Published September 04, 2012
A memorable trip isn’t complete without taking home some sweet souvenirs. But you better be careful, some trinkets could land you in legal hot water.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency says it seizes hundreds of thousands of items each year from travelers trying to take them through customs. Among the most popular seized inadmissible souvenirs are undeclared goods and counterfeit items, such as designer clothing, media, watches and purses. Footwear or leatherwear made from endangered or protected species also makes the list - as well as what the agency considers ‘consumables,’ such as herbs, meats, cheese, sausages, Cuban cigars, absinthe and medications.
But there are a host of things that even frequent travelers may be surprised to learn that are prohibited. One such item is the popular European milk chocolate treat Kinder Eggs. During fiscal year 2011, CBP says it seized more than 60,000 Kinder Eggs because the small plastic toy inside the chocolate shell could pose a choking hazard for young children.
Recently two Seattle men returning from a visit to Vancouver say they were detained more than two hours at the Canadian border after U.S. border agents discovered illegal chocolate eggs in their car.
While some international tourists say they’ve brought back Kinder Eggs without having them confiscated, CBP warns against this.
"As the U.S. government’s law-enforcement agency at the border, CBP is charged with enforcing the regulations of both agencies to keep safety hazards away from American consumers," said John Wagner, CBP executive director for admissibility and passenger programs.
CBP officials say a slew of factors can determine the penalties for restricted items brought over the border, which can range from simple seizure to fine or even arrest.
"Among these are commodity type, whether it is prohibited or restricted, intent of importation, whether declared to the CBP Officer, and value of merchandise," Wagner said.
Kinder Eggs aren’t the only food travelers should rethink before purchasing internationally. CBP says first check whether specific fruits, meats, dairy and produce products are allowed before buying it overseas.
Go ahead and enjoy some fresh, ripe Mediterranean tomatoes while in Europe, but don’t plan on making spaghetti with them at home. CBP will allow certain fruits and vegetables, but only if it is from a certain place and it will also depend on where the traveler will be taking them after.
Rules and regulations like this can make it tricky for travelers to know what will or won’t be permitted. During a flight back from Europe, Allison Riley from New York, NY questioned whether her bag of clementines would be allowed.
“As we filled out our declarations form, we were nervous about the plant question and asked our flight attendant,” Riley said. “She sort of flipped and said, ‘those will need to destroyed!’ I kid you not. She used the word ‘destroyed,’ but then she walked away and never came back. Mid-flight, we finally took matters into our own hands and started pounding clementines like it was our last meal.”
It’s much better to ask or mention what’s in your bag than hope the fruit goes unnoticed. CBP says failing to declare agricultural items could cost first-time offenders $300 if it’s produce on the restricted list.
Some travelers say they’ve even had to hand over cooked or processed food - not realizing in advance that the rules regulating meats are stringent.
“Several years ago, I returned from visiting relatives in Poland, who gave me a vacuum sealed, smoked pork tenderloin (a smoked ham),” said Rose Wertheim from Granite Bay, Calif. “Customs told me I couldn't bring raw meat. I argued that the ham was fully cooked and sealed, but they nevertheless confiscated it. I just know somebody in the back room had a feast with my ham.”
CBP says fresh, dried or canned meats from most foreign countries are not allowed to be imported.
Thinking about getting a knock-off purse or wallet while traveling internationally? Destinations like Hong Kong and Shanghai have high-quality counterfeit and pirated goods that are very tempting to the tourist. But be aware - if you are caught with pirated or counterfeit items in your luggage when you come back, you will lose the items and may have to pay a big fine. Things like designer handbags, soccer jerseys and baseball caps are counterfeit or trademark infringed items are some of the most popular banned items it confiscates. However, CBP says travelers coming back to the states may be allowed one item of each type if it is for personal use and not to be re-sold.
"Specific to animal products, enforcement is to ensure that exotic animal diseases are not introduced into the United States,” said Dianna Bowman, the CBP acting deputy executive director of the agriculture programs and trade liaison. “Foreign country disease regulations change depending upon animal-related disease outbreaks. It's best to consult the CBP and USDA websites for current country status."
Attempting to import other animal products might cost you much more than the item itself. Be sure to double check what types of fur are allowed by CBP before making a purchase.
CBP says importing items containing cat or dog fur is illegal. The fine could be up to $10,000 for each intentional violation and $5,000 for each gross negligent violation.
From a stuffed crocodile to live birds, CBP officers say they sometimes have to seize unusual items from passengers’ bags.
“This interception (of the stuffed crocodile) is significant, and is an excellent example of the CBP commitment at our ports of entry to partner with other federal agencies whose laws CBP helps to enforce,” said Stephen Kremer, the CBP area port director in Atlanta. “This seizure highlights the diversity of the CBP mission.”
Even if your souvenirs are legal, certain items are bound to catch the attention of agents for further inspection. Kristina Anderson from Portland, Oregon says while in Mexico, she bought a replica of the pyramid at Chichen Itzá, which was carved out of cow bone.
“I bought it while in Mexico - hoping to display it in my classroom,” Anderson said. “(It was a) perfect addition for all my Spanish-Mexican decor. I was really excited about it. At customs, they pulled it out and asked what it was made of. So I told them cow bone since that's what the dude I bought it from told me. They discussed it a bit and sent me on my way.”
If you’re hoping to bring back some ivory, be aware it will most likely not be allowed. CBP says a permit is needed to import any type of ivory - unless it is from a warthog. But keep in mind - most will still not be permitted unless it can be proven to be an antique with documentation proving it is at least 100 years old.
Other natural elements might at least bring you into question as well. Elizabeth Taylor Frandsen from Salt Lake City says she was stopped by agents for some beach sand from Prince Edward Island in Canada.
“They didn't take it away because it was dry,” Frandsen said. “But if I had chanced to grab some that was wet, they wouldn't have allowed it back into the U.S.. And even the sand they did let me bring almost didn't make it, but they finally decided it wouldn't do any harm. I took the sand because it's red like you'd find in St. George or somewhere so I wanted to show my husband what it was like there.”
While items questioned by agents may or may not be prohibited, CBP recommends caution when using certain products from overseas. The agency says some ceramic tableware - especially from Mexico, China, Hong Kong or India - could possibly contain dangerous levels of lead in the glaze, which it warns could possibly seep into food and drinks. When returning to the States, the agency recommends checking the lead levels on the item.
A possibly toxic situation travelers might not realize they brought home in their souvenir.
For a complete list of items not allowed through customs, visit cbp.gov.