating that aspect: “we might be open until 18:30 but the doors are locked at 17:00!”


For the next 45 minutes, I watched people plead their cases—only to be shot down and sent over to the penalty computer where they had to find and print out receipts to help the customs officials do their work.

I saw the woman who was “behind” me standing next to an electric socket. Apparently she’d yapped too much on her mobile phone and had run out of juice. No doubt all her friends knew that she was at the customs office and that the customs officials had told her that she had to stand in line. The audacity of those officials!

Finally I reached the front, and I plead my case: “It’s a calendar, from my brother, worth 15€. It’s a gift.” He wrote this down on my piece of paper. I wasn’t sent to the penalty computer. He stapled everything together and handed me my number.

I was number 258.

The numbers on the number tote board were 198, 240, 201, and 204.

There were no empty chairs in the room and I had to stand.

Then I got lucky: I was near the end of the queue and there couldn’t have been more than 5 people behind me, and I only had to stand about five minutes before a chair opened up.

Once the two officials listening to people finished handing out numbers, they vanished. One returned with a stack of three envelopes – and I wondered if I was going to get lucky a second time.

“Number 253,” the woman shouted out. A young lady approached the desk and was handed a pair of scissors. The mail was opened on the spot – and the lady was sent off.

A few minutes passed, and another number was shouted out. Not me. Scissors were presented, an enveloped opened, and another package was let into the country without duty charged.

Fired Up for Kids“Number 258” – I ducked under the rope, approached the woman and was handed a pair of scissors. I demurred – the package could be opened without scissors – I carefully ripped it open, pulled out the calendar and handed it to her, it was the 2012 Fired up for Kids charity calendar: lots of buff men on the outside. She turned it over, examined it briefly – I don’t know if she was looking for the price tag or examining the men (and one woman) – but she quickly put it back in the envelope, handed it to me, and told me to exit through the next room. No duty charged.

I suspect that due to my arrival at the office shortly before the door was locked, it took me a lot less time than it might have otherwise taken. Had I been there earlier, I probably would have had to wait an hour or two for my number to be called.

Ultimately I was away from the house for two and a quarter hours.

And the customs declaration on the package clearly stated it was a calendar and that it was worth $20.

I don’t get it.

6 comments to My favorite German office: the Customs Office

  • I once got hauled in for an US Postal M bag of used books worth less than 50 Euros which I sent to myself. I claimed it as personal use and once they opened the box and saw the English titles and heard my less than perfect German, I was on my merry way.

    Due to the weight of the box, my German work colleagues suspected that it was due to ‘post office laziness, to save someone the trip from the depot, and that rather you pick it up H and do their job for them’. A second box of half the weight made it to my doorstep just fine so maybe there was something to that theory. Not sure how to explain your calendar though.

  • Ugh. Welcome to Germany, the land of compliant sheep. Forms, queues, numbers, anything to turn you into a complaint sheep. But there’s no use complaining! Oh no, that just encourages them, for these are baaaaaad people – they just want sheep.
    Enjoy the calendar. Are there really only seven days in January?!

  • I order books every once in a while off Amazon.com when they aren’t available on Amazon.de and they only make it to me about 50% of the time. They are always clearly labelled, usually listing the titles of the books and the total value is always there. At least the customs office in Regensburg is not that busy. I’ve at most had one person in line in front of me. Potsdam and Rostock never had lines. Berlin is a mess though.

  • Odd how much time they seem to have on their hands for uselessly holding things that are properly marked.

    I’ve got another package coming that seems to have disappeared into the mists. I don’t know why there’s so much trouble this year – it’s never been an issue before.

  • I think there is a guy in the customs office that thinks you’re very attractive and he’s forcing you to come down there so he can look at you.

    Even if he isn’t the one helping you.

  • heather in europe – that raises an interest question: exactly who decides that a package should be inspected?!?!

    Irish Berliner – if only all Germans were complaint! The woman behind me was annoying. And, yes, January only has 7 days. Please do not notice what happens over the next couple weeks–and do bring me my birthday present this week, since my birthday is the first week of February.

    Christina – I’ve some how managed to avoid the customs office until now. In the past either packages have been held for six weeks, or I’ve received notice in the mail that I need to pay duty at my local post office. That said, I hope to never return to the Berlin office again. I bet people hated me for being in and out so quickly.

    CN Heidelberg – In 2011 I lost money due to one package taking 6 weeks to get through customs. Not a ton of money, but still about USD80.

    Cynical Queer – that would be the wrong way to get my attention 😉