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So, you get into the "nothing to declare" line, but you get selected for a random bag check anyway... and the customs officer finds something you were supposed to declare.

It's something small, like a plant product, or something that you are supposed to pay a duty on. But you either forgot you had it or didn't realize you were supposed to declare it.

We're definitely not talking about drugs or anything else that would land you in really hot water.

What happens next?

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FWIW there are reality TV shows on which this happens all the time. No doubt the show doesn't represent the full variety of what can happen to you, but they've shown food products in UK or Aus they've been destroyed, sometimes a fine. One showed cannabis taken and destroyed with no action against the person carrying it, by Canadian customs on the US border. I've also seen people arrested/deported when they're believed to be intentionally smuggling. But I've only ever seen a few episodes, only English-speaking countries, and this is the incidents that customs chooses to film and release. –  Steve Jessop Jun 10 at 9:06
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... so, if you're worried about being stopped by customs then it might be worth finding a show for the country you're travelling to, just so that you know what you're worrying about and what processes you'd face. And then, like, pay attention to the law and check your pockets and luggage. –  Steve Jessop Jun 10 at 9:12

9 Answers 9

up vote 16 down vote accepted

In Switzerland it will depend if it's an illegal article or if you fail to pay duty.

In the first case (if it's mildly illegal, usually counterfeit watches, I'm not talking guns or anything) they'll just seize it and destroy it, no fine involved. There is a slight chance that the copyright owner might sue you, but I think the chances are you'll just lose the product but be fine. I guess the same will happen if you take some seeds or some meat from outside the EU or something else that's prohibited.

If you fail to declare something that you have to pay duty on however, you're likely to have to pay a fine on top of the duty fee. That happens quite often to people buying meat on the other side of the border.

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It happens regularly in NZ, because of the fruit and plant matter laws.

The point is, you're reminded so many times, and given a form where you have to tick 'I don't have this, or this, or this', that not knowing is really not an excuse. Like any country, ignorance of the law is not a valid reason to break it. By the time you've got to that point, it's assumed you can't be ignorant and are not declaring it on purpose.

As a result, there's a good chance you'll be fined.

Sometimes if they can see it's an honest mistake - eg you've taken five apples out and forgot the banana under three shirts at the bottom of your bag, you might get a warning. Not cleaning your hiking boots will get you a talking to, but they'll often take them off you and clean them for you anyway.

Naturally if it's a bigger problem (drugs, weapons) then there's potential for arrest or jail time, but for smaller things, it's usually a fine. For example, even famous actresses can get fined for forgetting to declare fruit.

On the upside, they sometimes have fruit sniffing dogs pre-declaration, looking for stuff, and if they find an apple or orange at that point, they'll just ask you to throw it away. As far as I've seen, it's only when you've officially signed a form declaring you have nothing, that you are now breaking the law.

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I might actually clarify this last point with them when I fly in this weekend, it's interesting. –  Mark Mayo Jun 10 at 6:23
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fruit sniffing dogs? That actually exists? –  drat Jun 10 at 6:25
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@drat - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Detection_dog - second image on the right! :) Plus I've seen them find fruit in person. –  Mark Mayo Jun 10 at 6:27
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Just saw a fruit sniffing dog at HNL's baggage claim. Beagle found what looked like homemade dried Mango slices in tupperware in a carry on. Not sure what they did, if anything, to the guy with the fruit. –  Will Jun 10 at 7:23
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I think that taking a “nothing to declare” lane might amount to a declaration, especially in countries where you don't have to fill in a form beforehand. –  Relaxed Jun 10 at 7:46

Depends on the country, on the actual thing that was found (i.e. which law it violates - agricultural, alcohol&tobacco, customs duties, etc), on whether or not it's actually illegal to import (as opposed to just subject to declaration but legal to import), and I'm guessing on the mood of the customs official as well.

Supposedly, in Canada an undeclared food item (even a single apple), if it's actually judged to be illegal to import when they do find it, can result in close to $400 in fines and a mark on your record that makes future searches much more likely (and of course you can probably forget about trusted traveler programs like NEXUS). I haven't personally verified this information though.

Customs agent manuals and relevant rules for Canada (and I'd imagine for the US as well) can generally be found online (through Freedom of Information requests or through direct publishing by the relevant agencies), so with some effort it should be possible to find an exact answer if you aren't afraid of legalese.

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Coming home from Europe a guy at the first place you talk to customs people asked sternly "are you SURE you have no food?" (probably because I was traveling with 2 kids) and I was sure but my husband remembered the apple from the previous day and reminded me. I said "we might have a French apple" and he made us look, then took it from us and threw it away. That was the end of that. –  Kate Gregory Jun 10 at 22:15
    
I mention this because (a) it was Canada and (b) I successfully got a Nexus card afterwards. So it's sort of counterexample except they didn't find it, we produced it after being prompted. (I had utterly forgotten it in the process of Paris hotel to Eurostar to London, errands, to Heathrow hotel, up in the morning, to gate, and 8 hour flight all with 2 kids. I guess the officer could tell that.) –  Kate Gregory Jun 11 at 14:38

It happened to us once long ago, entering the US. The culprit was a seed pod we had no idea was in our suitcase--we had packed in the shade of a tree and apparently it dropped a seed pod in. It was right on top, not hidden in the slightest. The fact that the bag packer was my mother--who was totally blind--probably helped in them deciding we had no knowledge of the wrongdoing. No fine.

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Two times it has happened to me. Maybe 15 years ago bringing Cuban cigars over the bridge from Canada to Detroit. I just had to destroy them.

The second time was two years ago bringing milk from Japan into Orlando International. They confiscated it.

No large quantities and nothing highly dangerous. No fines.

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The US agents can fine you for a wrong declaration. If they choose to or not, that is another matter. –  Dan S Jun 11 at 11:50

It is similar to traffic violations. You are eligible for a penalty, but it is up to the customs officer to choose between a penalty or a warning.

I know various examples for both cases. Ranging from custom officers simply ignoring booze which was not even hidden, to getting a ticket for a half eaten apple simply forgotten to throw away because of putting passport, tickets and money back in place at immigration.

In the end it is up to the custom officers interpretation of your intentions or his grumpy mood.

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I once crossed the Swiss border by land with a fishing knife in the car I was driving (I didn't know it, it had been there for a long time, left by another family member who had used the car). That's the only thing that was found after a 30 min search.

The border guard took it and went to his desk, came back a few minutes later and claimed that technically (“streng rechtlich”) it was a weapon and we would be liable for a CHF 400 fine (or something of that order). He nonetheless decided to let us in without a fine and did not even confiscate the knife IIRC.

It's an anecdote of course but it shows that border guards have a lot of leeway, even for things other than food or regular goods slightly over the allowance.

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In Israeli customs, you would be required to pay a fine (equal to the duty) regardless of whether you take the item. If you wish to take the item, you'd have to pay the duty too (so effectively you'd be paying double duty).

For example, for a 400 ILS bottle of Whiskey, you'd pay a 411 ILS fine. If you choose to take the bottle, you'd also pay a 411 ILS duty, summarily 882 ILS (in addition to the purchase price).

Legally, failing to declare is an offense, and they may press charges for serious contraband, but common offenders (say, an extra bottle of liquor) just get the fine. From personal experience, getting pulled over at the green corridor in Ben Gurion Airport is rare (never happened to me), but your mileage may vary.

Source: http://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-3093102,00.html

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Chile is pretty serious about controlling fruit, seeds, and nuts being brought into the country. A few years back, someone on a trip with me brought along gorp (trail mix) on the advice of the tour organizer. I'm not sure how it was detected, but it was confiscated and they were fined for having it. I don't recall the exact amount of the fine, but it was in excess of $100.

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