No international trip can happen without a visit with borders and customs officers, there to scrutinize each and every person who wishes to enter their country. Although their purpose is to suss out who is trying to break the law from among the masses, plenty of non-criminal travelers have customs horror stories. From making ill-timed jokes to looking like the wanted murderer of a celebrity, there’s no shortage of nerve-wracking stories to share about border control. Here are eight of them.
1. Being evasive is a big no-no.
Pretty much every tourist visa includes the requirement to have proof of planned departure, but this can be a mere footnote in researching travel to another country. Erika M. learned this the hard way when she took a Greyhound bus from the US into Canada. “They asked me very detailed questions about my stay and I think I went wrong when I didn’t state a specific day to return. That’s when they went to the back, came out, and started swabbing all my luggage and going through everything. We waited two whole hours while they searched everything! It wouldn’t have been so distressing if they didn’t take as long as they did, and if I wasn’t the only one being checked: I was not the popular kid on the bus after that.” Learn from Erika’s mishap and, “always have a return date when traveling out of the country.”
2. Looking like a murderer could be problematic.
Usually looking like someone famous is a good thing, but in Joel R.’s case, being mistaken for fashion designer Gianni Versace’s fugitive murderer landed him in Washington Dulles’ airport prison for hours on end. “I was wearing the same Club Monaco sweater in my passport as Andrew Cunanan was wearing in the photo they chose [to give the media]. After three hours in the dark room, [during which] they called my parents and my employer, they actually told me why I had been detained. It was bizarro.”
3. Joke at your own risk.
It’s advisable to skip jokes when crossing the border, as it can make your scrutinizer think you’re attempting to distract from something nefarious. That said, border and customs officers sometimes have a sense of humor. Just ask Mary D., who was heading into the UK to study abroad, and couldn’t help herself. “A very gruff customs guy was giving people a hard time, and when it was my turn, he eyed me up and down and asked what the purpose of my trip was. I said, “to study British theatre… and to find my own personal Mr. Darcy.” He stared at me for a very long moment (it was my first time out of the country, much less traveling by myself and I felt like I was about to cry as he was staring at me) and then threw his head back in this loud, deep-bellied laughter and waved me through.”
4. Don’t act like a drug mule.
Taking a day trip into a neighboring country sounds like a grand old time, but quick back-and-forth crossings are a telltale sign of a trafficker. Jami M. wanted to take advantage of having a rental car for the day to check out Niagara Falls on the Canadian side, but a short itinerary combined with the antics of a former renter got her on border control’s bad side. “US Customs had us park in a line and get out while some machine examined our cars. Suddenly, these border agents are quite literally ripping my rental car apart. Headrests: off. My suitcase I’d been living out of for 5 months for work: stuff strewn ALL OVER THE GROUND. Engine: examined. So they start grilling me about why I would rent a car, go across the border about 20 minutes later, and return within 1.5 hours. Which, to be fair, probably should raise some red flags. Except, perhaps, when just on one side of said border is the most gorgeous waterfall in North America. They ended up letting me go after two hours or so. They suspected some previous renter had smoked pot in the car, which is what the detector found trace elements of.” Another good lesson not to hotbox a car that isn’t yours.
5. A horror story for the socially anxious.
Every so often, it’s the border agent who feels like making jokes, which sounds like it would be a relief, but because it’s so out of the ordinary, you have to wonder what they’re really up to. When Kristina F. was heading home to the US from Canada during the holidays, she found herself at the desk of a humorous border agent whose requests she couldn’t deny. “The US customs agent at the Calgary airport asked what kind of instrument I was carrying and I said it was a ukulele. He requested I play him a song right there. So I played ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ and I’m pretty sure everyone was staring at us. It was goofy and surreal. He loved it, but I was bright red the entire time.”
6. Sexist comments are never okay.
Speaking of being put in an awkward situation by someone wielding authority, it’s unfortunately common for male customs and border agents to use their position to intimidate women. For Kara C., she felt put between a rock and a hard place when put on the receiving end of sexist remarks. “A French Canadian customs agent said to me, ‘How do you know French? Did you have a French boyfriend for one night?’ Sexist comments from middle-aged men is generally frustrating but when it’s from someone you literally can’t talk back to it’s extra shitty.” Mackenzie O. had a similar experience when leaving Argentina via Miami. A routine search of her bag revealed a condom, and the customs agent felt it was appropriate (even though it was the opposite) to make comments about it. “He kept asking if I was ‘getting busy,’ and why was my boyfriend staying in Argentina when I was coming back alone? I missed my connection, and I had to wait 8 hours for the next flight back to San Francisco.”
7. When the border agents don’t speak your language.
For traveler Jeff S., a translator was brought in to question his travel partner, Marvin, in a language he didn’t speak. “We were flying from Belize to Alaska, and when we arrived at the layover in Dallas, I see Marvin (who is Belizean) being escorted down a hallway and whisked out of sight. So I waited and waited. Finally, after about 30 minutes he came walking back, laughing. Evidently, he was flagged because of a conscious lack of luggage (one tiny bag). They brought him down a hallway and sat him in a room. After 10 minutes two officers came in and started peppering him with questions in Spanish. Nervously, Marvin responded, “Would it be possible for you to speak to me in English? I’m from Belize. We speak English. My Spanish is not very good.” Embarrassed, they pretty much just opened the door and let him on his way.” You would think for one of the major transit hubs in and out of Belize, border patrol would know their English colonies from their Spanish ones.
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