Complete exhaustion. That’s my excuse. It had been a long, sleepless, overnight flight from Lima, Peru, to JFK Airport in New York. I always worry about airline food—the quality, the scarcity, the unrecognizable veggies, the soggy pasta—so I try to grab something healthy before I board, usually an apple or, in this case, a banana. Oh, the banana. Sure, it seems like the perfect handheld snack, but it turned into a soggy mess after being pinballed from the X-ray machine to the gate before being tilted under my seat, so I tossed it out before the flight landed, without eating it. Spoiler alert: I didn’t even have the banana that got me busted.
Just the facts
How, you’re probably wondering, did I get in trouble? Call it exhaustion motor mouth. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agent at JFK asked if I had any fruits or vegetables. The answer, dear reader, should have been a simple “no.” Take a minute and write that down, maybe Memento-style inked on your arm: “Do you have a banana? No.”
If only I had done the same.
Instead, when the agent asked, I said something along the lines of: “I had a banana, it got smushed, so now my bag smells like banana, but I don’t have a banana, but it probably seems like I do, because it smells like a…banana….”
I may be paraphrasing, but my ramblings about banana-scented carry-on luggage went on long enough that it evidently triggered a response in the agent I couldn’t have anticipated. Although no droopy-eared CBP beagle patrol sniffed my bag, the agent stood up, took my passport, and then started to walk away, looking at me only once to say, “Follow me.” That was it. No explanation, no going back.
The banana police then brought me to what I like to call “agriculture jail,” which is a holding room for the USDA. Here, as with the agent, no one spoke to me or explained what was happening—or gave me back my passport. I frantically sent a message to my husband about the situation. “Stop texting,” he responded. “You’re going to get in trouble.” Right, that ship had already sailed. Here’s what else a TSA agent first notices about you.
In case you’re not up on your USDA international fruit and vegetable rules, here’s the official wording: “Travelers entering the United States must declare all agricultural products on their U.S. Customs forms. Almost all fresh fruits and vegetables (whole or cut) are prohibited from entering the United States because of the potential pest and disease risks to American agriculture.” All of that, I know. And then there’s this: “As long as you declare all the agricultural products you are bringing with you, you will not face any penalties—even if an inspector determines that they cannot enter the country.” So, theoretically, my banana declaration should have put me in the clear.
Screen, screen, screen
After a while, an agent behind the desk called my name and handed me my passport. “Can you tell me what’s going on?” I inquired.
“Take your bags to the secondary agriculture check,” was the reply. So, that was a “no.”
I took my tote bag to the screening, where I encountered the first friendly face of the day. “What ya got here?” the jovial screener asked.
“Nothing,” I replied.
He looked at me funny. “No, I mean do you have fruits or veggies? Or is it dried fruits or other snacks? Why are you here?”
“I don’t have anything; I used to have a banana….” I told him my sad fruit punch line. He seemed both amused and confused, and proceeded to X-ray my bag. He found nothing amiss and sent me on my way. Here are some more things that will get your luggage flagged by the TSA.
And even more extra screenings
I honestly would have forgotten about the whole incident, but it turns out that this banana did not simply fade to black. The next month, while returning home from a work trip to Africa, I was completely fruit-free. But when I got to the customs desk, the agent scanned my passport…and started walking away with it. “Follow me.” It was fruit and vegetable Groundhog Day. Back to agriculture jail, then back to screening…and my friend from last month, who recognized me.
This, evidently, is a thing
Now, you don’t usually have time to make a connection with employees at a massive airport like JFK, so the fact that I was back there and the guy recognized me was unusual, to say the least.
“Fruit, veggies, snacks?” Nope, nope, nope. “But why are you here?” he asked. I told him about the passport. I mentioned the last time being similar to today and my repeat attendance in both holding and screening. He grimaced and gave me the bad news: “This is going to happen to you every time you enter the country for at least a year.” Wait, what?! “You’ve been put on a watch list, and every time you come into the country, you’re going to get flagged.” On the flip side, these are the 11 secrets to speeding through airport security.
Yes, every airport, every time
In case you’re wondering, I didn’t just get flagged coming into JFK. My next flight was from Toronto to Newark, and I was with my husband and son. Since, as a family, we were all on the same customs form (a practice we no longer continue), all three of us got sent to the USDA holding area. Want to scare a kid for life? This is a good start.
Repeat again…and again…and again
It might not sound like the worst fate to have your bag X-rayed, but having my passport taken away every time I entered the country, worrying my friends and family traveling with me or waiting for me outside customs, and never just walking up to a customs officer and getting the “welcome home” I used to enjoy all started to take a toll. It added another layer of stress and uncertainty to every flight. I stopped carrying any kind of snacks or food at all, and I even became nervous about souvenirs, worried that I was breaking the rules even though I’d read everything—thrice—by that point.
And then, about 14 months later, as randomly as it started, my USDA detention ended. I still don’t know exactly what terminated my “most wanted” status, but a few things happened around the same time: I cried hard enough that someone finally handed me a form to send to CBP about my situation. Simultaneously, my passport expired and I got a new one. And finally, I started using the Mobile Passport app, a free option that speeds you through customs without needing to talk to a customs agent or having to shell out for Global Entry (which I haven’t applied for because—you guessed it—you won’t be approved with a U.S. Customs Agriculture black mark). Speaking of which, this is the difference between Global Entry and TSA PreCheck.
I already knew this, but NEVER bring fresh produce—or meat, or cheese, or even rice—back from a trip overseas. If you are caught with an actual banana, you can be fined up to $500 in addition to the extra screenings, the loss of Global Entry and TSA PreCheck, and the general stress and aggravation of being noted as a person who’s broken the rules. You should also avoid these things you should never do at the airport if you want to have a smooth trip. And, of course, make sure to leave the banana in the fruit bowl!