From the Blog

April 29, 2015

The facts on Border controls in Asia

The facts on Border controls in AsiaWe backpackers are an open minded lot and while a few may look like they have dropped out of society all together, we understand we are all still subject to the rules of the country we find ourselves in.

The worst thing you can do when travelling in Thailand and South East Asia is to get stopped by customs simply because you look ‘Dodgy’ or you have not planned ahead, the delays or worse… can really put a downer on your trip to the land of smiles.

To help you get through the necessary rigmarole of customs we have provided the following, we hope helpful tips:

Also see:

Packing List

Visa Exemption on arrival

Tips for backpackers from backpackers


The facts on Border controls in Asia.

1. Potential Drug Paraphernalia

It may well be your sense of humour or indeed a fashion statement, but try to help yourself by not wearing a shirt or hat depicting marijuana when travelling, especially at borders as the officials can simply on a whim, interpret your attire as intent and will then look for ‘paraphernalia’ which used or otherwise will lead to further questioning, possible detention, refusal of entry to the country or far harsher penalties.

Any type of pipe, especially if its already blackened with tobacco, may raise questions. In Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines and a handful of other countries, even simply carrying rolling papers by themselves may be questioned, particularly if you don’t have a packet of tobacco to prove that you intend to roll your own cigarettes.

It goes without saying, don’t even think about it carrying even the smallest amount of drugs, a good number of countries in Asia have a mandatory death penalty for possession of drugs. (Thailand can hand down the death sentence in certain circumstances). More on Thailand’s drug laws.


Do note it is a common thread in Asia where tourists have purchased drugs from a dealer for the same dealer to report the not so intelligent individual to the police so as to collect a large reward.


The facts on Border controls in Asia.. 2. Prescription Medication

Nothing raises a border official’s eyes more than a large bag or bottle of pills, particularly if unlabelled. Regardless of the type of pill, facilities to test for substances on the spot may be limited, causing you to be delayed. If unable to prove the validity of your prescription medications, they may be confiscated on the spot!

Although not always practical for packing, leaving prescription medication in the original, labelled bottles is the safest bet. A copy of your prescription or a letter from your doctor helps. For a full list of controlled substances in Thailand click here

You can bring a maximum of 30 day’s supply of medication into Thailand, on a 30 day visa.


 The facts on Border controls in Asia...3. Electronic Cigarettes

The big boom in electronic cigarettes originating from the West has produced varied responses from countries in Asia who aren’t quite sure how to treat them.

The possession of electronic cigarettes and the act of ‘Vaping’ is currently illegal in Singapore and Hong Kong. While here in Thailand since late 2014 the devises are banned, with fines of up to 10 years imprisonment for those caught importing them or a fine equivalent to five times the price of imported or exported goods seized by the authority.

Did you know that Singapore has some of the strictest customs laws in the world? Even a single pack of real cigarettes brought into the country must be declared.

See more on E Cigarettes in our post Facing 5 years for Vaping in Thailand



The facts on Border controls in Asia....4. Some Over-the-Counter Medications

Many over-the-counter medications that are legal in the West are actually illegal to bring into many Asian countries. In Thailand banned medications include those that contain ‘Pseudoephedrine’ (banned since 2012) such as Sudafed and Vick’s inhalers. (This is also the same for Japan)

While some over-the-counter pain killers sold in Europe contain codeine, they qualify as opiates and are illegal to bring into many Asian countries. In Thailand ‘codeine’ is classed as a class II drug

This is not as strange as it may appear when you consider a commonly eaten vegetable here in Asia can be illegal to poses, in the USA. See more on Morning Glory 


 The facts on Border controls in Asia.....

5. Pornographic Materials

A majority of countries in Asia have strict laws prohibiting the importation of pornographic materials, both in print and electronic form. Your laptop, phone, and camera memory cards are actually subject to search for nude images if you are suspected to be carrying porn. Cached internet browser images qualify. The strict laws come as part of local efforts to stem problematic child pornography in Asia.



6. Political Statements

The facts on Border controls in Asia,Wearing your “Free Tibet” T-shirt in China is obviously a bad idea, and even Tibetan flags sewn onto backpacks or carried could get you pulled for questioning — or worse.

Books by banned authors about disputed regions won’t make Chinese officials very happy. Images of the Dalai Lama are not allowed to be brought into China.

While we have had a recent military coup in Thailand, there is no restriction on freedom of speech unless it is against the monarchy in which case lèse majesté may be invoked


 7.  Bulk Religious Materials

Large amounts of printed materials such as religious tracts or small bibles may indicate that you have intent to distribute. Unlike Thailand not all Asian countries enjoy complete religious freedom.

At best, your materials may be confiscated. While bibles are available for purchase in China, they can only be legally sold by government-authorized shops.


The facts on Border controls in Asia,, 8. Large Amounts of Business Cards and Samples

A regular visitor traveling with a tourist visa shouldn’t really need 1,000 business cards. The same applies to widget samples and marketing brochures. Nor would it be seen as a holiday if you were carrying the tools of your trade i.e. cooking knives or carpentry tools. If caught, you may be accused of trying to do business with the wrong type of visa and refused entry.

In Thailand, you are asked to declare upon arrival commercial samples that you may be carrying.


9. Pirated Goods including Movies and Music

Much of Asia has begun to cooperate with U.S. efforts to stop copyright infringement. Bringing pirated movies on DVD in and out of many Asian countries is now illegal.

While you can still purchase pirated goods throughout Asia and especially here in Thailand, a word of warning, you may have them confiscated at your next destination, even if that happens to be your home country.


 The facts on Border controls in Asia,,,10. Pepper Spray – Weaponry

Pepper spray in a handbag may provide peace of mind for some travellers, however, it is actually considered an illegal weapon in many Asian countries. While technically American travellers departing from the USA, are allowed to fly with pepper spray stored in checked baggage, it could become illegal once you arrive here in Asia


Possessing pepper spray is currently legal in India, Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Malaysia.

Here in Thailand you can find all manner of weaponry such as swords, cross bows, stun guns etc. sold in most markets and by street vendors, while you may not need a licence to purchase an item using them here or trying to take them back home will cause you more than a few problems.

Paintball guns, BB guns and airsoft guns are not considered firearms in Thailand, so it is legal to possess them without having a permit or registering them. However the owner must comply with the following conditions:

  • The gun has not been modified to use CO2.
  • Only plastic bullets are used – no metal bullets or marbles may be fired.
  • When carrying the gun outside of the owner’s property it must be packed in a safe case or box. It is not allowed to be carried in shirt or trouser pockets, nor can it be left out in the open.
  • The gun cannot be used to commit a crime or torture animals.

The gun is considered illegal if any of these rules are broken



“And there you have it a quick guide to staying on the right side of the law in Asia with particular emphasis on Thailand. You will note there are not a lot of differences on what is acceptable throughout the world and we may not be as forgiving on those that break our rules regarding drugs, but the Asian people on the whole are a welcoming lot and it really is down to the traveller to be more aware of their actions than for each country to change their ideals and rules to appease an individual”



More on what is and is not legal in Thailand

Customs Department

Food & Drug Administration



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1 comment

  1. Steve - June 23, 2015 10:38 am

    The situation in Thailand is still a little fluid, the General has issued all sorts of orders and decrees in various parts of the country, not just the trouble spots in the South.. I live in Chiang Mai and lately the police have been stepping up roads inspections, cars and motorbikes, and becoming far more vigilant in their requests for ID and proper visas, IDL’s, insurance, helmet law and not just for tea money… I have never been spoken to as roughly as of late, the police have always been unfailingly polite and good natured to me. When my Thai wife and I travel together, it’s no problem, for some reason there is extra vigilance and scrutiny, and you do not want to mess with the Thai police.. Better to be extra polite, smile and say little, even if you speak Thai


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