The Philippine Customs Process
If you read the title, how many of you would think this post is a rant? I guess, a majority. But I'm not going to write about how useless our government is. I am here to share a recent experience.
I was on flight 5J 143 bound for Manila from a recent 5-day 3 country tour. I was with my 10 year old daughter who would be leaving for the US the next day. We arrived at midnight, and we breezed through immigration and baggage collection.
We had to pass the customs desk, so I gave the declarations form to the officer. I checked the electronics part, since I bought a Mac Book Pro in Hong Kong. I've always bought my macs in HK, and I have probably brought in 4 pieces already in the past 5 years. I was supposed to buy an iMac, but settled for a Mac Book Pro since it was just really such a hassle to bring home.
Because of my intention to buy an iMac, I asked a friend who knew someone from the Customs if it was indeed legal to bring in an iMac. I mean, a laptop could be easily be kept in a bag. The iMac must be inside the box, and thus, will be easily noticed by any Customs official. I just wanted to be sure and safe.
I was told that I could actually bring in 2 pieces of the desktop. I asked again, just to be sure. My friend told me to call her if ever something arises when I get home.
True enough, as I passed through Customs, something happened. For the first time, I was asked to pay for taxes. It was also the first time I declared. I was asked, and I didn't want to lie. In my previous travels, most officers don't ask. So I thought it was nothing, that it was okay.
So there I was, with my daughter, being charged for the MacBook Pro. I told the officer that I thought I could bring one in. I was referring to the information my friend gave me, who I was unable to contact that midnight. I asked for the Supervisor for an explanation.
The Supervisor handed me a brochure that briefly explained the law in bringing in goods from abroad. She explained that EVERYTHING bought abroad must be taxed. There were some exceptions though - if you're an OFW, or been out of the country for more than 6 months, or a former Philippine passport holder. I pointed out that my daughter was eligible for the last exception, but then she quickly told me that the exception was for duty free goods. She didn't expound any further.
I was really confused already that time, and I wanted an answer. What is the rule? In the declarations form, there was really nothing that lists what one can bring or not. It was just a declaration. So, what most Filipinos do, is that they don't declare. Everyone shops abroad, so therefore, the law states that anything bought abroad must be taxed. Thus, almost ALL travelers should be taxed.
I asked for the Head, and the supervisor told me that he was in Terminal 1. I had to argue a little bit. I told them that I am willing to leave the laptop behind until I get a clearer explanation on the rule. Yes, I was a bit stubborn and some may call me over-acting, especially if the supervisor was asking me to go already. She eventually told me that I could go.
But I wasn't over with the situation yet. 30 minutes have passed, and the line at the Customs desk was unimaginable. there were only 2 officers serving 300 passengers. It was the first time I saw a line like that. I wondered why suddenly they were checking all the baggages, asking everyone to open their bags. This caused a lot of frustration and anger to some foreigners as well. I'm thinking, yes, welcome to the Philippines.
Surprisingly also, after 30 minutes, it was only me who seemingly bought something. I was even more frustrated when the passenger beside me got through, when she bought an SLR (I overheard that she bought it and loved the camera). And after more and more passengers slowly made their way through Customs, I was still the only one who shopped abroad.
Well, probably, I was the one who bought a Mac, probably an expensive piece of equipment. I stated my case to the officer checking, and he told me that the system is really imperfect, that most can pass through without declaring things they have bought.
That statement got me. Now, I was resolved not to pay anything, and contribute to this IMPERFECT system that everybody is aware of. Getting more frustrated, I told the Supervisor that I will be leaving the laptop behind. They couldn't answer me and sort of strayed away from my concerns. However, they told me again to wait for the leave form, since they were with their Head, who was apparently in Terminal 1.
This got me going. My daughter was sleeping on the luggage already and I was tired. Finally after 15 minutes, the supervisor opens the drawer in front of her, and surprisingly finds a form. I quickly filled it out, and it took them another 15 minutes to process.
I left the laptop in a sealed envelope and warned them that nothing should happen to it, until I get my answers and claim it. I got their names and signed the form. We left tired and dazed. What the hell happened?
I didn't get into detail on how I was treated by the supervisor and officer, since they just looked lost. I couldn't conclude if they wanted a bribe, since I stressed that I will not pay anything, even the taxes required. So, the next day, I called my friend and told her what happened.
I asked my friend if the situation could be sorted but she didn't want to compromise her credibility as well. She just mentioned that there was really no rule, and that the law states indeed that ALL goods bought abroad should be taxed, even if it costs 10 pesos.
Fast forward 5 days after, when I decided to claim the laptop in the customs office in Terminal 1. I left office after lunch to make it there at 1PM. I asked for the Head, but I was told she was at lunch. After 20 minutes, she shows up.
I was called in and was surprised that they were already expecting me. Apparently, the supervisor who handled my case wrote a report, and even indicated that we had a bad argument, that I raised my voice. I told the Head that I was calm that night, and that I purposely tried to do so even if I was agitated.
In any case, I asked the Head the questions on the process of taxing goods from abroad. She told me the same thing, that EVERYTHING under the law must be taxed. But since the system is IMPERFECT, the Customs department can get lenient and let passengers pass. I was particularly stopped because I was a tourist who has been out of the country for 5 days only and that I bought a $1,000 laptop.
The Head was actually very accommodating, and I wasn't planning to raise my voice and concerns anymore. There and there, I saw how hopeless the situation is, that I can never get the answers I want. The Philippines gives no allowance limit to the items bought from abroad by its citizens, unlike almost ALL of the countries in the world. The Head told me that the law has to be rewritten.
So until the law is updated, we will be experiencing the same vagueness in process, that you can be taxed or not, depending on the officer, on depending how good you lie in declaring the things you bought. And this opens up another frustrating situation.
With this process, most Filipino travelers are forced to lie, to not declare, since they will be taxed. I mean, who buys nothing abroad?? Thus, we are all breaking the law technically when we travel and come back with all our shopping - from the shirts bought in the the Night Market of Hong Kong and Bangkok to the electronics bought in Singapore.
The law is absolute, and we bend things now, because it is obsolete. And this promotes a culture of dishonesty for both government officials and citizens.
I paid around P1,800 for the laptop, since the Head declared the price of the Mac at only $300. Still wrong, but she told me it was compensation for what happened. I thanked the Head (Roxanne Antonio) for accommodating my concerns. I was happy I paid my dues, and followed the law as much as I could.
But imagine, I had to undergo all the hassle to be satisfied. I walked out of the airport with my laptop wanting to share this experience to everyone. What you make it this is up to you.