These aren’t trick questions, but they are tricky. 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, most shocking, to list every single ticky-tacky item you purchased, including the Prince William and Kate Middleton tea towels from London.
“You need to be as specific as possible,” says Christopher Downing, a supervisory U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer at Dulles International Airport. “The more specific you are, the less time you’ll spend here.” Here, by the way, refers to the Customs and Border Protection area that all passengers, foreign and U.S.-born, must pass through post-plane and pre-release into the United States.
Yes, reentering the country can often be a speedy process, as quick as a Jiffy Lube oil change. But make a few missteps and prepare for some detours. The Customs inspectors will show you the way.
To understand the multistep procedure and sneak a peek behind the Customs curtain, I spent a day and a half at Dulles. I observed some of the 250 federal workers as they interviewed passengers, inspected their luggage, confiscated goods and eventually lifted the garage door to the good ol’ U.S.A. Standing at the front lines, I learned how we the people can be better (returning) patriots, starting with Question 11: “I am (We are) bringing. . . .”
Brace yourselves for the crowds, folks. Between November 2010 and October 2011, more than 3.3 million passengers flew into Dulles from foreign lands. Between the peak hours of 1:30 and 5:30 p.m., Customs officials may interview 2,500 to 5,000 international visitors and U.S. residents flying in from Brussels, Frankfurt, Geneva, Jeddah, Moscow, Paris, Riyadh, Rome and Vienna — and that was just one weekday afternoon this pastfall.
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 told me. “Even if you found it or it fell out of a truck. Nine times out of 10, it’s allowed. But just tell us.”