Australia – strict customs rules, confiscation and fines – what must I declare?

Australian biosecurityAustralia is quite literally a land apart.  While Australia is welcoming to visitors and emigrants, even from England, from the perspective of  nature they are very keen to keep themselves separate.

Australia has had some bad experiences in this regard.  Rabbits were introduced in 1788 and then again (yes, really!) in 1859.  Scientists misguidedly imported cane toads in 1935.  The country is still struggling with the destruction that the introduction of these pests is causing.  Biosecurity has become a major concern.

Nature itself is the enemy

Most natural products could fall foul of the rules.  In essence you need to declare all food, wood, animal and natural fibre products.  Our advice is to learn the rules, examine the database, leave the more troublesome items at home, and declare everything that could possibly fall within the regulations.

The government maintains a database of about 20,000 materials that have the potential to cause trouble.  (We have a very abbreviated overview of the list below, as well as a link to the official, online database.)  If you fail to declare them when you arrive you are almost certain to have them confiscated, and may in addition pay a fine that could exceed A$66,000.  You could even face a jail term if you give evidence of trying to smuggle such goods into the country.

Any food that you bring with you must be declared, even if you got it on the plane.  The authorities are likely to okay and return to you commercial foods that are packaged and unopened.  Things like biscuits and sweets are seldom a problem.

Granny’s home-made cake and preserves are more likely to be confiscated.

Some States in Australia do not even allow fresh fruit that is coming from elsewhere in the country, to protect against pests endemic in those areas.

Declare everything

If you have declared all the items in the Incoming Passenger Card that you will have to complete onboard before landing then you will be okay.  Even if the goods are not permitted and are confiscated, but you have declared them, you will not be liable for a fine.  The authorities are not unreasonable, just strict.

For items that are not in themselves illegal you will be given the choice of having them decontaminated if that is technically possible (for example by fumigation or gamma-ray irradiation), to store it for you during your stay in the country, to ship it out of the country or to have it destroyed.  You will have to bear the decontamination, storage or shipping costs.

Food, plant material or animal products that are not permitted can be dumped in the quarantine bins located in the airport terminal.

Baggage examination

On arrival sniffer dogs will give the baggage a going-over and X-ray imaging is used.  Your goods may also be examined by biosecurity officer from the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF).  The other official bodies involved in the process are the Customs and Border Protection Service, and the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS).

The officials have a good record of stopping contraband.  If caught you face a A$340 on-the-spot fine, to be settled immediately.  For more serious cases, which obviously involves more than the odd misplaced rusk or Snickers bar, you could face prosecution, which could result in being fined over A$66000.  In serious cases the law allows for up to 10 years imprisonment, which would result in a criminal record.

Large sums of cash must be declared

There are no limits to the amount of money that can be brought in or taken out, but if more than A$10,000 is involved then you are required to declare it and fill in forms.

It is part of Australia’s international commitment to the prevention of money-laundering.

Short list of Goods to Declare

The following list covers the main categories of goods that you must declare on entry to Australia.


Airline food and snacks, commercially prepared, cooked and raw food and ingredients, dried fruit and vegetables, instant noodles and rice, packaged meals, herbs and spices, herbal and traditional medicines, remedies, tonics and herbal teas, snack foods.

Dairy and egg products

Infant formula (must be accompanying a child), dairy products (fresh and powdered) including milk, cheese and non-dairy creamers, cheese must be commercially prepared and packaged and originate from countries free from foot and mouth disease, all whole, dried and powdered eggs, and egg products, such as mayonnaise, egg products including noodles and pasta that are not commercially manufactured.

Animal products

Meat, including fresh, dried, frozen, cooked, smoked, salted or preserved from all animal species, sausages, salami and sliced meats, fish and other seafood products, pet food including canned products and raw hide chews, rawhide articles and handicrafts including drums.

Seeds and nuts

Cereal grains, popping corn, raw nuts, pinecones, birdseed, unidentified seeds, some commercially packaged seeds, and ornaments including seeds.

Fresh fruit and vegetables

All fresh and frozen fruit and vegetables.

Plant material

Tea containing seeds, fruit skin (for example citrus and apple peel) and fruit pieces, remedies and medicines containing herbs, seeds, bark, fungi and dried plant material, fresh or dried flower arrangements and potpourri, dried herbs or leaves, handicrafts including wreaths and Christmas decorations containing seeds, raw nuts, corn, pinecones, grapevines, bark, moss, straw or other plant material, wooden items with bark or signs of insects present.

Live animals and animal products

All mammals, birds, birds eggs and nests, fish, reptiles, amphibians and insects, feathers, bones, horns, tusks, wool and animal hair, skins, hides and furs, stuffed animals and birds (taxidermy certificate required) some may be prohibited under endangered species laws), shells and coral (including jewellery and souvenirs), bee products including honey, beeswax and honeycomb, used animal equipment including veterinary equipment and medicines, shearing or meat trade tools, saddlery and tack and animal or bird cages.

Other items

Biological specimens including tissue culture, craft and hobby lines made from animal or plant material, used sporting and camping equipment including tents, footwear, hiking boots, golf equipment and bicycles (need to be checked to ensure they are clean and free from soil contamination), used freshwater watercraft or fishing equipment including rods and nets, waders, kayaks, paddles and life jackets.

In many cases items you declare will be returned to you after inspection.  If you have obtained an Import Permit prior to departure your goods may be allowed in, or they may be allowed in after suitable treatment.  Or, of course, you can dump them in the quarantine bins for disposal.

The official Import Conditions database

The Import Conditions (ICON) database lists some 20,000 foreign plant, animal, mineral and human commodities and the import conditions attached to each.  These are the conditions under which it will be possible to bring them into Australia.  Most times the condition is considerably more strict than merely carrying it with you in your luggage!

Link to Import Conditions Database – ICON – produced by AQIS

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