How Serious Are Those Customs/Global Entry Questions?

Anyone who’s traveled internationally has seen a customs declaration form at one time or another. For those of us who are US citizens and frequent travelers, we’ve seen tons of these, at least prior to becoming part of the Global Entry program.

The questions asked as part of the Global Entry kiosk are essentially the same and something I’ve virtually always checked “no” to.

A recent post on View From the Wing had me thinking about a recent time where one of those questions came back to bite me. The relevant question reads something like this:

I am (We are) bringing:

a) fruits, vegetables, plants, seeds, foods, insects(emphasis mine).

My family was traveling back from a trip to Halifax this summer and going through the US pre-clearance facility at the airport. Everyone in the family has Global Entry so we headed to the kiosks.

We had already dealt with some United baggage issues so we’re a bit frazzled. I had just completed one of the 4 customs declarations (I believe it was mine) when a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer approached me.

She asked me what I answered for the questions and I told her I had replied “no” on all of them.  She then covered up the screen and asked me if I remembered what the fruits and vegetables question read. I didn’t and told her I knew it referenced fruits, vegetables and insects but couldn’t recall the exact verbiage.

She then pointed down to my backpack, where you could see a small corner of a bag of potato chips sticking out of one of the pockets. I replied openly that I didn’t have any fruits and vegetables, they were potato chips.

She then showed me the word “foods” listed on the paper form and asked me what I had to say for myself.  Her tone and posture were getting very confrontational which was a really good signal on my part to be respectful and patient.

I told her I didn’t recall that was part of the question (obviously, I didn’t) and that I hadn’t really considered that I should claim a bag of chips.  She told me potato chips were most definitely a food and that if I had any gum or mints I had better go through my bag thoroughly before telling her I didn’t have any other food. She said, “If you can put it in your mouth and swallow it, you need to announce it to a CBP officer.” Not even going there….

I asked her if I should go grab a paper form and correct my error. She told me it was too late, that I had already answered the questions untruthfully. At this point, she had been questioning me for about 5-10 minutes. I asked her what I should do.

She told me it was a $10,000 fine for filing an incorrect form, and then said she thought that I had learned my lesson and that I could claim the potato chips on another family member’s claim form.

Shortly thereafter we were on our way to a secondary check since the kids don’t qualify for “full” Global Entry, in that they have no fingerprints on file and need to be checked by an actual agent. The CBP agent asked for my son’s GE card. As luck would have it, I somehow managed to pack the other 3 cards but not his. I had to enter his number into his United profile before we left and it didn’t end up back in my backpack. I noted that when we applied for Global Entry the officers instructed us to leave the cards at home (true statement) as they wouldn’t be used for air travel.

He told me I was wrong and called over a supervisor. Of course, the supervisor was the CBP officer who originally grilled me about the potato chips. She noted that I wasn’t having an especially good day and that now my son was in jeopardy of losing his Global Entry and never getting it back.

I apologized and explained we were instructed not to carry the cards. She really didn’t like that answer and asked me if we submitted fingerprints for our son. I told her they had taken them for my daughter but refused to put my son’s on file. She suggested that we get them taken when we got back to the US. In a moment of irony, when she walked away the other CBP officer told me NOT to get his fingerprints taken, that it would only mess the system up more.

At the end of the day, we appear to have escaped both interactions unscathed, with 30 minutes of our time being the price we paid. I’m certain I won’t make those missteps again, though I never considered that mints or gum needed to be declared.

I probably should have know to declare my potato chips(or zipped up my bag).

Bottom line?

If a CBP official questions you, the best course of action is just to answer openly and honestly. Trying to lie your way out of a mistake can’t end well, IMO.

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