Fear before customs need not be customary.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly

Returning to the U.S. from travels abroad can be a stressful experience. In addition to jet lag, sleep deprivation, and the usual hassles of air travel, you have to fill out a customs declaration form before you re-enter the country. U.S. Customs and Border Protection Form 6059B asks all travelers not only to give basic information about themselves and their travels, but also to declare whether they are carrying:

(a) fruits, vegetables, plants, seeds, food, insects
(b) meats, animals, animal/wildlife products
(c) disease agents, cell cultures, snails\
(d) soil or have been on a farm/ranch/pasture

Many passengers, truthfully or not, answer "No" to all these questions. What happens if you answer "Yes"?

L.V. AndersonL.V. Anderson

L.V. Anderson is a Slate associate editor. She edits Slate's food and drink sections and writes Brow Beat's recipe column, You're Doing It Wrong. 

Usually, nothing terrible. When you go through customs at the airport, the primary officer—which is to say the person who looks at Form 6059B after you've filled it out and signed it—will refer you to an agricultural specialist if you've declared that you're bringing any items listed above. The agricultural specialist will ask you additional questions and might ask to inspect the food items you're trying to bring into the country. In most cases, you'll be allowed to take your food with you when you leave the airport; but sometimes, the agricultural specialist will confiscate your food for further testing, and it will ultimately be disposed of through incineration or grinding.

Whether the food items are allowable—or "enterable," in customs-speak—depends on what they are, which country you got them from, and whether they contain pests or pathogens that could wreak havoc on American agriculture if they made their way onto domestic farms. Processed foodstuffs, like chocolate, cookies, and canned goods, are usually enterable, since they are unlikely to contain pests or pathogens. Fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats, on the other hand, are usually prohibited. Some items are permissible if purchased in certain countries but not in others. (For instance, it's prohibited to bring back rice from Israel and several other countries that harbor the dreaded Khapra beetle, which feeds on grains.) If you're hoping to bring back particular foodstuffs from your travels abroad, it's best to do some research ahead of time: You can find out whether a specific fruit or vegetable from a specific country is allowed by searching the USDA's Fruit and Vegetables Import Requirements database, and you can learn more about country-specific restrictions from two government-run websites, Don't Pack a Pest and Can I Bring It?

If you declare that you've visited a farm or been in close contact with livestock, the procedure at customs is slightly different. Because Customs and Border Protection's agricultural specialists are primarily concerned with pests or pathogens accidentally making their way onto American farms, they will ask to inspect the clothes, shoes, or luggage you had with you at the farm for soil, manure, blood, or other substances that might contain dangerous organisms. If they find any potentially dangerous substances on your personal effects, they will disinfect your items before they let you bring them into the country.

Although you might be afraid to declare that you're bringing food into the U.S. from abroad, or that you went to a farm during your vacation, you won't be financially punished for your honesty (except in the sense that you'll lose out on the value of any food that's seized and destroyed). However, if customs officers determine that you lied on Form 6059B and failed to declare an agricultural item you should have declared, you can be fined on the spot. The penalty for failing to declare food and other agricultural products at customs is usually $300, although customs officers can reduce the fine at their discretion. According to the agricultural branch of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, 96 to 97 percent of travelers are honest on Form 6059B about the food, or lack thereof, that they're bringing into the U.S.

What about if you declare that you're carrying more than $10,000 in cash or "monetary instruments" or that you have "commercial merchandise"?

In the first case, you must simply complete a special form for the Treasury Department, which likes to keep tabs on large sums of money crossing borders. But if you declare that you have items intended for sale when you enter the U.S., good luck. Many types of goods require filing a "formal entry," which involves posting a bond and "filling out very complicated paperwork," according to Customs and Border Protection. (CBP recommends hiring a broker to help you if your goods require a formal entry.) If you have less than $2,500 worth of commercial goods, and none of your goods are subject to special approval by a federal agency, you can file an "informal entry," which means a customs officer will inspect your goods and charge you a duty on them. But customs officers can decide to make you file a formal entry at their discretion, so it's best to make arrangements ahead of time if you want to bring commercial goods into the U.S.

Travel Explainer thanks Eunett James-Mack of the Agriculture Programs and Trade Liaison division of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

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