Reentering the country can be hard, but you don’t have to make it as hard as I did this past week. I had an interesting first time experience coming back to the states that not only served as a reminder, but I think is also worth sharing with you all.
First a few facts. I was clearing customs and exiting in Miami, from having flown in from Europe. It’s not at all an airport I’m familiar with. Also, as is my habit, I usually take a few pieces of fruit with me in my carry-on, in case there are delays or I get hungry after deplaning. I don’t generally check the US Customs and Agriculture rules regarding which country I’m flying from and which, if any, fruits/vegetables are allowed or not allowed. And I usually remember to leave the fruit on the plane if I think it will be an agricultural issue.
My Previous Experience
Prior to this week, even with all the flying I do each year, I only had one experience with fruit and clearing agriculture inspection. A few years ago when the Global Entry program was just getting started, a friend and I were coming in to Hawaii from French Polynesia. When we got close to the baggage claim carousel he realized he had an apple with him. He decided to eat it rather than declare it. As we were waiting for baggage an officer approached us. We received some threats regarding a mark on his passport and a lecture regarding the laws and how we should know better given our Global Entry privilege. In the end, perhaps because he is Canadian, he was issued a warning rather than a fine, and that was the end of it.
Remembering this incident, and having forgotten to leave my fruit behind on the plane, when I got to the Global Entry window my thinking was that I’d just toss my fruit in the garbage. As I handed the woman my passport I told her I had an apple and a banana and was going to toss them in the garbage. She promptly told me I couldn’t do that, filled out a form and told me to wait by the side of the counter and that someone from agriculture would come get me.
Oops. I had no idea what any of this meant, or what would happen next, and was just hoping it would all go quickly so I could get on with my day.
After a few minutes a security guy came to fetch me and his job was to escort me to my next stop, which he said would be agriculture. But it was not. My next stop was baggage claim BUT on the opposite side of the carousel and walled off from the general waiting area where all the other passengers were. The first thing I noticed is that there were NO toilets on this side of the building. And I was the only passenger. This area had a separate guard who I engaged in friendly chit-chat, but who of course would not let me use the toilet on the other side.
What Happens If You Try and Sneak Fruit Through
I asked the agent about people who do try to come in with fruit in their bags. I wondered what usually happens. He said the patrol dogs sniff every bag and everyone. The fine is hundreds of dollars and marks you for life with customs and agriculture. I did observe the dogs being used even at this very UNbusy time of day. Given it was the middle of the afternoon, there were no other incoming flights so perhaps this all wouldn’t take too long. Finally my bags arrived. My next stop was finally agriculture inspection.
Whew, no one was there but me. The agents took my baggie and fruit, inspected all my bags thoroughly (at this point who’s going to hold anything back?). Given that there were six guys at the desks ready to process people, I think they were happy to have a customer! They did react well to my jokes and pleas to not take my chocolate!
I asked the agent a few questions and found out two interesting things. One was that if you leave the states with an apple (or piece of fruit) and return with that fruit and it is still labeled and clearly from the states, you can enter with it. Interesting, no? Also, since the agricultural rules as to what’s allowed and from where do change quite often, the inspectors don’t keep up with them. They tend to know the generalities and look up what they need to know more specifically.
Finally my bags were inspected and the inspector said, “Welcome home.” Though my experience was fairly smooth and went as quickly as these situations can go, I imagine there are times when the this could be a slow, long, and frustrating experience.
Hope this recounting of my experience serves as a reminder to pay attention to what you’re bringing through agriculture and customs when you enter the states. I’d be curious to know if I’m the rare traveler who has had this happen or has this happened to you?