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A tale of two customs officials

Today

Customs is always nerve-wracking
Photo credit: hjl

Now that our trip to the US is official I can start worrying about going through customs. As you know, I am not a big fan of the enhanced patdown, nor the naked machine.

I was reading a post by Andy from 501 places entitled 9 things I’ll never understand about travel. It’s a great post and some of his points really made me chuckle… No. 5 (and it’s always the same episode of Friends too!). He also wondered:

How customs officials around the world can vary so widely in their charm skills.

It is so true. And it reminded me of two experiences I had with customs officials. The first was on my last trip to the US. The questioning already began at the airport in Sweden, where a hulking, suited man with a crew-cut grilled me about my luggage, life in Sweden, intents for travelling, my skill with Swedish language, algebra (okay I made that one up). There were a few great questions like “Is there anything in your bag which might look like a weapon?” Now if you are a creative person this can get you into real trouble. If you start to muse on how your umbrella might look like an AK47 if you placed it beside your photo charger and then wrapped it with… The chances are they are not going to let you on the plane. I was also asked whether anyone had touched anything in my bag in the last 3 months. “Erm…” what can you say? Yes. Everything. I live with another human being. We touch each other sometimes. My clothes have been touched. At the very least he does my laundry on the odd occasion.

I decided to answer with “Yes, my camera.”

“Who touched it and what were they doing with it?”.

They always manage to make these things sound weird and kind of dirty don’t they?

“Err… my boyfriend. He was taking a photo.”

What do you have in your bag that might look like a weapon?
Photo credit: Martin Gommel

With a scowl I was let through.

It only got worse when I reached Newark and was being processed. No matter what, when I am put in these situations I look incredibly guilty. I am trying so so hard not to which just means I am pale, sweating a little and my hands are shaking. This woman must be smuggling drugs or trying to marry one of our citizens. She has a guilty look about her.

“Why have you come here?” the customs official demanded.

Because I think you have a beautiful country and it’s a lovely vacation destination. “I’m attending a conference.”

“I see you’ve been here before,” he barked, “How long did you stay?”

“89 days” I mumbled guiltily (I can’t help it okay).

“You didn’t stay longer than the limit did you?!”

I wanted to say, dude look at my passport. There are stamps there and everything. With dates.

“No.”

He began to ask me about living in Sweden. “What are you doing there?”

“I’m studying my PhD,” I stuttered.

“How long are you staying?”

“Four years,” I replied semi-confidently.

“What!” he cried leaning over the desk and glowering down at me.

“My PhD is for four years!” I squeaked, beginning to tremble.

“I meant how long were you planning to stay here,” he growled.

“Oh… two weeks, only two weeks. Just two weeks. Not four years.”

He finally let me through. The guy next to me wasn’t so lucky and was escorted into a private room.

I can't help it if I look guilty
Photo credit: ep_jhu

After this experience I was needless to say, on edge the next time I travelled which was to Liverpool in the UK. I arrived in customs, the only person going through the non-EU passport lane. The customs official brightened noticeably when I walked up. Oh no, I thought, I’m the sport for the day.

Flipping through my passport he intoned ominously, “I see you’ve been to Hong Kong twice.”

“Yes?” I whimpered, expecting I don’t know what… bird flu screening, random checks for stolen relics…

He beamed at me, waving one hand flamboyantly, “Oh I looove Hong Kong! Isn’t it just wonderful! It is simply my favourite place. I would go there again and again.”

He stamped my passport cheerfully, “Have a lovely day miss.”

It’s funny how it can vary so much and how one bad experience can leave you so on edge. I am already practicing my non-guilty look for our next trip. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Have you had a particularly difficult or friendly experience with a customs official? Please share your story in the comments.

8 Comments

  1. sam says:

    Hi Ver,
    I never have any trouble with customs. In the USA I filled out the form wrong and they corrected it for me, took less than a minute. Although, I often forget that you are meant to provide them with an address.
    S

  2. sam says:

    My comment is awaiting moderation.

  3. Verity says:

    I think it might just be me and my guilty face. So far I haven’t had anything too drastic (no trips to the scary white room or anything). I have had a few run ins with quarantine, one where a live cockroach actually fell out of a shell I had bought and scuttled around on the table. Oh dear.

    I always forget the address thing too. Sometimes you don’t know exactly where you are going which makes it rather difficult.

  4. George says:

    Hey, really great blog post… I’ve enjoyed reading through your blog because of the great style and energy. I actually work for the CheapOair travel blog. If you’re interested, we would love to have you on as a guest blogger. Please send me an e-mail: gchristodoulou(at)cheapoair(dot)com, and I can give you more information. Looking forward to hearing from you.

  5. Elena says:

    And this time you have getting groped and radiated to look forward to as well. Won’t that be fun?

  6. Verity says:

    @George I’ll send you an email. I’ve guest blogged on cheapoair once before and would love to do it again!

    @Elly Yes… it’s hard choice to make… groping or radiation. I think I’ll choose the groping. At least it’s less permanent (though the trauma goes on and on… :)

  7. Nicely written post and funny photos. So sorry for your misfortunate customs official encounter. I’m a citizen and I thought I would be detained coming back from my last trip because the officer thought that I looked different from my passport photo.

  8. Verity says:

    Thanks very much @Got a Passport. I can’t believe they almost detained because of you’re passport photo! Everyone looks different in their passport photo! You have those things for like ten years.

    Mine is a horrible mugshot I know they will use if I ever commit a crime (I don’t intend to!). And everyone will look at and say… yes, she really look like she could have done it. No wonder no one wants to let me into their country :)

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