Not Quite Legal Souvenirs

Food seized at Washington Dulles
USDA /Ken Hammond

Somewhere in a small town in an unnamed country is the complete skull of a crocodile and a small box of teeth that belong to that skull. The crocodile, who wasn’t using her teeth anymore, was not supposed to make this trip but did so anyway, without a passport, packed in the insulation of T-shirts stained with the red dust of the Australian Outback. The person who checked this partial crocodile knew there’d be some risk of having the bones and teeth seized at the border. Plus, hey, it was free, scooped up at a swampy turn out somewhere. No money changed hands in the acquisition of the croc skull.

What was to lose? Seizure at the border, a protestation of ignorance and slap on the wrist. “Sir, you can not import animal bones without proper documentation.” “I had NO idea, I am sorry, yes, of course, take it.”

It’s a risk. And make no mistake. You may very well be breaking the law. Travelers take it on because what’s the worst that can happen? Well, a lot. Best case? You’ll have your goods seized or maybe get tagged with an expensive fine. Consider yourself lucky if that’s the case.

Here are a handful of questionable souvenirs that seasoned anonymous travelers decided they’d try to get through customs.

Three kilos of flour: “…for culinary purity. When my friend asked me to bring corn flour, I didn’t think much about it, and then suddenly I found myself with two big bags of white powder in my checked luggage. Not only was I bringing in an unlabeled agricultural product, but it resembled something else entirely.”

The USDA allows you to bring in baking mixes and the like, but requirements are that it’s commercially packaged and properly labeled. Certainly, flour won’t set off the drug sniffer dogs, but explaining those bags of white powder isn’t something you want to find yourself doing in any airport.

Ten pounds of cheese: Cheese is tricky. Hard cheese is okay, soft cheese isn’t, and the USDA guidelines on what a hard cheese is or isn’t aren’t exactly clear – they say “like Parmesan or cheddar.” Brie is probably out, as is Camembert, but what about a blue cheese? Unlcear. Good luck.

Italian olives: “They are officially not okay to bring back, but I found some that were vacuum packed and decided to give it a go. I listed foodstuff on my customs form, and when the officer asked what kind I started off with all the things that I knew it was okay to bring back (wine, hard cheese, olive oil, etc.). By the time I mentioned the olives he had already tuned me out.”

It’s fresh fruit and veg where the trouble lies, packaged, processed products are less likely to raise eyebrows. But if you don’t declare your fruit or veg, it could potentially set you back a $300 fine, plus, oops, there go your olives.

Various kinds of meat: “I packed the salami wrapped in socks and tucked inside my shoes, and sailed past saying not one word.” Meat products are strictly regulated, with a mind towards preventing the spread of disease. Multiple travelers fessed up to squirreling all kinds of fancy product past the border, not just salami, but pate, rillette, prosciutto and more.

Bones, bones, more bones: “A llama vertebrae.” (Taste in souvenirs does vary.) The crocodile skull. A handful of seashells. Ivory and tortoise shells are especially tricky and require special documentation to prove their antiquity. This stuff is all governed by Fish and Wildlife in the US and, in some cases, can only come in through certain airports. To complicate things, there are additional guidelines for “Individuals Wishing to Import Non-Human Primate Trophies, Skins or Skulls” meaning should do your homework before tossing that monkey brain bucket into your bag.

Antiquities of any kind: “I snitched a tiny black and white marble mosaic tile from a heap that looked destined for Ostia Antica’s dump. I feel guilty, but 30 years on still love cradling in my palm something an ancient Roman once touched. It’s like holding hands across time.” Stolen cultural artifacts – that’s a big one.

There’s a useful page of information on the US Customs and Border Patrol site, including a Know Before You Go sheet that will send you into a rabbit warren of other places. What about that machete – is it legal? Probably, but you won’t get it past security in your carry-on. Plus, security, that’s a whole different can of worms.

Worms, by the way, will never make it past customs. Don’t even try.