One of the most common questions people ask me on our Madrid Food Tours is what foods they are allowed to bring back with them to their respective countries. Unfortunately, I only know about US laws, and I always hate to be the one to break the news.
Generally we are in a small shop or market, and they’re eyeing the jamón. Jamón (cured ham) is one Spain’s most incredible delicacies, especially when you go for the pricey Jamón Ibérico de Bellota (Acorn fed Iberian ham). Most people take one bite and are either consumed by greedy self-interest (they want to buy 10 packages for themselves) or with the kind hearted urge to share this secret with their friends and family (they want to buy as gifts).
Nevertheless, I have to be the one to break the awful news that they can’t buy any ham at all, disappointing the tourists, and my eager ham slicing friend, Jesús, who is anticipating a potential sale.
Some people ignore my advice to gorge on ham while in Spain and then try to erase its existence from their mind. They insist that they’ll get it back, wrapped in perfumed blankets or rolled into some poster container.
I know better.
It was Christmas of 2009 when I tried sneaking a chorizo past US Customs. The humble 3€ chorizo nearly cost me $200 in fines. Every international airport has cute little dogs who come around sniffing for forbidden fruit (literally). The only times I’ve been caught by the dogs were when I’ve forgotten I had orange peel or some grapes in my purse from the flight. It’s always quite mortifying when the little dog comes and sits by your feet, and the rest of the people in baggage claim stare at you like you’re surely a drug trafficker.
But in 2009 it wasn’t the beagle that got me. It was my inability to lie! After getting off the plane and going through immigration there was another check that isn’t always there. One by one a very intimidating woman asked us if we were transporting food. I said “no” but I’m sure my face said otherwise. I was pulled out of line for the special inspection.
After twenty minutes of questions and near insults “You don’t know how to read?” “Why were you visiting Morocco?” etc. I was to pay up, $200 if I remember correctly. But after taking the trouble to write up the fine, the customs official ripped up the ticket, and just like he’d done with the evil chorizo, he slammed it into the trash. “Go” he said, “it’s Christmas”.
If I’d been a rich woman I would’ve paid the fine anyway, as a way of standing up to someone who had treated me like dirt for the prior twenty minutes– but I was a poor English teacher and gladly walked away, chorizo-less, but with my bank account still in tact.
Since then I’ve never even thought about bringing prohibited foods back into the US. It just isn’t worth it, and between the dogs and the extra checks, I’d say the chances of being caught are quite high.
For information on what you can/cannot bring into the US:
Travelers Bringing Food into the US for Personal Use (and note, the maximum fine is $10,000!)
I found this interesting infographic about some other things people have failed to declare:
Anything To Declare? An infographic by the team at NetVoucherCodes.co.uk
What about you guys? Do you have a funny story about passing through customs?
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