Want to speed through customs without getting pulled into the dreaded detention room? Then be aware of these 10 unexpected reasons you could get flagged. While you should never lie on your customs forms -- getting arrested or deported is one way to delay your trip even further -- and always follow the advice of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which recommends, "If in doubt, declare it," it's best to be prepared. Our list may even save you from having to pay taxes or toss out food, so read on!
Spending Lots of Money
You may not have expected a math quiz to be part of your vacation, but when you return to the U.S., be prepared to add up how much money you spent shopping on your trip. There is a limit to the amount travelers can spend duty-free, and it depends on the countries visited and the length of stay. The Customs and Border Protection (CBP) website states that vacationers returning from certain countries can bring back up to $800 worth of goods without having to pay taxes (with the exception of Caribbean countries and U.S. territories). For travelers returning from a foreign country in which they spent less than 48 hours (with the exception of Mexico), the duty-free exemption is only $200.
Check out the rules on the CBP website before you go, and spend accordingly. Exceeding the allowed duty-free amount is a sure way to delay your path through customs.
Visiting Certain Countries
If you've ever watched the quality reality-television show Locked Up Abroad, you'll know that some countries are more notorious for drug smuggling than others. So it makes sense that customs officers pay extra attention to travelers returning from those countries. For example, when I flew back from Panama, my flight was met by about 20 CBP officers who watched everyone get off the plane and then brought drug-sniffing dogs to the luggage claim to check bags.
Another SmarterTravel staff member says, "Coming back into the U.S. through Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, my traveling partner and I got very briefly detained by customs, but it was scary nevertheless. I believe it's because we were two college students returning from a few weeks in Europe, and she had traveled to Southeast Asia shortly before that. After a brief discussion, my roommate was waved through; however, I was the one led to a small room and asked many, many questions about where I had been, how long I had been there, was I bringing back contraband, did anyone else pack my bags or fill out my customs forms, etc.? My passport and luggage tags were inspected, and then I was asked the same questions over again, in a different order. After what felt like a very long time, I was merely let go, with no further explanation."
Using a Cell Phone or Camera
No matter how excited you are to Instagram your arrival back into the United States, put the camera away until you're through customs. CBP forbids the use of cameras (including cell phone cameras) in the customs processing areas. And if you use your cell phone while in the area, it can be confiscated and not returned.
Visiting a Farm
On the customs declaration form for returning to the U.S., you'll have to indicate whether or not you visited a farm or were in close proximity to livestock on your trip. Check "yes," and you'll be pulled aside for a separate screening and usually have your shoes (the ones you wore on the farm) sprayed with a disinfectant. This is to avoid the spread of foot-and-mouth disease, but it may cost you extra time and make getting through customs a hassle. The upside? Sometimes the agricultural inspection line is shorter than the general customs line, so you may get through quickly even if you have to spend some time getting your shoes cleaned. While this delay might cost you a bit of time, we'd never recommend lying about where you've been on your trip.
Having Passport Stamps from Certain Countries
If you have passport stamps from certain countries (even from a trip you took years ago), you may run into trouble at customs at home or abroad. For example, trying to enter certain Middle Eastern countries with an Israeli passport stamp in your passport can cause trouble -- so much so that Israel began a pilot program this year through which visitors get a separate entry card rather than a physical mark on their passport. Likewise, having a stamp in your passport from Cuba will likely raise some eyebrows at the American border.
Traveling with a Pet
Animals are subject to inspection upon arrival in the United States, so traveling with a pet is a sure way to be flagged at customs. Be sure to check the requirements about the vaccinations or health certificates your pet may need, as well as the rules about which animals are not allowed in the country, before you fly.
Carrying Fruit in Your Bag
You may know better than to bring fruit into the U.S., but be careful about what was in your bag during your vacation or in the days before your return trip. The well-trained customs dogs can sniff out the lingering aroma of fruit -- even if you used your purse to carry an orange a week before your flight. You won't get in trouble, but you might get delayed and/or searched.
Wearing Hiking Boots
For nations concerned about biosecurity (specifically, keeping non-endemic species from invading), hiking boots are a big risk, as they could be contaminated with soil, seeds, or water from a hike in another country. If you're traveling to Australia or New Zealand, for example, you'll need to declare your hiking boots, and you may have to wait while they are cleaned or even have to throw them away.
Not Knowing Where You're Staying
Planning to be spontaneous and book a last-minute hotel in the U.S. when you land? Forget the exact address of the friend you're staying with? Prepare for some extra scrutiny from the CBP. The customs declaration form requires that every traveler arriving in the U.S. indicate where he or she will be staying; if you don't know, CBP agents might deny you entry into the country.
Bringing in Food (Even an In-Flight Snack)
Brought a snack on the plane but forgot to eat it, or saved some of your in-flight meal for later? Better declare it or throw it away before you disembark your flight -- because failing to declare a food item can result in a minimum $300 fine. This goes beyond fresh food -- processed food must be declared too. Odds are you'll get to keep the prepackaged candy you bought as a souvenir and you'll have to toss that fresh food. But the important thing is that you declare all food items so that the customs officer can make that call.
Have you ever been detained at customs? Tell us your story in the comments.
-- By Caroline Morse