Our history

Customs is the oldest government department in New Zealand. It was established on 5 January 1840 when the first Head of Customs was appointed.

Since the beginning, tariffs and taxes collected by Customs have been a major source of revenue for the government. In the 2009/2010 year, for instance, Customs collected around $10 billion – roughly 15 percent of total Crown revenue. 

The Service has always been responsible for imposing controls over the movement of people and goods through our borders. These days, restricted and prohibited imports of interest to Customs include objectionable material, drugs, firearms and harmful substances, such as hazardous waste and ozone-depleting products.

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.

While the basic functions of the New Zealand Customs Service have not changed greatly since its establishment 170 years ago, at different times some aspects of the operation are more strongly emphasised than at others.

For instance, 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. 

But now, in recent times, and following the events of September 11, 2001, the focus has again shifted. This time the emphasis is firmly on security and protection at New Zealand’s borders. The heightened vigilance has seen Customs not only concentrating on inward goods and passengers – as they have always done – but paying greater attention to export goods as well.

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.

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: Friday, 15 April 2011