Stress, glitches and $1000 fines: Kiwis malign NZ Customs' Traveller Declaration system to get home from overseas

Kiwis have described the Traveller Declaration system as "complicated", "stupid" and a "nightmare".
Kiwis have described the Traveller Declaration system as "complicated", "stupid" and a "nightmare". Photo credit: Getty Images

Kiwis are growing irritated with the process to get into New Zealand from overseas, complaining of technical glitches, uncertainty, and stress over what's required - with hefty fines in store for those who get it wrong.

The Traveller Declaration system requires travellers to upload COVID-related information before they arrive in the country, including their vaccination status, pre-departure test results and travel history.

It was designed to simplify travellers' journeys and better manage the increase in people coming into the country as international travel restarted in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Newshub has heard the stories of several people who have found the process anything but simple - from struggles filling out the form, to spending hours trying to grasp the rules, to misunderstandings over what's required to get back home.

One described feeling like his "own Government had turned against [him]" after spending hours muddling through a complex 'fit to fly' process, only to be handed a $1000 fine for falling foul of rules he says were never made clear.

Despite the complaints, a Customs spokesperson insists the process is "working well" for most travellers coming into New Zealand - although they admit the process has proven challenging for some, and are now making changes to ensure the system is more "user-friendly".

'The system is a nightmare'

Newshub reporter Adam Hollingworth, who recently returned to New Zealand following a trip to the UK, described the entire process of coming home as a "rigmarole".

"I looked at the forms, I thought, 'Travel pass, what's that? I'm sure that's just one of those cards that I fill out'. In fact, they took me out of the line to ensure that I filled it in and there was just so much minute detail that I had to fill in," he said.

"Then I had to upload my negative COVID test on the phone. I'm 57 and that's slightly beyond my capabilities. I'm pretty certain I ended up uploading a picture of my cat, and I got stopped every single step of the way. It was really stressful."

Hollingworth said he was taken aside at Singapore Airport and again when he landed at Auckland Airport to be informed he'd uploaded the wrong information.

"I had to upload a photograph of the negative test and it was very complicated."

A number of Kiwis Newshub spoke to described the process as complicated and stressful.
A number of Kiwis Newshub spoke to described the process as complicated and stressful. Photo credit: Getty Images

Another person, who asked not to be named, described the travel pass system as "stupid" and a "nightmare".

"Me and my partner were super struggling," she said. "I was like, my parents would not be able to do this, straight up."

Newshub also spoke to our own verticals editor Daniel Rutledge, who recently travelled to South Australia on a work trip for the website's travel section.

Attempting to complete the form on his phone, when it was all done and he clicked submit, he kept getting an 'unknown error' and couldn't get his Traveller Pass.

"It was really stressful. The airline was explicit - if I didn't have that form filled out when I went to check in, I wouldn't be allowed on the plane," said Rutledge.

"Getting an 'unknown error' isn't uncommon in the age of the internet, I get them all the time. But when it means being unable to get to your home country, being trapped in Australia, it can be quite terrifying."

After trying it three times - each of which took around 20 minutes - Rutledge tried calling the help numbers on the page but none of them would connect.

"I spoke to a friend in New Zealand who'd recently entered the country and we managed to work out that the problem was related to my mobile phone. After each section was filled out, it would get a little black tick by it, then that black tick would turn green," he said.

"But every time I went to submit the declaration, with the test result and vaccine pass and everything else attached, at least one of those ticks would turn back to black and I'd get the unknown error.

"I tried different browsers - Safari and Chrome - as well as Wi-Fi versus 5G. The same problem kept happening, so after four attempts I knew I had to use a different device."

This meant travelling across the city back to a hotel where his luggage was being stored, getting his laptop from it and completing the form again on that, using the hotel's Wi-Fi.

"It went through straight away. By that time, I knew off by heart my passport expiry date, COVID-19 vaccine dates and all the other bits of info you need, so after I transferred over the screenshots of the test result and vaccine pass it only took about five minutes," said Rutledge.

"Luckily, I had access to the laptop and a few hours to spare on my last day. Otherwise, I doubt I would've made my flight and been stuck there - or turned around at Auckland Airport, who knows.

"It was a very stressful, unpleasant experience I hope others don't have to go through."

$1000 fine 'unnecessary and very harsh'

Another man, who Newshub has agreed to refer to just as Sam, had tested positive for COVID-19 just a day before he was due to fly to Auckland from Sydney, Australia, so was forced to spend another week there to recover in isolation in compliance with NSW Health requirements.

This caused complications for his return to New Zealand, as people often continue to test positive for COVID-19 beyond the seven-day isolation period, even though there's a good chance they aren't contagious.

New Zealand does allow people to come into the country in cases like these, but require a 'fit to fly' certificate from a doctor stating that they are no longer considered infectious with COVID-19.

So Sam visited a doctor, obtained the certificate, completed his form and was issued a Traveller Pass allowing him entry to New Zealand. He flew into Auckland on a Qantas flight in late May thinking he'd done everything he needed to.

But when he arrived at Auckland Airport Customs, he got a gut-wrenching surprise: a $1000 fine.

It turned out Sam had needed evidence of a COVID-19 test result, even though it was likely to have been positive and despite having a doctor's certificate explaining that he was no longer a health risk.

Customs has acknowledged some New Zealanders are finding the process "challenging".
Customs has acknowledged some New Zealanders are finding the process "challenging". Photo credit: Newshub.

While the Government website does say evidence of a test result is required, Sam says the Traveller Declaration Form itself was unclear about whether to still upload it when the result was positive.

"I was under the impression, because I'd been given the Traveller Pass and I wasn't notified about anything missing, that I was all good to travel. No one at Qantas or Sydney Airport told me anything was missing," he explained.

"As far as I was concerned, I had met the standard. The thing that was missing was a test… But in my case that would have been irrelevant because I had the doctor's exemption anyway."

Sam is frustrated he was punished so sternly for a process that involved such uncertainty - especially since he'd already had to stump up the cost of a hotel room in Sydney for an extra week after testing positive.

He says even the Customs officer seemed embarrassed to be handing him the infringement notice.

"$1000 is a massive fine… If I was contagious and I'd done that then fair enough. But I wasn't - I'd provided evidence that that was [not] the case. So to then be slapped with that fine seems unnecessary and very harsh.

"I had made sure I wasn't a health risk and I'd taken all the other parts of the procedure seriously, followed what I needed to do, and been cleared by a doctor… I attempted to follow everything by the book, and nobody made it clear I wasn't doing that."

Another person Newshub spoke to, who also tested positive for COVID-19 just before returning to New Zealand and needed a fit to fly certificate after isolating, also described the process as uncertain and difficult.

They had to call the overseas helpline after registering a weak positive result that had led to them being rejected for a Traveller Pass, despite a doctor providing them with a fit to fly certificate and confirming they were no longer infectious.

When they got through to the call centre, they were told their form had mistakenly been rejected and that this happened regularly to people who had recently tested positive. The issue was fixed and they were able to catch their flight the following day.

However they were shocked that after spending hours filling out the form and double-checking to ensure they'd met all the requirements, they had needed to make a phone call to get the mistake corrected and allow them to get on the plane home.

Customs responds

The complaints over the system come with the airline industrytourism sector and rival political parties all calling on the Government to scrap the rule requiring pre-departure testing now rather than on July 31, the date by which the Prime Minister has promised it'll no longer be enforced.

The pre-departure test requirement adds further complexity to the Traveller Declaration system and was dropped months ago by many countries because Omicron was already so widespread.

Even COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins has admitted the requirement is "a lot less important" now than it was in light of the thousands of cases New Zealand is getting each day.

Sam told Newshub since COVID-19 is so rampant here, it makes "zero difference" whether someone brings it in from overseas now.

"The whole process felt like your own Government turning against you. It's almost like you're being punished for getting COVID. In trying to do the right thing, they've criminalised citizens that are trying to follow the rules."

In a statement to Newshub, a Customs spokesperson said that for the majority of people who enter New Zealand, the Traveller Declaration system works well - however they acknowledged that some travellers had found the process "challenging".

"We monitor feedback and continue to make improvements to the system based on user feedback. All feedback is taken into consideration and helps us to build a better and more user-friendly system," they said.

They said Customs is committed to building a system that is "accessible and inclusive", and would over time provide additional functionality, including "improvements to accessibility and making the experience more user-friendly".

However even though pre-departure testing will be gone by the end of next month, the Traveller Declaration system is here to stay.

"We still need to collect health (for example, vaccination certificates for most non-New Zealand citizens) and travel-related information from travellers," the spokesperson said.

They added that the system "delivers enduring benefits to New Zealand" through the implementation of a smarter, more efficient border that protects the health of Kiwis while supporting our reconnection to the rest of the world.

"The system allows risks to be managed effectively and provides a platform to manage future risks such as new COVID-19 variants, future pandemics or new biosecurity risks," the spokesperson continued.

"New and changing border settings can now be implemented with relative ease as those settings are tightened or loosened in the future."

The system is being delivered in three stages - the first of which arrived last August - and Customs says it  will continue to ensure feedback is "heard and incorporated in planned changes".

"In the future, our plan is to enable travellers to use the system to complete both their health declaration and their arrival card."