If you read other people’s account of entering North Korea, the process by which you enter the country is similar to that of other countries. On the other hand, once you pass through immigration the customs procedure can be quite different.
After you get off the plane you go straight to immigration. There were some forms you had to fill out on the plane. My tour company gave us a booklet full of useful information about North Korea. Some of the pages were dedicated to explaining how to fill out these forms. For example, you had to declare on a customs how much foreign currency you are bringing in and what devices (laptops, cameras, phones) you are bringing in. We were assured that they are not picky and that there shouldn’t be a problem.
At immigration we were told that the immigration officials may ask us very basic information that they can clearly see from the forms like what your name is or what the name is of the city you live in. They are not challenging you, but rather want to hear how it’s pronounced so they can transcribe it in the Korean alphabet. I was asked to say my name and I think maybe my street name. The immigration officer was very nice. He asked what my profession is and I said “student.” He replied “oh, that’s the best job!”
Like Israel, North Korea doesn’t stamp your passport. Instead, they stamp the small booklet the embassy in Beijing issues your visa in. If you’re wondering, there is no North Korean embassy in the US and the tour company arranges all the visas in advance at their embassy in Beijing. You can see the visa below. You know how I said they aren’t picky above? As you’ll see below, my passport picture is just a selfie I took with my phone. That is quite a contrast to other countries that have very strict sizing and background color requirements.
Immigration was the easy part. Customs is where some travelers have a bad experience. In many countries, China for example, you have to pass your luggage through a x-ray conveyor belt in customs. I don’t know exactly what they are looking for. When I lived in the Middle East, I remember one of my colleagues getting in trouble for having more alcohol than is allowed in his bag. As I waited in line to pass my bag through the machine, a soldier asked us to hand over our phones. In preparation for going to North Korea I encrypted my phone and added a pin lock screen. I have nothing to hide on my phone, but still. He took the phones and then gave them back to us after we passed our checked bags through the x-ray machine. He didn’t take the case off and I’m sure he didn’t get into my phone. So, I have no idea what that part was for.
There was a cursory inspection of our hand luggage. In my hand luggage I had a small pamphlet holder thing that the tour company provided. Inside was that booklet I mentioned above. The soldier asked me to give him my camera and that booklet. He said to follow him. I think attention was paid to the booklet because of the revolutionary image on the cover.
As I attempted to follow the soldier carrying my camera and the booklet, another soldier demanded I present to her my boarding pass. The boarding pass had the sticker that would match to my bag. This is common in many countries. I always assumed it was to reduce theft, but that wouldn’t be a problem in North Korea. Anyway, I couldn’t find my boarding pass. It must have fallen somewhere. So she finally gave up and let me pass. By now I couldn’t find where the guy with my camera went. There was a series of x-ray machines and I kept walking passed them until I got to the last x-ray machine. There I found a table full of electronics, including my camera. I pointed to my camera and the booklet and the guy handed them to me. They didn’t ask any questions or give me a hard time.
And with that I was through to the other side and officially in North Korea. It was relatively painless. While the entry process was more or less like any other country, the fear of knowing that they can go through all of your stuff makes it quite different. They have a ban on pornography, just as numerous countries do, as well as anti-North Korean books or articles. One guy on my tour had his computer inspected. The soldiers opened up an episode of the cartoon Tom & Jerry and watched it. I guess it was a spot check. If you have The Interview on your computer, you obviously won’t be allowed to bring your computer into the country. They’ll hold on to it for you at the airport and you’ll get it back when you leave. Your best bet is to make sure the computer is clean before you bring it in.
Again, different from other countries, but not a big deal.