How to Avoid a US Customs Fiasco

Many years ago I was in a long US Customs line at Miami International Airport after a three-month European adventure.  I was exhausted, after being delayed close to 24 hours at Heathrow Airport in London due to a major air strike. The US Customs Officer repeatedly announced that anyone bringing any kind of food into the US from a foreign country should wait in a specific line for inspection. Few travelers responded. Suddenly two food-sniffing beagles appeared and swiftly targeted a specific woman’s suitcase. The traveler insisted she had no food in that suitcase, but the dogs insisted she did. “No food! No food! No food!” she repeatedly declared in a foreign accent. So the officer informed the woman that the beagles were never wrong, and her suitcase had to be inspected. The woman repeatedly refused to allow the officer to take the suitcase and would not let go of the handle. “I said no food!” she shouted.


Those of us waiting in line were getting frustrated with the delay, though we were visibly amused by the situation. An armed guard, with a physique like Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime, appeared on the scene and explained to the traveler and the rest of us in line we cannot refuse inspections of our suitcases for any reason unless we wish to be taken into custody and brought downtown. (If you were from Miami, you’d know that “downtown” (i.e., Dade County Jail) is the last place in the US where you’d want to go. The woman was in tears and was screaming something unintelligible in a foreign language and pointing her finger at the imposing guard.  I was shocked that anyone had the nerve to cause a scene at US Customs - in Miami of all places – and with a guard as intimidating as that one.


The armed guard stared the woman down until she reluctantly surrendered her hard-sided luggage. He thrust it up on the inspection table in one fell swoop, and due to the weight of the contents, it hit the table with the thud of a bowling ball dropping on a wood floor. He tried to open the suitcase; naturally it was locked. The traveler would not hand over a key, so the guard pried it open with some sort of a crow bar he had on his belt, as the woman sobbed and threw herself on the floor. The dogs were still standing there, and one of them started to lick the back of the woman’s neck as if to console her. She did not even seem to notice. I was near the front of the line so I could see that inside her confiscated bag were no less than 30 large sausages and 4 oversized hams, among other prohibited meats I could not identify.  


“No food? No food?” he loudly mocked the woman, actually mimicking her foreign accent. Then the guard held up a giant ham over his head like a tennis champ would show off a Wimbledon Trophy, feet planted firmly on the ground hip width apart and slowly turning his torso from side to side, flexing his biceps and making eye contact with all of us in line. “This is considered food, folks,” he stated in a drill sergeant’s tone. “And if you too have a hunk of pig in your suitcase, I will indeed find it!” Imagine the laughter that ensued from the travelers in line, to the dismay of the guard.


The woman was then helped off the floor and brought into a private room behind the inspection table. At that point I was glad I had eaten the 12 huge boxes of beautifully wrapped chocolates from Switzerland I intended to bring back to my family and friends (even though it was perfectly legal to import chocolate). These delights were wrapped in colorful papers featuring photos of the Swiss Alps and were just too yummy looking to resist during my journey. One by one I talked myself into believing it was okay to eat them, until every last one was gone. 


After this ham and sausage experience at MIA more than 30 years ago, I vowed to memorize the US Customs laws and keep up with the changes so I would never lose my luggage to the sniffing beagles. Little did I know way back then that I’d eventually become a cruise line writer who would have no choice but keep up with US Customs laws. All travelers should do the same.


Before your next overseas trip, check these website pages for crucial updated information: 



Think of duty as a tax on imported goods. 

In general each US resident is allowed to bring $800 worth of merchandise intended for personal use back into the US without paying a Duty. But there are exceptions to this. Alcohol, cigarettes and other tobacco products are limited. Not all merchandise requires duty, such as some household items like furniture and linens. The US may impose much higher than average duties on products from certain countries.

Declarations Form
Every traveler entering the US from a foreign country must complete one of these forms.

Most fruits and vegetable cannot be brought into the US from other countries, because of the obvious reason that the government does not want potential pests and diseases to compromise our crops. The fruits and veggies that are allowed to be imported must be declared and inspected.  Most meat, poultry, and other animal products are not permitted to enter the US by travelers. Most fish is permitted. The laws on food importation are strict, so make sure to read the restrictions before you buy anything overseas.

Other Prohibited Items
You cannot bring dog or cat hair into the US from foreign countries. (Why would you want to do this anyway?) Of course, firearms in most instances and drug paraphernalia are a no-no as well. There are restrictions on bringing some legal drugs into the US as well. Plants and soil require import permits.

Tips and Other Facts
• Know that you are required by law to declare everything you bought on your overseas journey, no matter how small or insignificant.

• Do not smuggle items into the USA, no matter whether they are legal or not. If you do not declare an item that should have been declared, you risk forfeiting that item and/or receiving a fine. You may be detained for questioning, depending on the situation.

• Keep all receipts for merchandise you bought overseas, and know where they are.

• Pack everything you need to declare together in one suitcase so you are not fumbling in the Customs line.

• Buying items in other countries in “Duty-Free” shops does not mean you will not have to pay duty on these items if the purchases exceed your personal exemptions.

• Make it a policy to NOT buy items in foreign countries you can easily get at home, unless the savings is shockingly high.

• If you are traveling with prescription meds, keep your pills in their original containers with the prescriptions on them.

• It is customary for Customs Officers to ask travelers routine questions. Since you will likely be exhausted after traveling overseas, you may be short on patience. However, do answer all questions honestly and be polite and respectful to the Officer.  Do not argue.

• US Customs has the right to perform total searches on travelers entering the USA. So avoid doing anything to provoke a search, including lying, hiding purchases, being rude, sarcastic or loud, among other things.

• Keep in mind that US Customs and Border Patrol laws are enforced to protect us, even if at times they can be inconvenient.

• Know exactly what items are prohibited to be imported before you shop overseas.

• If you have any doubts about purchasing an item while overseas, save yourself a lot of potential trouble by contacting US Customs first to make sure it is permitted to be imported.

• There are so many items seized by US Customs every year that they end up in Government Auctions. If you don’t believe this, check it out for yourself.

So, if you want to enjoy shopping during your foreign travels, by all means, go out and have a ball. But educate yourself first about US Customs (here's the website: to avoid any disappointments or inconveniences. And I can save you a lot of trouble now by assuring you that it is never wise to stuff your suitcase with sausages and hams. 


Debbie Glade is the Geography Awareness Editor for Wandering Educators.