World's Strangest Illegal Souvenirs
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.
The name means “rotten cheese” in Sardinia, but that’s just half the story: casu marzu contains live maggots. The makers introduce the larvae to a decomposing wheel of pecorino to break down its fat and render it even softer and runnier. Revered as a rare delicacy by certain cheese aficionados who frequently try to smuggle it into the U.S. from Italy, casu marzu is not beloved by border officials. It’s not the maggots, however—Customs bans soft cheese of any kind.
An essential drink when traveling in the Andes, coca tea is prepared simply by pouring hot water over fresh coca leaves and sweetening to taste. It’s a delicious way to hydrate in the dry, thin air, and its stimulant properties (about as strong as a good cup of coffee) help fight altitude sickness. It’s sold widely and cheaply everywhere in the region, so you could easily get used to keeping a bag of leaves handy—but U.S. law takes a zero-tolerance approach to the molecules of potential cocaine inside.
The national dish of Scotland, haggis is a sausage made by shoving a sheep’s heart, liver, lungs, and fat into its stomach, adding onions, oatmeal, and various spices, and then simmering the combination for three hours. Whether you intend to eat the result or force-feed it to your captured enemies, don’t try to bring it into the U.S., which bans any food made from lungs.
Dried Soup Packets
Visiting Eastern Europe and hoping to bring home the delicious taste of goulash by packing some powdered mix? The comprehensive U.S. Customs ban on meat products—generally aimed at keeping out the obvious disease-transmitting goods like uninspected sausages—is so far-reaching that “almost anything containing meat products, such as bouillon, soup mixes, etc., is not admissible.” No soup for you!
The preferred spirit of self-destructive bohemians from Oscar Wilde to Vincent Van Gogh, absinthe gets its kick from thujone, a psychotropic compound contained in the wormwood used in distillation. Although absinthe has been enjoying a comeback for several years, your bottle of the Green Fairy will be seized if it (a) contains more than 100 parts per million of thujone, (b) bears the name “absinthe” alone on the label or as the brand, or (c) suggests mind-altering effects when consumed. In other words, your souvenir bottle of absinthe is fine—as long is it’s not actually absinthe.
Kinder Surprise Eggs
For anyone visiting or returning home to the United States, the biggest surprise about Kinder eggs isn’t the toy hidden inside—it’s that the product has been legally banned in the U.S. since its 1972 invention, running afoul of a 1938 safety law against putting “non-nutritive” items in candies and baked goods. This is no obscure, forgotten regulation, either. As recently as March 31, 2010, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website issued a specific reminder about the ban. If the warning had been issued one day later, it could have been an April Fools’ joke. But it wasn’t, and it’s not.
Gold, of course, is perfectly legal to own—unless it comes from a country where the U.S. has imposed an embargo. The list changes regularly; it currently includes just Cuba, Iran, Burma, and certain parts of Sudan. But Serbia, Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan were recently featured. Granted, not many travelers are running off to Iran, Iraq, or Afghanistan to stock up on gold—but Serbia and Cuba each host tens of thousands of U.S. tourists each year. Of course, the U.S. government would say you shouldn’t be visiting Cuba anyway, and you sure shouldn’t be bringing home any gold (or cigars).
The national fruit of Jamaica and a primary component of the national dish, ackee grows from a West African evergreen imported to the Caribbean during the slave trade. Roughly the size and color of a tomato, and rich in vitamins and essential fatty acids, ackee requires careful preparation. Consuming raw or poorly prepared ackee can cause vomiting and seizures. Banned in the U.S. for decades, canned ackee is now legal, but the raw fruit will be subject to seizure—precisely so the person eating it will not be.
Across the developing world, it’s hard to resist picking up some “Abibas” sneakers, “Cucci” handbags, “Polex” watches, and “Viagma” male-potency pills—if only for the novelty value. Try to resist anyway. Under U.S. law, “articles bearing marks that are counterfeit or inappropriately using a federally registered trademark” are to be seized at the border—even when the knockoff name is really funny.
Mexican Pork Products
Considering the heated debate over U.S.–Mexico relations, you wouldn’t think pork products would be high on the government’s list of priorities. Nonetheless, those pork rinds in your bag are liable to start a commotion at the border. Thanks to a total U.S. ban on personal importation of pork and pork products from Mexico, all manner of porcine comestibles are off-limits. Want to remember the taste of those awesome pork tacos you bought from a street vendor in Tijuana? Bring home pictures, not pig parts.
Clothing Containing Dog or Cat Fur
Appalling as it may be, some corner-cutting clothing makers around the world still use cats and dogs as a source of animal fur. Sensitive to international tastes and laws, they often mislabel their products to mislead consumers. Caveat emptor if you’re buying fur overseas, particularly in China and Russia, lest you end up with Chihuahua—not chinchilla. If you’re caught bringing it into the country, you’ll lose the coat as surely as its original owner did—and be fined at least $3,000.