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Customs Worker Job Description, Career as a Customs Worker, Salary, Employment

Definition and Nature of the Work, Education and Training Requirements, Getting the Job

Education and Training College plus training

Salary Median—$49,736 per year

Employment Outlook Good

Definition and Nature of the Work

Customs workers enforce the laws governing the import and export of goods. Most of these laws are designed to protect citizens' health and to raise revenues for the federal government. Some tariff laws protect selected businesses from foreign competition. Occasionally, under congressional order, customs workers enforce boycotts of certain nations' goods for political reasons.

Customs workers often specialize. Inspectors, for instance, look for banned or taxable items in tourists' belongings and in the cargo of ships and planes. For example, they check baggage to see whether travelers are smuggling narcotics. They also make sure that tourists declare the true value of goods they are bringing into the country and collect taxes, or duties, when the value of the goods exceeds certain limits.

Import specialists classify goods that companies plan to sell in the United States, issue customs documents, and decide how much duty importers must pay. Because a wide variety of merchandise crosses U.S. borders, import specialists often become expert in one or two fields of goods, such as antiques or machinery. Customs agents are investigators who search for evidence of suspected violations of the law.

Education and Training Requirements

Most customs workers must be at least twenty-one years old and be U.S. citizens. All customs workers must have high school diplomas, or the equivalent, and some additional education or experience. High school course work in foreign languages, English, and history may be useful. College-level courses in foreign languages and business are also helpful. Because a majority of customs work involves interpreting and enforcing the law, some knowledge of legal affairs is valuable.

Customs inspectors and import specialists generally need either bachelor's degrees or three years of experience relating to customs control. They may also be required to pass civil service examinations. Customs agents usually have bachelor's degrees or prior law enforcement experience, including several years of experience in criminal investigation.

At an airport, a customs inspector goes through tourists' bags to check for banned or taxable items. (© Martha Tabor/Working Images Photographs. Reproduced by permission.)

Getting the Job

Job seekers can contact their local Federal Information Center or civil service office. State employment services, school placement offices, newspaper classified ads, and job sites on the Internet may also provide employment information.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

Government employees have many opportunities to work their way up through the ranks to supervisory or management jobs. Years of experience usually qualify workers for high-level office jobs.

The employment outlook for customs workers is favorable. The great volume of goods being imported and exported, as well as increased efforts against smuggling and terrorism, are expected to result in a slight increase in the number of job openings through 2014.

Working Conditions

Customs personnel usually work in rotating shifts because ports and borders operate twenty-four hours a day. Most customs workers have forty-hour workweeks and receive extra pay for overtime. They often work outside in all kinds of weather.

Agents should be accurate judges of character and be both alert and observant. Their work may be dangerous. Most jobs are located along U.S. borders, in airports, and near large cities.

Where to Go for More Information

National Customs Brokers and Forwarders Association of America
1200 Eighteenth St. NW, Ste. 901
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 466-0222

U.S. Customs and Border Protection
1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20229
(202) 354-1000

Earnings and Benefits

Customs workers have civil service ratings, so their earnings vary according to their grade and rank. In 2004 the median salary for import specialists, inspectors, and customs agents was $49,736 per year. Wages increase as responsibilities increase. Benefits include paid vacations, sick leave, health insurance, and retirement plans.

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesLaw and Public Service