How to Avoid Getting Fined When You Go Through U.S. Customs

The wrong thing in your bag—a forgotten piece of fruit, for instance, or a handmade souvenir—could really cost you and disrupt your international travels for months to come.

How to Avoid Getting Fined When You Go Through U.S. Customs

It’s important to know what you can—and can’t—bring through customs.

Photo by Shutterstock

At the heart of many international travelers’ U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) horror stories, there is some degree of ignorance, even on the part of the most seasoned globe-trotters. That’s mostly due to complex CBP policies and the agency’s ever-evolving rules regarding what food, medications, and even souvenirs and cultural artifacts cannot legally be brought into the United States from a foreign country.

Before weary international fliers can exit airports in the U.S.—and before they can catch their flights home at “preclearance” 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 getting fined when going through U.S. customs.

If you’re traveling with any of these items, declare them on your customs form:

Produce and meat

These foods are generally not allowed through customs:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Plants
  • Seeds
  • Meats

Wonder why these are considered contraband? Many of these items can introduce pests or diseases from a foreign environment. It’s also often prohibited to transport food when visiting many island locales, including domestic islands such as Hawai‘i.

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 it’s definitely not easy to keep track of all the rules around food. Cheese is allowed, so long as it is solid cheese that doesn’t contain meat since meats are usually not allowed. Similarly, items that may contain meat products, like soup mix and bouillon cubes, are also often off limits. Agents may inspect them and let them pass, but it’s 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-Columbian 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.

Certain souvenirs and shopping purchases

Counterfeit items like faux Prada or Gucci bags or bootleg DVDs are verboten. Arriving with five Gucci bags will certainly cause suspicion, and it is advisable to keep the receipt and declare these items if you purchased genuine, trademarked goods.

Prescription medication

As a U.S. citizen, you do not need to declare prescription medication, but the CBP requires you to have the medication in its original containers, or that you travel with a copy of the prescription or a doctor’s note on hand. That is to say, if you separate medication into those daily divider cases or combine pills into one container to save space, be sure to carry proof of what the medication is. 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. Foreign nationals entering the U.S. should declare all prescription medication and have the prescription or a doctor’s note (in English) on hand.

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.”

Double-check for prohibited items

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 preclearance

A growing number of foreign airports (Abu Dhabi, Aruba, Dublin, and Toronto, to name a few) make use of preclearance 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 with prohibited items at customs

Souvenir stand in Medellin, Colombia selling straw hats, bags, and sunglasses

Think twice before bringing home souvenirs made from straw, like sombreros or bags.


Expect to pay a fine

If you are courteous and genuinely apologetic over minor infractions, many officers will seize your items and 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 airports 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, your forms may signal 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 PreCheck status

Global Entry can be revoked for myriad reasons, and even the smallest mistake affects your status as a “trusted traveler.” Failure to make a proper customs declaration (even by accident) is one of those reasons. The option to appeal the loss of Global Entry can be tedious and might 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 PreCheck status if you applied for both programs together, but you can reapply to get PreCheck independently if need be.

What to do if you lose Global Entry

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 can 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.

This story was originally published in May 2018, and was updated on October 25, 2022, to include current information.

Ramsey Qubein is a freelance travel journalist covering hotels, cruises, airlines, and loyalty programs from around the globe.
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