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Over at the Travel SE beta (it's in private beta so I'm not sure how many here will be able to access it), I came across a question whether the OP uses "clearance through US Customs" when I'm assuming s/he actually means US immigration. (Here, I'm relying on the definition that 'immigration' handles visa clearance, 'customs' handles tax collection for goods.) I have come across this particular usage earlier too, mostly among American travellers. Is this usage US-specific - and is it an 'error'*?

(* An error in the sense that the actual department at the airport, say, is US Immigration but people mistakenly call it 'Customs'.)

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up vote 4 down vote accepted

When entering the United States, first you go through immigration, where they check your passport (and visa if you are not a citizen or permanent resident). Then you go through customs where they check your bags and other items. In many airports these two processes are handled in the same room, so referring to one by the name of the other should not be surprising. Also, since customs comes last, it is the indicator that the whole process of going through regulatory control before being allowed into the country is complete, so saying "clearance through customs" implies clearance through immigration too.

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I believe the more correct, or at least more inclusive, term is "passport control" (or even more generically, "border control") instead of "immigration". – Marthaª Jun 25 '11 at 2:08

NOAD includes people as one of the things checked through customs (travelers emphasis mine):

customs |ˈkəstəmz| |ˈkəstəmz|
plural noun
the official department that administers and collects the duties levied by a government on imported goods : cocaine seizures by customs have risen this year
| [as adj. ] a customs officer.
• the place at a port, airport, or frontier where officials check incoming goods, travelers, or luggage : arriving refugees were whisked through customs.
• (usu. customs duties) the duties levied by a government on imported goods.

So I would say that this is not a mistake, but common usage—at least in the U.S.

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I added a comment to @Martha's answer - is what I mentioned true? – Ankur Banerjee Jun 24 '11 at 18:53
@Ankur: No, not for domestic flights. – Callithumpian Jun 24 '11 at 18:56
Seems like this usage is US-specific. May arise out of the fact that the full name of the department is US Customs and Border Protection. – Ankur Banerjee Jun 24 '11 at 18:58
@Ankur: I think you're correct. – Callithumpian Jun 24 '11 at 19:00
This is pretty much US-specific. – Marcin Jun 24 '11 at 19:00

Given that US citizens have to go through it, too, it can hardly be called "immigration".

1. the movement of non-native people into a country in order to settle there
2. the part of a port, airport, etc where government employees examine the passports, visas, etc of foreign nationals entering the country

Notice "foreign" and "non-native": a U.S. citizen re-entering the USA cannot, by definition, go through "immigration". Thus, calling it "customs" is not only not a mistake, it's more correct than calling it "immigration".

1. A government agency that monitors the flow of goods, commodities, and substances into and from its territory and levies fees, fines, and other charges according to posted regulations.
2. The inspection area maintained by such an agency at an airport or other port of entry.

I believe this usage of the word "customs" falls under definition (2) above. The only problem with this usage is that ignores the fact that there's a passport control component that you have to go through before/during the inspection, which generally is not under the purview of the customs department/agency. If you want to be correct on that level, you have to use a more generic term, such as border control.

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@Martha: Wait, so US citizens have to go through 'customs' for domestic flights too? Because in most other countries, customs and immigration controls are used for international traffic, not domestic. For international, customs departments handle tax collection, immigration checks passport (including citizens). – Ankur Banerjee Jun 24 '11 at 18:51
@Ankur Banerjee: No, US citizens do not have to go through customs for domestic flights. But they must do it when re-entering the US from another country. Since immigration means coming to a country that you are not a native of, this name wouldn't work for such a case. – Kosmonaut Jun 24 '11 at 19:14
@Kosmonaut: Well, yes, that would be act of immigrating. My point was that in many other countries, Immigration - the one which checks foreign nationals - is also the department which checks citizens. To give an example of Singapore, Immigration Control Authority clears entry for citizens and visitors; then, a separate Customs department checks travellers and goods for tax collection. See comment I left in Callithumpian's answer for where I think 'Customs' usage for both might have come from in the US. – Ankur Banerjee Jun 24 '11 at 19:19
@Ankur Banerjee: Dictionary.com, Merriam-Webster, and even the OED (British) state that immigration means entering a country that you are not a native of. – Kosmonaut Jun 24 '11 at 19:32
@Kosmonaut: I know that, I'm talking of how people usually refer to it different countries. Like, technically people in the US should be saying "clearance through Border Protection", but what they say instead is 'Customs'. – Ankur Banerjee Jun 24 '11 at 20:14

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