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  1. #1
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    customs inspection

    i had a "fun" experience coming back into the u.s. at washington dulles international airport earlier this week.

    i am not sure what triggered this "random" customs inspection. it may have been the short duration of my trip, but i am not certain.

    when i went through immigration, the immigration officer asked how long i was out of the country and where i had been. i told her 6 days, and that i was in the uk and india. uk was just a 5 hour stay. i went and relaxed at the spa at the sofitel hotel attached to heathrow's terminal 5. for 25 GBP, i had almost private use of the spa for 5 hours. they have nice showers, a big whirlpool, steam room, relaxation room, and so forth. i only saw one other person for a few minutes the whole time i was there before she went in for a treatment. the place was mine the rest of the time. it was great! i highly recommend it if you have a few hours in heathrow's terminal 5. but i digress.

    it may also have been because on the question about are you bringing any food into the country, i said no. but on the back of the customs form where it asks you to detail purchases made abroad that you are bringing into the country, i listed cookies. on a previous trip, when i was bringing chocolate and cookies that i had purchased abroad, i said yes to that question. on that previous trip, the immigration officer asked me what i was bringing and i told him that i had chocolate and cookies. he told me that those don't count, and he changed my answer to no on the form. they want to know about produce, seeds, meat, fish, poultry, and so forth. so based on that, i don't say yes anymore when i'm bringing chocolates and such.

    so the immigration officer wrote a code on my customs form and sent me on my way. while everyone else waited around the baggage carousel, i walked towards the customs officer with my aeronaut and medium cafe bag on me.

    the customs officer looked at my customs form and asked another officer what "R3" meant - that's what the immigration officer had written on my customs form in big letters.

    the other officer responded: i don't know. some kind of random search. and so they had me get in another line in an area off to the side. i've gotten in line before to pay an import duty when i imported (and of course declared) some rugs.

    but this was different. i was going to be searched. very thoroughly searched.

    when i got through this other line about 45 minutes later, i had a very nice conversation with the customs officer as she went through every last little thing in my bags. she mentioned that it is an offense to not say yes to the question of food when you're carrying even chocolates. she said there is some confusion amongst the officers and you may hear differently from different officers. she advised that the correct information is that you can bring in such articles, but you should also say yes when asked that question on the customs form.

    fortunately, i wasn't charged .

    she asked if i was carrying more than 10,000 USD or equivalent, and i advised that i was just carrying a couple of hundred USD in USD, GBP, INR and Euros. she happened through my tom bihn wallet and examined the contents carefully.

    she also went through the papers in my medium cafe bag. i keep my travel papers in a folder, and i had papers in there from my last trip to india. i had purchased some stainless steel plates and bowls at a store in delhi on that earlier trip, and i had that receipt in my travel folder. i kept it in there because i want to pick up more of the same on another trip when i have an opportunity. she asked me what was purchased, what that receipt was for - since i had not declared anything else on my customs form. i explained that was from a prior trip and showed her the date on the receipt.

    but it is amazing the detail in which every little thing in my bag was examined. she even opened up the pocket in my moleskine notebook and unfolded and examined the papers therein! she slowly flipped the pages in my moleskine and in a book i was carrying, i guess looking to see if any papers were hidden inside of them.

    she asked a series of questions as she searched. and i think this is done to get a reading of whether you are nervous or comfortable with the search process - to see if you are hiding anything. unfortunately, she asked me where i worked and how long i have worked there. i told her, and i've only been at this company for about 4 months. i was with aol before. i shouldn't have told her that. because what followed was a complaining session about how aol did this wrong and charged me for that and so forth in a time that i didn't even work for the company. oh, that was painful! but the rest of the experience was certainly bearable .

    she went me on my way after all of that.

    it helped that i had been fairly organized in the packing of my stuff in that it was easy to repack after all of that.

    i spent over an hour after in customs if you include the waiting time and the inspection and the repacking. at least i didn't have any checked luggage to wait for .

  2. #2
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    Thanks for sharing.

    Even cookies counts!

  3. #3
    TOM BIHN Crew (we work here) Darcy's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by maverick View Post
    she asked a series of questions as she searched. and i think this is done to get a reading of whether you are nervous or comfortable with the search process - to see if you are hiding anything. unfortunately, she asked me where i worked and how long i have worked there. i told her, and i've only been at this company for about 4 months. i was with aol before. i shouldn't have told her that. because what followed was a complaining session about how aol did this wrong and charged me for that and so forth in a time that i didn't even work for the company. oh, that was painful! but the rest of the experience was certainly bearable .
    That's just not right! How rude - and inappropriate.

    Glad you eventually made it through all of that...sheesh.
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  4. #4
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    Seems like things may have been better when US Customs and US Immigration were under different auspices prior to Homeland Security overseeing it all.

  5. #5
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    It was just the same before.

    The form is not long but complicated as it asks the same question twice in a different way.

    Coming from anywhere outside the U.S, it is always best to eat your food on the plane and dispose of any leftovers before customs.

    Make sure you declare everything you bought, even trinkets that sometimes get tossed in the checked bag, during the ever so pleasant shuffle associated with flying commercial.
    Keep the receipts in a secure place and the items in their original packaging if possible.


    If you buy dried herbs like herbes the Provence in France or dill in Scandinavia, ship them UPS before you leave.

    Do the same with fragile items like Murano glass or Provence clay figurines or Lalique glass.

    Many makers of European traditional crafts or vendor of products like the ones I mentioned above, have websites and will be happy to ship the items you like for you.

    Unless you fall in love with a unique piece, better buy the item online when your are back in the U.S. You'll have to pay custom either way.


    Maverick did everything right when he went through the custom inspection.

    Staying cool and stoic is the best way to go.

    Easier said than done, I speak from experience.

  6. #6
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    i always bring back chocolates when i go to india. the milk there is different. even the ice cream is so much creamier. but i definitely cannot bring that back .

    the vegetables there are also better - fresher, more full of flavor. maybe the soil is different.

    i remember having saag (mustard greens, kind of like spinach) at my friend's grandmother's house in a small village in india some years back. i have never tasted saag like that anywhere else! it had been picked from the fields earlier that morning, and it had been prepared with such love.

    the food is delicious and full of flavor at fine restaurants and at small dhabas. but there was something special in that saag that i have not tasted any place else.

    stuff like that has to be enjoyed there. it cannot be brought back except as a fond memory. but the chocolates, they will be coming back with me every single time :-).

  7. #7
    Registered User peregrina's Avatar
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    wow, that's quite an ordeal! So you have to pay customs over every item you purchase or is it just above a certain value? Here in Canada we only need to declare if we spend above a certain amount ($400 if you were away for 48 hours or $750 if you were away for more than 7 days)... Since my husband and I never really buy much, I confess we are not very good in keeping receipts...

    As for the real flavour of fruits and vegetables, stay away from industrial agriculture and buy your food in farmer markets or through a CSA and you'll re-discover what real fruits and vegetables, grown as they should and picked in season, should taste like. As for our milk and chocolate... most of the stuff available in North America is a far cry from the real stuff... The first time I had a Kit Kat in France, my jaw dropped... the difference is unbelievable.
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  8. #8
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    no, you only pay customs duty on imports over a certain amount (i forget now what that amount is), provided they are for personal use or gifts. the only time i have had to pay duty was when i brought back some rugs from india. otherwise, the $100 or $200 i spend on gifts and such when traveling is not an issue. you list it and you walk right through.

    i try to purchase organic, locally grown and in season fruits and vegetables as much as possible. i have gotten some really delicious and juicy peaches and tomatoes over the summer at farmer's markets in raleigh, nc.

    chocolates from europe are also really yummy. i am not saying one is better than the other, but there is a difference between european chocolates and indian chocolates. have a cadbury dairy milk chocolate bar from india and from the uk, as an example, and you will taste the difference.

    i'm not sure why chocolates in the u.s. taste different. while a lot of it is just awful, you can get really yummy, organic chocolate here. there is a brand i buy regularly at whole foods. i forget the name - i will look it up and post back here with it. another really yummy chocolate is green & black's milk chocolate bar.

    Quote Originally Posted by peregrina View Post
    wow, that's quite an ordeal! So you have to pay customs over every item you purchase or is it just above a certain value? Here in Canada we only need to declare if we spend above a certain amount ($400 if you were away for 48 hours or $750 if you were away for more than 7 days)... Since my husband and I never really buy much, I confess we are not very good in keeping receipts...

    As for the real flavour of fruits and vegetables, stay away from industrial agriculture and buy your food in farmer markets or through a CSA and you'll re-discover what real fruits and vegetables, grown as they should and picked in season, should taste like. As for our milk and chocolate... most of the stuff available in North America is a far cry from the real stuff... The first time I had a Kit Kat in France, my jaw dropped... the difference is unbelievable.

  9. #9
    Registered User peregrina's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by maverick View Post

    i'm not sure why chocolates in the u.s. taste different. while a lot of it is just awful, you can get really yummy, organic chocolate here. there is a brand i buy regularly at whole foods. i forget the name - i will look it up and post back here with it. another really yummy chocolate is green & black's milk chocolate bar.
    I read somewhere that it has to do with the fact that most of what gets labeled as chocolate in North America is not in fact chocolate, that is, it has no cocoa. In Europe, they tend to be a bit more purist about things although even there you might find something labeled chocolate that isn't real chocolate. When I lived in Spain I read about a movement led by Spain and Italy to pass a resolution at the EU that would prohibit anything that doesn't contain at least a certain percentage of cocoa from being labeled "chocolate".
    In our household: Black/Steel Aeronaut (with 2 large packing cubes and Absolute shoulder strap), Forest/Steel Aeronaut (1 large and 2 small packing cubes), Olive/Wasabi medium Cafe Bag, Linen/Olive Medium Cafe Bag, Cocoa/Cocoa/Wasabi Imago, Cardinal/Hemp/Steel Imago, Hemp Little Swift, Solar Shop Bag, Plum/Wasabi Side Effect, Black/Steel/Solar Smart Alec, Horizontal and Vertical Freudian Slips, TB Wallet, Hemp Little Swift, FOT pouch, Black/Olive ID

  10. #10
    Registered User peregrina's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by maverick View Post
    otherwise, the $100 or $200 i spend on gifts and such when traveling is not an issue. you list it and you walk right through.
    Oh ok, that must be the difference then. Here we only list if it goes above the limit, otherwise, you don't write anything...
    In our household: Black/Steel Aeronaut (with 2 large packing cubes and Absolute shoulder strap), Forest/Steel Aeronaut (1 large and 2 small packing cubes), Olive/Wasabi medium Cafe Bag, Linen/Olive Medium Cafe Bag, Cocoa/Cocoa/Wasabi Imago, Cardinal/Hemp/Steel Imago, Hemp Little Swift, Solar Shop Bag, Plum/Wasabi Side Effect, Black/Steel/Solar Smart Alec, Horizontal and Vertical Freudian Slips, TB Wallet, Hemp Little Swift, FOT pouch, Black/Olive ID

  11. #11
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    There is a difference in taste everywhere because of the soil, weather and way of producing the item.

    Thanks a lot Maverick and Perigrina, I now have cravings for chocolate, dairy and ice cream.



    In the U.S, it is much better to stay away from candy bars because they are all sugar and fillers with a little coating of cocoa powder to look like chocolate.

    I thought I was dreaming when I felt there was a difference in the taste of name brand candy bars between the U.S and Europe but I guess, I was right.
    As Peregrina noted, it is probably because of cocoa and milk fat content and especially the fact that Europeans frown on fillers.
    Last edited by backpack; 03-08-2009 at 06:19 PM.

  12. #12
    Registered User peregrina's Avatar
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    I agree! I really don't like candy bars in general - I much prefer a good quality dark chocolate. Perhaps a dark chocolate with some form of nut or fruit but none of those candy bars filled with stuff inside...

    and after a year in Spain, where chocolate houses like Valor are everywhere, I became even pickier
    In our household: Black/Steel Aeronaut (with 2 large packing cubes and Absolute shoulder strap), Forest/Steel Aeronaut (1 large and 2 small packing cubes), Olive/Wasabi medium Cafe Bag, Linen/Olive Medium Cafe Bag, Cocoa/Cocoa/Wasabi Imago, Cardinal/Hemp/Steel Imago, Hemp Little Swift, Solar Shop Bag, Plum/Wasabi Side Effect, Black/Steel/Solar Smart Alec, Horizontal and Vertical Freudian Slips, TB Wallet, Hemp Little Swift, FOT pouch, Black/Olive ID

  13. #13
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    Buahaha.. usually we don't have to worry about listing trinkets or such when coming back to the US.. because we list the catchall categories of "gifts" or "knickknacks"

    We were subjected to a thorough (not as thorough as yours, maverick, but thorough just the same) search coming back from China a couple years back. Since we had visited with many friends and such throughout our trip, we brought back a good portion of China. =) But really, unless they are identifiably foreign, you won't need receipts and such... you could have argued that you bought _(particular item)_ in Chinatown back home! Of course, you don't really want to be arguing......

    Anyhow, all we got asked about was a tea (one of the Chinese characters on the package appeared similar to the character for "cow"), and I believe we were already thoroughly cautioned about bringing anything on a disc (CD, DVD, VCD, etc)

    The most recent trip we brought back preserved fish (NOT MY IDEA!) but Customs was fine with it, as long as it wasn't fresh..?

  14. #14
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    Quote Originally Posted by Just View Post
    because we list the catchall categories of "gifts" or "knickknacks"
    thanks! that is good to know. i thought they wanted a more specific listing, so i have always been specific about what i purchased.

    Quote Originally Posted by Just View Post
    Of course, you don't really want to be arguing......
    no, you don't want to be arguing. you want to always be respectful and polite.

    this happened many years ago. before i was a u.s. citizen, i had a green card - meaning i was a permanent resident. at one point, my green card was being renewed. so they had stamped my passport to indicate that i was a green card holder. i was returning to the u.s. at dulles airport, and for whatever reason, i was asked to go to this other room for further verification before i could clear immigration.

    while i waited in that room to be seen, i witnessed some rather unpleasant situations. the officers talk to some of the people quite rudely and roughly. they are in a position of authority, and perhaps as an intimidation tactic to break you down if they suspect wrong doing, they really put a fear in you in the way that they talk to you.

    i remember there was a couple who were newly married abroad. i guess the immigration officer suspected whether the marriage was genuine or whether the guy was trying to just get this girl into the u.s. and understand that this is with reason - there are people in this world who don't exactly follow the law.

    but i don't agree the way in which they manage these situations. the officer was yelling at them. they were separated and questioned individually, and you could see the girl was scared out of her mind and crying. this was probably her first time in the u.s. the officer was in a room with the door closed, and you could hear him yelling at her in the waiting area. that is not right.

    on the occasion that i was returning with rugs and waiting to pay the import duty, i saw what was actually a bit more comical. this guy had arrived with cardboard boxes as his luggage, and they had been taped crazily. i think he ended up being inspected because they suspected he may have been carrying something he shouldn't have. the officer pulled out all sorts of things - i don't remember all of it now. but i remember one very odd thing. the officer pulled out a chicken. this was the whole bird. not a leg or a wing or other part. a whole chicken. now, i don't know what was inside of it. but the officer said to the man, i'm going to turn around, and you're going to put that into the trash. and then we'll continue. i think that was nice of the officer.

    but the way in which this man's articles were opened was not nice. most of the time, the officer was cutting into packaging with a knife - not just the boxes, but items taped up that were inside of the boxes. i would protest and ask to speak with the supervisor if an officer brought a knife anywhere close to any of my luggage.

    so, yes, you don't want to argue. if you upset someone, you could be handled in a not so friendly manner.

    Quote Originally Posted by Just View Post
    and I believe we were already thoroughly cautioned about bringing anything on a disc (CD, DVD, VCD, etc)
    why is there a concern over carrying discs?

    i didn't this time, but when i am carrying my laptop, i'll often pick up a dvd or two to watch inflight.

  15. #15
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    Quote Originally Posted by maverick View Post
    chocolates from europe are also really yummy. i am not saying one is better than the other, but there is a difference between european chocolates and indian chocolates. have a cadbury dairy milk chocolate bar from india and from the uk, as an example, and you will taste the difference.

    i'm not sure why chocolates in the u.s. taste different. while a lot of it is just awful, you can get really yummy, organic chocolate here. there is a brand i buy regularly at whole foods. i forget the name - i will look it up and post back here with it. another really yummy chocolate is green & black's milk chocolate bar.
    This New York Times article details some background for the differences between Cadbury's chocolates sold in the UK and elsewhere. This may also address peregrina's comments about Kit Kat bars in France.
    Quote Originally Posted by maverick View Post
    why is there a concern over carrying discs?
    Quote Originally Posted by Just View Post
    and I believe we were already thoroughly cautioned about bringing anything on a disc (CD, DVD, VCD, etc)
    i didn't this time, but when i am carrying my laptop, i'll often pick up a dvd or two to watch inflight.
    Probably there are concerns over pirated movies, computer games, and music that are in violation of copyright, although the NAXOS brand of highly regarded budget classical CDs has its headquarters in Hong Kong, and widely distributes legal recordings in mainland China. I think that dissident groups like the Falun Gong also used to target foreign travelers in airports and hand out DVDs and VCDs of their material.

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