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Clearing Customs; When re-entering the country, be prepared for some surprises when you check in with border inspectors

You've made it this far -- through security at the overseas airport, the coughing guy in Seat 22E, the neighbor's seat back in your lap -- and you have just one more hurdle to clear: the U.S. Customs Declaration form. The double-sided slip of paper is basically all that stands between you and home, your dog and the pile of unopened mail. Sharpen your pencil, and your responses.

With only 15 questions, including 10 that you could answer under the influence of Ambien, the grayish-blue form seems easier to fill out than a Cosmo quiz. No self-analysis required, just the cold, hard facts: name, birth date, street address, country of residence, countries visited, etc.

Until -- dramatic drumroll, please -- you reach the lower half of the card. You know, the part that asks what you bought during your travels, how much you spent and whether you're carrying any animals, vegetables, snails or soil.

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 prerelease into the United States.

Yes, re-entering 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.

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."

"They think that it's just a purse," said Kelly French, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service inspector, "but it's about how that purse is made of snake." (For the record, cobra is allowed; python is banned.)

The declarations are crucial on two fronts. CBP needs to know the amount you spent abroad to calculate the exemptions (up to $800 in items per person) and assess any additional payments. The second reason is a two-parter, to protect endangered creatures worldwide and to safeguard the country from disease and the destruction of flora and fauna. The biggest concerns are hoof-and-mouth disease, mad cow disease, avian influenza and exotic Newcastle disease, an avian virus. Bugs, parasites, pests and other uninvited guests can catch a ride on fruits, vegetables, plants, meats and other organic matter. Banana and Beef Airways really packs them in.

"Americans are generally not honest about food, especially when they come across a good sausage from Italy or Germany," said Michael Harris, an officer since 1999. "But if you ask them the right way "

The "right way" is not standardized; it varies by individual and situation. Customs officials, who undergo six months of training, are keen readers of body language and mannerisms. To the sharp ear, a hesitation or a sigh can be as revealing as an open confession; to the astute eye, nervous tapping and a wandering gaze can betray obfuscation.

Passengers who pass the first line of defense move on to the baggage carousel to collect their luggage. Those who fail either have to hang back (such as the French woman who had only the P.O. box of the friend she was visiting and had to chase down a physical address) or are red-flagged for secondary screening or for more intense questioning.

Throughout the process, the inspectors snoop for clues. Some passengers are sly, hiding sausage in an empty orange juice container, for instance. Others, though, are the opposite of smart.

One employee told me about a woman who carried a transparent bag that exposed the food product inside. An easy bust. Another traveler told the officer that authorities in Peru, her departure point, had confiscated parrot feathers at the airport. Her confession tipped inspectors to the possibility that she might be harboring other illegal objects. Their hunch was correct. In her luggage, they found a shark's tooth necklace (allowed), an ocelot skull (not) and two belts made of the wildcat's fur (definitely not).

In another case, they nabbed a woman for the elephant ivory bracelet dangling from her wrist. The strategy of wearing the item in the hopes that officials might not notice or might assume that the object predated the trip is foolhardy. First, the sharp-eyed experts are checking you out. Second, they're authorized to confiscate contraband purchased on previous travels and even items that have been handed down as heirlooms. (Advice: Leave the precious or questionable baubles at home.)

"In the first 10 seconds of the interview, I can tell if they are feeding me a line or are being truthful," said enforcement officer Brian Keys. "Good people can't lie good."

Of course, sometimes good people don't realize that they're being bad. Like the couple who wrapped up their apples and sandwiches from the plane ride, hoping to snack on them later. Or my innocent self.

In the baggage collection area, Thomas the food-sniffing beagle approached me, then flopped down at my feet. He'd caught the residual scent of a banana I'd eaten on the drive to the airport.

"Thomas' job is to locate the targets," said Kristi Currier, his handler. "He can't tell what country it's coming from and if it's banned, but when he comes close to it, he sits down."

The dog's discoveries are sometimes seasonal, such as chestnuts and holiday meats over Christmas, moon cakes (which contain uncooked eggs) for the Asian New Year, and Dutch tulip bulbs in the spring (permitted with the proper certification).

"The idea is to leave it on the plane," said Currier, "or give it to Agriculture when you get off."

Now, if you are imagining Customs officials gleefully picnicking on the confiscated goods -- say, a spread of Italian sausage, a slice of French soft cheese and fresh Turkish figs -- banish your thoughts to the incinerator. Because that's where the forbidden items go. (Drugs are held in a secret place as evidence, then destroyed in another mysterious location. No matter how many times you ask in so many variations, no one's talking.)

Some confiscated matter is obvious, such as giant African snails (prodigious procreators and no natural predators) and chicken feet from China (avian flu). But what about the ornately decorated ostrich eggs from South Africa? Though harmless to the eye (and to the stomach, as most of us don't dine on artwork), the eggs can potentially harbor the avian flu virus. "There is no way to cook it out," said Davis, as he showed me an egg expertly painted with images of African game.

When goods are seized, travelers not only lose their souvenirs (Davis and his colleagues can recount many a tale involving tears or tantrums), but they also risk paying a fine. The first offense costs $300, the second $500, the third $1,000. Do it again and the State Department can curb your travel privileges. Makes you think twice about bringing in those yummy beef candies from China.

>What you should know

Re-entering the United States after a trip overseas can be quick, painless and drama-free -- if you know the rules before you go. Here are some tips gleaned from the experts at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Department of Agriculture and the Fish and Wildlife Service.

*Don't take leftovers from the airplane's in-flight food service. The food could have been sourced from a foreign destination and might not meet U.S. standards. In addition, any foods you packed from your pantry could have been contaminated during your travels. Leave them on the plane or hand them over to a Customs officer.

*Duty-free items sold in the airport are not guaranteed to be safe; the stores might not abide by U.S. laws regarding sanitation, protected species and the like.

*Authorities recommend that travelers refrain from bringing back beef products regardless of country and cooking process (cured, dried, canned, etc.). The main concern: the threat of disease (mad cow, hoof-and-mouth, etc.). Even candies from China are deemed unsafe, as many contain cow byproducts. The only admissible beef snacks come from countries free of disease, such as New Zealand. Consult with the USDA for a list of safe destinations. (Caveat: This status could change overnight.) Call the hotline at (888) 674-6854.

*Canned pork is permitted as long as it is commercially packed and hermetically sealed. Homemade or opened samples are not allowed.

*Cheeses fall into a mushy area. Hard cheeses are typically OK, but soft or liquid varieties are no-go. Check with the USDA for specifics.

*Raw eggs are never welcome, but cooked eggs are allowed from countries without reported cases of avian flu or other bird-related diseases.

*If you visit a farm or a ranch, clean the dirt and muck off your shoes before you transport them home. Inspectors will disinfect your footwear if they have time (be sure to tell them of your rural outing). However, they also have the right to confiscate your mud-encrusted shoes.

*You can transport 125 grams of black caviar (unless it's beluga), but surpass that amount and Customs can snag your entire stash.

*Beverages are permitted, with the exception of milk-based drinks.

*Because of an agreement with the Netherlands, Americans may purchase certified tulip bulbs; look for the official seal of approval.

*Be wise (and even skeptical) when buying animal-skin accessories and attire, such as belts, wallets and jewelry. That bracelet could very well be made of elephant ivory. Best to walk away or purchase at a respected shop. Keep all receipts and grab a card with the vendor's information. Buyers, be alert in China, Vietnam and Nigeria.

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