Here’s a tip for passing through Customs: keep exotic animals out of sight. It’s advice Robert Cusack could have used in 2002, when a bird of paradise flew out of his suitcase at Los Angeles Airport during a routine inspection. When agents asked if he had anything else to tell them, he was reported to have said, “Yes, I’ve got monkeys in my pants.” He wasn’t lying: stuffed down his trousers were two small primates.
The contents of your luggage may not be quite as exciting—nor as lively—but souvenirs are one of the great joys of travel. A meaningful handicraft or an unusual article of clothing is a big part of how we continue to enjoy our travel experience. Still, watch out: your new cherished knickknack could get you stopped by U.S. Customs, just as surely as if you’d hidden monkeys in your knickers.
Beyond obvious things any traveler should know not to pack—politically troublesome items like Cuban cigars, ancient relics that should stay in their place of origin, goods like tortoiseshell jewelry made from endangered species—many apparently harmless items can bring trouble at the U.S. border.
Food and beverages are frequent troublemakers, often posing unseen health and environmental hazards that necessitate tight regulations. Of course, strict inspection is understandable: California’s $100 million fight against the Mediterranean fruit fly may well have been triggered by a single tourist importing just one piece of infected fruit.
But not all fruit restrictions are due to insect hazards. Some fruits themselves are simply dangerous. The ackee, for example, is Jamaica’s national fruit—and one that is both delicious and nutritious when properly prepared. Otherwise, the flesh of the ackee contains a toxin that can induce vomiting, seizures, and even death. Travelers to Jamaica who get caught bringing home fresh ackee may be upset at its forfeiture—but it may save them a much worse kind of seizure later on.
Likewise, Scotland’s national dish—haggis—is also banned, and not just because it’s a meat product, which always gets the attention of Customs. Haggis is created by pushing a sheep’s heart, liver, and lungs into its stomach and then simmering the result until it resembles food. U.S. Customs objects to this awful offal not out of culinary discretion, but because it contains lung, an item whose importation has been banned for sanitary reasons since 1971. (Incidentally, rumors that the anti-haggis sanctions may be lifted are about as fact-based as Brigadoon.)
The restrictions on haggis and ackee are fairly well known, at least in their home countries, but others are nearly impossible to know about—until it’s too late. The most surprising items may be Kinder Surprise eggs, the famous Swiss candies with little toys in the center. Believe it or not, Kinder Surprise is specifically banned by U.S. Customs, thanks to a 1938 food safety law that illegalized the sale of any confectionery containing “non-nutritive” items. Surprise, indeed.
Fortunately, travelers who mean no harm rarely suffer more than the loss of their souvenirs, and possibly a fine. But before your next trip, you might want to glance at the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol list of prohibited and restricted items. That way, you’ll get to keep your keepsake—no matter how strange, exotic, or seemingly ordinary it might be.