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Our history

We were established on 5 January 1840, when the first Head of Customs was appointed in Kōrōrārēka, Bay of Islands. The year 2015 marked our 175th anniversary.

Our targets and activity have changed over the years: from opium, war, risqué books, importer scams and transistor radio smugglers, to methamphetamine, counter-terrorism, objectionable material, fraud and money laundering.

Our focus and commitment have remained the same.

Our primary function when we were established was to gather revenue for the government. By the 1980s, however, trade’s importance to the economy saw us shift our focus. Helping facilitate New Zealand’s expanding international trade relationships became our priority.

Alcohol and tobacco are some of our oldest areas of responsibility. It’s our job to regulate some aspects of their production and distribution. We also collect the excise tax levied on these products.

Significant dates


Our first Head, George Cooper, arrives in NZ from New South Wales with Captain Hobson on HMS Herald.


NZ secedes 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.


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


In April, after a major decline in tax income, the Governor repeals the Property Tax and brings back Customs.


The United Kingdom Treasury frees the Department from detailed control.


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.


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


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


The title of Comptroller is adopted for the head of Customs.


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


Sales tax is introduced as a temporary measure. This was replaced by the GST Act that came into force on 1 October 1986.


Import licensing is introduced. (Basic licences were introduced in 1958).


The Customs Act 1966 is introduced.


The first drug dogs enter service.


CASPER – the Customs and Statistical Processing of Entries and Retrieval – computer system is introduced.


A new Customs and Excise Act 1996 is introduced. Changes include renaming the Department to the New Zealand Customs Service.


The CusMod computer system and associated modernised practices are introduced.


The New Zealand Customs Service internal structure is re-organised into national business units.


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


Customs adopts the Customs Strategic Priorities 2001-2004.


Customs initiates the Supply Chain Security Strategy. This provides assurance over international trade goods arriving in, transiting through and being exported from NZ.


Customs buys 11 additional pieces of non-invasive (x-ray) inspective technology. Customs initiates 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 following years.


Customs introduces the 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. It aims to find practical and pragmatic ways to improve NZ’s border management.


An ongoing plan to introduce SmartGate technology in both NZ and Australia begins. SmartGate now gives e-passport holders of these countries – as well as a number of others – the option of automated processing at all main international NZ airports.


The Trade Single Window (TSW) gets up and running on 1 August 2013. It has now 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.


A new Customs and Excise Act 2018 is introduced.

Learn more

Further reading

Your local library may carry this book on our history - The Guardians at the Gate, David McGill, Silver Owl Press, Wellington 1990.

It's also available from a range of online book stores.

175th Commemorative Magazine

A look inside our journey from 1840 to 2015

This magazine offers an insight into decades of our progress, and our role in NZ’s social wellbeing and economic development. Please contact the Web team if you'd like a PDF copy sent to you.