The wrong thing in your bag—a forgotten piece of fruit, for instance, or a handmade souvenir—could cost you big and frustrate your international travels for months to come.
At the heart of many international travelers’ U.S. Customs and Border Protection horror stories, there is some degree of ignorance, even on the part of the most seasoned globetrotters. That’s mostly due to complex CBP policies and the agency’s ever-evolving rules regarding which edibles, medications, and even souvenirs and cultural artifacts cannot legally be brought into the United States from a foreign country.
Before weary international flyers can exit airports in the U.S.—and before they can catch their flights home at “pre-clearance” customs checkpoints in foreign terminals—CBP agents screen luggage for contraband. Some of the screenings are entirely random, others are prompted by a special X-ray scanner or the sensitive nose of a detector dog trained to sniff out plant- and animal-derived products. If an illegal and undeclared item is discovered, the agent can issue a hefty fine on the spot ($300 is the starting point) and potentially set in motion a series of unfortunate events that will hinder your travels for months to come.
These tips should help you navigate a complicated process and avoid a horror story of your own.
More items are forbidden than you realize
➤ Produce and meat
Fruits, cheese, vegetables, plants, seeds, and meats are the most common items that are listed as prohibited on customs forms. Wonder why these are considered contraband? Many of these items can introduce pests or other harmful things from a foreign environment. The same holds true for visiting most island locales, even domestic ones like Hawaii.
If you are unsure, the safest thing to do is declare it so it can be reviewed by an officer. Yes, this will add extra time to your screening, but it will save you any confusion or potential fines.
It’s not just fruit and veggies that can snag you, and things can get really tricky unless you keep track of the rules. Since meats are usually not allowed, the same goes for things that may contain meat products, like soup mix and bouillon cubes. Agents may inspect them and let them pass, but it is not always a sure thing. Rice is also discouraged since it can harbor insects.
➤ Art and cultural treasures
If you’re a fan of art and cultural treasures, most pre-Colombian sculptures or murals from Central or South American countries are not permitted. The same goes for colonial paintings from Peru or Khmer sculptures from Cambodia.
According to the CBP, “Most countries have laws that protect their cultural property. . . . These laws include export controls and/or national ownership of cultural property. While foreign laws may not be enforceable in the United States, they can cause certain U.S. laws to be invoked. For example, under the U.S. National Stolen Property Act, one cannot have legal title to art/artifacts/antiquities that were stolen—no matter how many times such items may have changed hands.”
➤Handicrafts and plant-derived products
That colorful sombrero from your Mexican vacation could cost you much more than you may have bargained for it, as “any plant or plant product or handicraft item made from straw,” including hats or baskets, must also be declared to an officer to ensure that they are free from pests. Counterfeit items like faux Prada or Gucci bags or bootleg DVDs are verboten. Arriving with five Gucci bags in your bag will certainly cause suspicion, and it is advisable to keep the receipt and declare these items if you purchase genuine, trademarked goods.
➤ Prescription medication
Many of us travel with prescription medication, you CBP requires you to have the actual prescription or a doctor’s note on hand to prove what it is. If you’re someone who separates medication into those daily divider cases or combines pills into one container to save space, avoid doing so when traveling abroad. They should be in the original containers. Also avoid carrying more pills than you might need; it is permitted to bring in controlled substances under 50 units, but any more requires a prescription.
Controlled substances that are not legally prescribed in the United States are also not permitted. Cough medicine and antidepressants get extra attention because they can contain potentially addictive drugs or narcotics. Anything with drug paraphernalia on it will be scrutinized and can be fined or seized. According to the CBP, “It is illegal to bring drug paraphernalia into the United States unless prescribed for authentic medical conditions such as diabetes.”
Stay on the right side of the law
➤ Double-check for contraband
Many foreign airports post numerous reminders before passing through customs inspection for travelers to check their bags for prohibited items like fruit. There are even amnesty bins where these things can be discarded before reaching the inspection point. In U.S. arrival areas, amnesty bins (or even garbage cans) are less common, however, which could potentially lead to more people being fined. A good rule of thumb is to search your bags one last time before deplaning to make sure you didn’t, for example, stash an apple from the flight.
➤ Be ready for pre-clearance
A growing number of foreign airports (Abu Dhabi, Aruba, and Dublin, to name a few) make use of pre-clearance facilities, which are self-contained U.S. customs checkpoints. Make no mistake: You may be 3,000 miles from the United States, but U.S. Customs and Border Protection rules apply the moment you enter that checkpoint. Be prepared.
What happens if you get caught
➤Expect to pay a fine
If you are courteous and genuinely apologetic over minor infractions, many officers will let you go with a warning. But, they will also notate your record for future reference. Get caught again, and you can expect to fork over as much as $500 per piece of fruit. Typically, the fines must be paid on the spot in cash or check, but some places may accept credit cards. Alternatively, they can be sent in after the trip during a short grace period.
➤Get ready for extra screenings on future trips
For several months, prepare to receive secondary customs screening when returning to the United States from abroad. Typically, it is just a scan of your bag in an X-ray machine to see if you are a repeat offender. After you pass immigration, forms may show varying clues that signal to the customs officer near the exit that your belongings should be screened. It may be that you declared something or that you were fined in the past and are due for a random screening. You might notice giant X-ray machines and people unpacking their bags when leaving baggage claim while undergoing these secondary screenings.
➤ You may lose Global Entry and TSA Pre-Check status
Global Entry can be revoked for myriad reasons as this CBP document, shared by Loyalty Lobby, shows. Some are quite obscure, but even the smallest mistake affects your status as a “trusted traveler.” The option to appeal the loss of Global Entry can be tedious and take months to complete, and it is rarely successful if you have been fined for a prohibited item. The revocation of Global Entry may affect your TSA Pre-Check status if you applied for both programs together, but you can simply reapply to get Pre-Check independently.
➤ If you lose Global Entry, take heart
If this does happen to you, there is some solace. Global Entry is not the only golden ticket. There is an often faster and easier program known as the Mobile Passport app. With neither the lengthy enrollment process nor ridiculous wait times for an in-person interview, Mobile Passport is a decent replacement for Global Entry. Oh, and it’s free. Travelers usually have dedicated arrival lanes at customs inspection points, and often pass through immigration faster than those using Global Entry machines. With the Mobile Passport app, customs questions are completed while the plane is taxiing to the gate instead of at a kiosk.