There are a number of physical formats you can consider when buying gold:
Gold owned through a commodities exchange, or "on paper" is no substitute for physical bars, coins, or jewelry. Exchanges are heavily leveraged, which means if everyone tried to "cash out" at once, there isn't enough physical metal to go around.
Moreover, precious metals are typically meant as a hedge against the complete collapse of the traditional banking infrastructure. If you wind up needing it, you'll want to have it close at hand!
Buying gold on credit or speculating on the future price can lead to getting yourself in a significant financial jam.
Instead, put some money to the side that you're sure you're not going to need in a short time horizon, and use that to invest.
Having liquid gold on-hand and ready in the event of a crisis is the best hedge. Being invested in gold ETFs is fine depending on your objectives, but if you're truly hedging against unforeseen market collapses, you want physical metal in your possession.
It's important to comply with the law when it comes to buying gold, and knowing what they are goes a long way.
Under a certain dollar amount, there's no need to declare (which may be attractive to some), but once you hit a threshold you will need to (and should) declare your holdings.