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 .