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How to speed through customs

Customs officer Dennis Torrey confiscates dried cowskin from

Customs officer Dennis Torrey confiscates dried cowskin from a passenger arriving from Cameroon at Dulles International Airport near Washington. (Jan. 31, 2012). Photo Credit: The Washington Post/Jahi Chikwendiu

You've made it this far -- through security at the overseas airport, the whimpering baby in Seat 22E, the neighbor's seat back in your lap -- and you have just one more hurdle to clear: the U.S. Customs Declaration form. The double-sided slip of paper is basically all that stands between you and home, your dog and the pile of unopened mail.

With only 15 questions, the grayish-blue form seems easier to fill out than a Cosmo quiz: name, birth date, street address, etc. Until you reach the part that asks what you bought during your travels, how much you spent and whether you're carrying any animals, vegetables, snails or soil. 


Even the most seasoned traveler might not think to declare a banana swiped from the plane or to categorize a snakeskin belt from Italy as a "wildlife product." Or to list every single ticky-tacky item you purchased.

"The more specific you are, the less time you'll spend here," says Christopher Downing, a supervisory U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer at Washington Dulles International Airport. Here, by the way, refers to the customs area that all passengers, foreign and U.S.-born, must pass through post-plane and pre-release into the United States.

Yes, re-entering the country can often be a speedy process. But make a few missteps and prepare for some detours. The customs inspectors will show you the way. 


The first requirement: Fill out the declaration card, preferably before you join the rivulet running through the primary screening area.

"Anything that you acquired outside the United States, you must declare," Downing says. "Nine times out of 10, it's allowed. But just tell us."

CBP needs to know the amount you spent abroad to assess whether any additional payments are due for taxes. The department also protects endangered creatures worldwide and safeguards the country from disease. Bugs, parasites and other uninvited guests can catch a ride on fruits, vegetables, plants, meats and other organic matter.

"Americans are generally not honest about food, especially when they come across a good sausage from Italy or Germany," said Michael Harris, an officer since 1999.

Customs officials, who undergo six months of training, are keen readers of body language and mannerisms. To the sharp ear, a hesitation or a sigh can be as revealing as an open confession; to the astute eye, nervous tapping and a wandering gaze can betray obfuscation.

Passengers who pass the first line of defense move on to the baggage carousel to collect their luggage. Those who fail either have to hang back or are red-flagged for secondary screening or for more intense questioning.

When goods are seized, travelers not only lose their souvenirs (officials recount many a tale involving tears or tantrums), but they also risk paying a fine. The first offense costs $300, the second $500, the third $1,000. Do it again and the State Department can curb your travel privileges. Makes you think twice about bringing in those yummy beef candies from China.


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