Our history

​Customs is the oldest government department in New Zealand and this year marks its 175th anniversary. The department was established on 5 January 1840 when the first Head of Customs was appointed in Kōrōrārēka, Bay of Islands.

From the old days of opium, war, risqué books, importer scams and transistor radio smugglers, to today’s methamphetamine, counter-terrorism, objectionable material, fraud and money laundering – the targets have changed, however Customs’ focus and commitment remains the same.

Customs’ primary function in the early days of the colony was revenue gathering. But, by the 1980s, the critical importance of trade to New Zealand’s economic well-being saw a distinct shift in focus. Helping to facilitate New Zealand’s expanding international trade relationships became the priority for Customs.

One of Customs’ oldest traditional responsibilities concerns alcohol and tobacco. It is Customs’ job to regulate certain aspects of production and distribution as well as ensure that the various excise taxes owing on these products are collected.

The basic functions of the New Zealand Customs Service have not changed greatly since its establishment 175 years ago.

Customs has always been responsible for controls over the movement of people and goods across our border and collecting Crown revenue. We protect New Zealand’s border using world-class tools, people, and innovative approaches, and promote New Zealand by facilitating trade and welcoming visitors.

We focus on high-risk goods and passengers while avoiding undue disruption to legitimate traders and travellers, making compliance easy to do and hard to avoid.

Last year, Customs processed a record 11.2 million arriving and departing travellers and processed 7.8 million import transactions.

Significant dates

1840 – The first head of New Zealand Customs, George Cooper, arrives in New Zealand from New South Wales with Captain Hobson on HMS Herald.

1841 – The colony detaches from New South Wales and the Customs Department becomes a Customs Home Establishment, subject to the control of the Lord Commissioner of the Treasury in the United Kingdom.

1844 – Customs is abolished on 30 September. The Government introduces a tax on all property and income, but leaves it to the good faith of people to assess themselves.

1845 – In April, following a major decline in tax receipts, the Governor repeals the Property Tax and brings back Customs.

1850 – The Department is freed from the detailed control of the United Kingdom Treasury.

1858 – New regulations place the Department’s administration in the hands of a Commissioner of Customs (now the Minister of Customs), appointed by the Governor. The Head of the Department is now called the Collector of Customs.

1865 – The title of the head of the Customs Department is changed to Secretary and Inspector.

1881 – The Customs cutter Hawk enters service. The name has since become a tradition, with the current patrol boat also called Hawk.

1910 – Title of Comptroller adopted for the head of Customs.

1913 – The Customs Act 1913 is passed, updating the legislative basis for the Department’s work.

1933 – The introduction of Sales Tax (as a temporary measure). Replaced by the GST Act that came into force on 1 October 1986.

1938 – Import Licensing introduced. (Basic Licences were introduced later in 1958).

1966 – Introduction of the Customs Act 1966.

1974 – The first drug dogs enter service.

1980 – CASPER (Customs and Statistical Processing of Entries and Retrieval) computer system introduced.

1996 – New Customs and Excise Act introduced. Changes include renaming the Department the New Zealand Customs Service.

1997 – CusMod computer system and associated modernised practices introduced.

1998 – New Zealand Customs Service internal structure re-organised into national business units.

1999 – Border Control Review recommends a more integrated approach to border management. The Government response is to require more focus on a whole-of-government approach.

2001 – Customs Strategic Priorities 2001-2004 adopted.

2003 – Supply Chain Security Strategy initiated. This provides assurance over international trade goods arriving in, transiting through, and being exported from, New Zealand.

2004 – Purchase of 11 additional pieces of non-invasive (x-ray) inspective technology.

2004 – Project Guardian. Under the theme of “One Service” this was a major Customs-wide review and operational restructuring designed to future proof the organisation over the coming years.

2007 – Joint Border Management System (JBMS). A joint cooperation between Customs, the Department of Labour, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, and the Ministry of Transport. Its objective is to find practical and pragmatic ways to improve New Zealand’s border management.

2007/8 – Ongoing plan to introduce SmartGate technology in both New Zealand and Australia begins. SmartGate now gives e-passport holders in both countries the option of automated processing at all their main international airports.

2013 – Trade Single Window (TSW) has been up and running since 1 August 2013, and has handled over 1.4 million transactions. 100% of outward border transactions and 60% of inward ones now go through TSW, building steadily as traders come on board.

Further reading

The following history may be available from your local library: The Guardians at the Gate, David McGill, Silver Owl Press, Wellington 1990.

Customs display

A permanent display that celebrates the New Zealand Customs Service, from its beginnings in 1840 through to the present day, is located at the New Zealand National Maritime Museum, Corner Quay and Hobson Streets, Auckland. See www.nzmaritime.org

This description was last updated on: Thursday, 19 February 2015