BUDGET TRAVEL ADVICE
Warning: You'll Never Get These 10 Items Through Customs!
It happens all the time: Folks return from a great overseas getaway loaded down with waaaay more stuff than they left home with. The only problem? Some items are not allowed through U.S. customs. Here, some surprising souvenirs that you should definitely pass up.
Travel Tip: There are a few countries deemed acceptable to export certain meats from—scan the USDA's website to make sure: aphis.usda.gov.
Big souvenirs from Cuba, Iran, or much of Sudan
Economic sanctions prevent visitors from bringing items back from these countries (Cuban cigars, for example). You can apply for a license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control if you wish to import something, but it's rare that you'll actually get one.
Travel Tip: A few exceptions to this rule exist: Books, magazines, films, photographs, posters, art, and music are okay, as are small gifts worth less than $100.
Most fruits and vegetables
One teensy piece of fruit carried onto an airplane caused the great California Mediterranean fruit fly outbreak of the early 1980s. The pestilence threatened the state's agriculture—and set the federal government back $100 million to eliminate. (Think about how bad that person must have felt.) If you're determined to bring fruit back, the USDA has a long list of what's permissible (aphis.usda.gov/favir)—nearly every fruit and veggie (possibly with the exception of an apple you bought in an airport, for example) requires a permit.
Travel Tip: Be aware that you'll have to show your fruit to a customs officer for inspection, especially if it's something exotic, like pomegranate. Fail to report your produce, and you could be hit with a $300 fine.
Designer knockoffs and cartoon-character paraphernalia
Tempting as it might be to stock up on faux labels when you're out of the country, goods like fake Chanel bags and nearly real Mickey Mouse knickknacks are subject to U.S. copyright and trademark protections. The government is so serious about enforcing this that your haul of "confusingly similar" trademarked merchandise could be seized.
Travel Tip: If you just want one fake bag to use for yourself (and not sell on Canal Street), that's okay: You can be granted an exemption by the government. But know that you can only bring one item of its kind into the country—so a pair of sunglasses, a purse, and a pair of jeans are okay, but three purses are not, regardless of whether they have three different labels. Another note: You can only get this exemption once every 30 days.
More than $10,000 cash
To make it rain on the plane, you'll have to report the cash first. Smuggling "bulk currency" (an offense under the Bank Secrecy Act) is the kind of thing drug traffickers are known to do, therefore U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement doesn't take kindly to it. Money orders, travelers' checks, and foreign coins—not just paper bills—count too.
Travel Tip: To bring your money in legally, obtain the exhaustively named "Report of International Transportation of Currency of Monetary Instruments" from a customs officer. If you don't, you could face up to five years in jail.
Some Haitian Goat Hide Drums
Hauling an animal-skin drum through an airport seems ripe for a comedy of misunderstanding anyway (the ceremonial snake bowl that Renée Zellweger brought back from Thailand in the second Bridget Jones movie didn't do her any favors), but some goat-skin drums aren't treated properly, and have been tied to a cutaneous anthrax case, putting them on the Centers for Disease Control's restricted list. Same goes for some African drums.
Travel Tip: If getting your mitts on your own personal drum is in your plans, ensure it's been tanned, as that means it's non-infectious.