United States Immigration

The Day US Customs Found A Bullet In My Pocket

Derek Popular, Travel Tales 392 Comments

United States ImmigrationOn the flight from Delhi to Washington D.C., I spent a good two hours staring at the customs form that I was required to fill out. I had completed every section of the form, except for one. I just wasn’t quite sure if mentioning Pakistan and Afghanistan in the box that asked me to list the countries I had visited was such a good idea. As I wrote down the other countries I’d been to on this trip – Australia, Singapore, Thailand and India – I seriously wondered if I could get away with not listing the other two. (Of course, I wasn’t about to risk it and so I wrote them all down in the end.)

Several hours later, on the ground in Washington D.C., I approached the Immigration Counter and handed over my form. The Immigration Officer swiped my passport, glanced at his computer screen and almost immediately stamped me back into the country. But just before I started to walk away he asked, “So you went to Afghanistan and Pakistan. How was it?” The only reply that I could muster up was a quiet, “Very interesting.”

He then called the next person in line and I turned away, relieved beyond belief at how well that had gone. Of course, that relief lasted a mere six seconds, right until the moment when a Customs Officer approached and asked me to step over to one of the inspection tables.

The following hour and a half of my life is a period of time that I will never forget and truthfully, never really want to endure ever again.


Interrogation Room

After another quick swipe of my passport and after reading the words “Pakistan and Afghanistan” on my form, the young Customs Officer immediately ‘invited’ both myself and my trusty backpack into a small interrogation room for a chat.

Once inside the room, the Officer began to inspect the contents of my backpack. First, he opened the front pocket, and immediately became suspicious of a collection of books that I had purchased in a bookstore in Delhi. There were five books packaged together, each containing the sayings and lessons of a different spiritual figure who had influenced India, including Buddha, Vivekananda, Nanak Dev, Gandhi and yes, the Prophet Mohammed.

Of course, the Customs Officer ignored the other four books and while holding up the book of quotes from the Prophet, proceeded to repeatedly scream “Do you believe in the words of the Prophet Mohammed?” over and over again while standing one foot away from my face.

Every time I tried to mention the other books, and the one time I tried to ask why that question was even relevant, I was immediately cut off and told to be quiet. So in the end, the only reply I gave to his question was, “What?”


The next problem began when the Officer picked up one of my pairs of pants and a shiny, unused bullet fell out of the front pocket. And while I will admit that the appearance of a bullet is always somewhat suspicious, I honestly felt that the additional screaming that was thrown my way as a result of this discovery was more than uncalled for. Without asking any questions at all, the Officer simply acted as if he had found a piece of evidence that undeniably linked me to terrorism.

As a side note, the bullet was given to me as a gift by a child who had taken me on a tour of his neighborhood on the outskirts of Kabul. I had been walking around on my own when he suddenly came out of nowhere, grabbed my arm and stopped me from walking up a hill that turned out to be littered with land mines. This kid had practically no possessions to his name, yet he wanted to give me a gift for spending some time with him. And so he gave me a bullet that he had found and had always kept with him for good luck.

After the bullet, came the burqa. I had purchased a deep blue burqa one day in Kabul in order to show my friends and family the reality of what it’s like to wear one of these things. As the Customs Officer pulled it out of my backpack, he demanded an explanation and even suggested that I had used the burqa in order to move undetected throughout the tribal regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. As his suspicion grew, so did my confusion at the manner in which this interrogation was taking place.


Osama Bin Laden Kulfa Balls

Up until this point, I had really hoped that the Officer would not look in the side pocket of my backpack. But when he began to unzip the zipper, I had no choice but to take a deep breath and prepare for his reaction.

In that pocket was a box of candy, although this was no ordinary box of M&Ms. It was a box of “Osama bin Laden Kulfa Balls” a popular hard candy that can be found throughout the tribal areas of Pakistan. And on the front of the box, one finds an image of Osama himself alongside a tank, missiles and fighter jets. Naturally, the Customs Officer wasn’t too thrilled with me having this item in my possession and he again made the grand assumption that this box of candy linked me to terrorism.

I could arrest you right now! Do you want me to arrest you?“, he started to shout repeatedly.

Eventually, I just gave up trying to offer my explanations and stopped answering his questions altogether.

In reality, I have no idea why I bought that box of candy, other than it grabbed my attention, I thought it was interesting and I wanted to take one home. It really was that simple.


The next item to be closely inspected turned out to be my travel journal, the 300 pages of which were full of descriptions about the places and people I had met along the way. I wasn’t worried about him reading my journal at all as it certainly didn’t contain anything that this Officer could interpret as suspicious.

So I thought…

Here’s a tip. No matter what the reason, don’t ever write “You can get rid of your US citizenship by going to an Embassy and telling them that you don’t want to be a citizen any more” in your travel journal!

The Officer had opened my journal up to a completely random page and the line above is exactly what he found written. It was perhaps the only line in the entire book that could possibly have made my current situation any worse. Lucky me.

Before I continue, let me be clear. I was in no way at all implying that I was interested in getting rid of my US citizenship. Not even close! I had simply jotted down something I had read in an online article about the rules of citizenship in different countries. Unfortunately, I wrote down that one line and nothing else as I was in a rush that day and had to leave the internet cafe to catch a bus. I meant to go back and write more about the article I had read, but I never did.

And so there it was, alone on a random page of my journal, just begging the Customs Officer to get fired up once again. I certainly wasn’t surprised when he proceeded to read the line out loud a few times, get right in my face and scream, “Tell me now! Tell me you don’t want your US Citizenship and I’ll take it away from you. Right now!

After trying my hardest to convince him that I did not want to lose my citizenship, the Officer suddenly left the room, returning a few minutes later with his Supervisor. Then, both men spent the following hour asking me a barrage of rapid-fire questions that included, “What do your parents do for a living?”, “Is that your natural hair color?”, “How did you obtain your visas?” and “Were the people of Pakistan friendly?”


Pakistani Man

Really?, I thought. You’re really asking me that question?

Well, I could have just said “No, they were all mean and nasty to me” but there was no way I was about to do that to the wonderful people I had met during my travels. The truth is, almost everyone I met showed nothing but remarkable hospitality, kindness and generosity at all times. Almost every day during my visit, dozens of Pakistanis would politely approach me, shake my hand and inform me that they are not terrorists and that they do not support Osama bin Laden. They would then ask me to please return to America and tell everyone I know that Pakistanis just want to live in peace like everyone else. When I tried to explain this to the Officers, they once again ignored me, refusing to believe that there could possibly be even one decent person in that region of the world.

At one point, frustrated by the lack of training/knowledge of the people put in charge of protecting the US borders, I literally pulled out my guidebook and gave them a lesson in geography and in a sense, in reality as well. I showed them excerpts of the guidebook that spoke of friendly locals, must-see highlights and a generally safe environment for travelers. I also attempted to explain that my goal in traveling to this region was to educate myself, not to try and gain admission into a terrorist training camp.

Eventually, in a calm voice, the supervisor asked me one last time whether or not I “believed in the words of the Prophet Mohammed.” (It was as if all Customs Officers had memorized that exact same line.) When I told him that I’m not a very religious person at all, he stood up and much to my surprise, informed me that I was now free to go.


Through a friend of the family who used to work for the FBI, I later learned that as soon as I had left the Customs interrogation room, the local FBI office in Savannah, Georgia (where I was headed to visit my mom) had been notified of my arrival. As a result, the FBI then tapped the home phone at my mom’s house.

Further, for two years, I was given a private pat down and screening every time I went through security at a US airport. And whenever I returned from overseas, I was forced to go through a 30-minute, overly thorough inspection that involved dozens of questions, a ‘test’ about my previous travels and even a complete inspection of all my computer files.

The good news is that one day, it all stopped. Just like that I had apparently been removed from the list as a potential threat and I’ve never been inspected since.

However, I now realize that I should be enjoying these hassle-free Immigration & Customs experiences while I can, because I have a feeling that after this upcoming trip to the Middle East, I’m going to find myself right back in that interrogation room.

Do you have any Customs or Immigration stories to share?

Photo credit: Pakistani man – babasteve
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Comments 392

  1. Patrick

    This is some really good info! The good and the bad.

    I’m American and my wife, Michele, and I are making final preparations to start our travels around the world (in large part thanks to Earl) with our 16 year old son. We wanted to give him the opportunity to see all these places as a way to broaden his horizons and hopefully give him an education that’s filled with wonder and amazement.

    Our first stop will be to Ecuador to continue our work on our online income generation for a few moths, then into Thailand to continue it some more, if needed at that point.

    I expect it to take us a year or so to get things rolling in to the point we can pull in the kind of money Earl does, but we will work at it as hard as it takes to make it happen.

    We want to spend some time in Bali, and the Philippines and who knows where else, so it will be the life of traveling from place to place, plop down, enjoy the locale, work like crazy to make money to continue the traveling to the next place.

    I do admit that I am very nervous about making this life style change. I have lived in the same house now for going on 7 years and the thoughts of a life with no ties is a bit intimidating. Never knowing where we will stay next, always wondering what lies ahead.

    We will be leaving with about 10k in the bank and we will be doing as much Virtual assistant work as we can get, along with the site work and all the stuff we have planned for that.

    Thanks for sharing all that you do Earl, it’s helped us down a path that will be an experience that few people in our modern world ever get to live!


    1. Earl

      Hey Patrick – It’s so great to hear stories such as your and it seems that you already understand that even though some solid effort is required, the lifestyle you want is more than possible. I certainly look forward to hearing how it turns out! And once you arrive in Ecuador, after a very short time, I’m confident that all of your fears and worries about the transition will suddenly disappear 🙂

  2. Teddy

    How did Pakistan and Afghanistan receive you at the airport Earl? You said that the locals were very kind but how were the government officials?

    1. Earl

      Hey Teddy – No problems at all, but I didn’t fly in to those countries. I crossed overland from India to Pakistan and from Pakistan to Afghanistan as well. But both times I was welcomed and didn’t have a single issue at the borders.

  3. Chael

    And I thought I had it bad sometimes. I think the day I return back to the US after a visit to the middle east, I’ll get it even worse; my travel style is vagabond, hitchhiker, wanderer, often pennyless. Ugh. But, this serves as a good warning.

  4. Sirdalmi

    Well… yeah.
    Earl, you were pretty optimistic. The bullet, the book, the burqa and the sweets. In a movie it would seem too much !
    I’m a white girl travelling alone and it’s always for me ! Double security check, the torn apart suitcase lining and broken lock, take off your shoes, what’s in your toiletry bags and so on…
    But I’ve never been anywhere near what others had to go through. I do believe, however, that it’s way too much to ask people who they will meet, how they know that person, where they will stay and what they’re going to do.
    If you’re up to no good, you would have all the right answers to look harmless. But if you don’t have a plan and land in a country where you don’t know a living soul… it becomes tricky to justify why you’re there.

    Anyway, all those stories, especially yours Earl, make me think of the movie Harold and Kumar escape from Guantanamo Bay. The crazy officer could be real… which is rather scary >_<.

  5. Joel Bruner

    What a story man! This sounds quite intense… like just about the worst thing that could happen in a US Imm. setting. But dude Ill tell you this, at least you were in the US! The stuff that can happen when youre in Africa…

    Well written too! Now I also find myself wanting to visit Pakistan more than ever. Im sure it is quite a place, and all the Pakistanis Ive met have been super friendly!

    Take care man! God bless

    1. Earl

      Hey Joel – I’m sure there are plenty of places around the world where this situation could have been much worse!

  6. Kit

    OMFG just another reason I hate US immigration! I’m a white English speaking Canadian girl and I was harassed for 7 straight years crossing the US border. I haven’t got a criminal record nor have I ever done anything illegal, wrong or suspicious to deserve that kind of treatment. I just rubbed someone the wrong way one time, and it haunted me for a long time.
    I cannot stand ignorance and a lot of the people that work the border are power happy jerks… unfortunately there is nothing you can do. Those bastards have so much authority it would be hard NOT to have a swollen head. It’s just too bad that having a job in the arena of intercultural awareness DOES NOT ACTUALLY REQUIRE YOU TO BE INTERCULTURALLY AWARE. B.S… grr… Great blog though. Great blog.

  7. Nuo-ya Li


    I was in situation back in 2005/2006 when I went back China for exchange. While i had no problems getting into the country, they would not let me out again!
    They were suspicious of my Australian passport. The officials thought it was a fake. It was made worse that I only had a debit card in my name and no another photo ID. They asked for a driver’s license and not understanding you need to be 18 to get that.
    It was a crazy time.
    In the end, I did the ‘asian’ thing: called my grandfather to get him to pull some strings with the local government.

  8. Raquel

    Incredible. I am form Spain, and I am sorry but the story is ridiculous! it is surreal, why are they so stupid, I am serious, what is wrong with those police officers?. I am soo sorry you had to go though that. And it not some of their actions kind of illegal?

  9. Christine

    WOW! That is quite a story. Yor posessions that followed the discovery of the bullet were like the perfect storm! I am now officially frightened that those guys are carrying guns and are in charge of my security, so thanks for that!;-) I tend to be the ‘random check’ person. Traveling for work with colleagues, I was the only one who was ever checked for bomb residue or had to unpack and repack my bags. They always laughed about it. I believe with my pasty white complexion and honest face I am the perfect defense to prove they are not racial profiling. LOL! Who knows! There was a time when I was returning from Korea with a carry-on filled with pottery and my hard drive and all chargers, etc. The man flipped out screaming, “Who’s bag is this,” in such a nasty tone as he threw it up on the top of the x-ray machine, and of course it was mine. A bit nervous due to his reaction, I raised my hand and took responsibility for the bag, and what surprised me was his complete and immediate look of relief and change in body language and tone. He explained that the bag came up flashing ‘Organic Matter” and all he could make out on the x-ray was all the wires everywhere (I can see that would cause some concern). He did his job and swabbed all for explosive residue, while explaining each step kindly to me. I have always wondered what that check would have been like if I had darker skin or were a man in a turban though. We live in a crazy mixed up world, this is true, but it is amazing in so many ways and travel is worth the hassle! Thanks for the story, no matter what hassles or frustrations I have through airports and customs I will always remember this story and think, “it could be worse!”

    1. Earl

      Hey Christine – I have a feeling that the situation would have been MUCH different for some people. Glad you only had a scare and were not detained or anything like that. And I certainly hope you continue to be detained-free when you return home after your future travels 🙂

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  13. Tigsy

    Hi Earl,

    I’ve traveled to the US and Asian countries (Hong Kong, Vietnam, Thailand, Philippines, Laos and Cambodia) and I’ve only met one asshole of a customs officer and that was in America, “Land of the Free” LOL.

    Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of things American I like including a lot of the people but the TSA agents, and a bunch in US gov’t, are such pricks.

    Los Angeles 2009:

    I hold a US green card after living in the US over 6 years. Upon returning to the US after a holiday in Asia, I apparently filled out the form wrong. On the question “Where was your passport issued?” I wrote down “Los Angeles, CA” because that’s where my Filipino passport was issued and it says so right there on my passport: “Issued in Los Angeles, CA”.

    Turns out my answer was wrong because I was supposed to write down “Philippines”. They phrased the question wrong! I got my passport from the Philippine consulate in LA so it was just some misunderstanding.

    I explained this to the customs officer and he wouldn’t even listen to me. He went on to say in an arrogant tone “Do you know it’s wrong to impersonate a US citizen?”. I didn’t want to argue so I just replied politely, “OK, so I filled it out wrong. Honest mistake.”

    He let me through but before I left his counter he had to add the totally unnecessary comment,”Write down US only if you become a citizen in the future…that is, if you do!” with a smug look.

    I had the opportunity to apply for a US citizen last year and the chance is still there. I’m opting out. Not just because of that incident but many more related to the American government and the way those in power mistreat even their own people. I’ll keep my Filipino passport, thank you. Sure, we’re a poor country but we know how to talk to other people with respect! And I prefer to live in Asia all my days anyway.

    That and I won’t have to pay US taxes EVER which end up as salaries to these assholes!

    Great post, Earl =)

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  15. Brian

    I think you staged all that so you had a nice article to write in your blog. I mean, seriously? How dumb do you have to be to have that stuff in your bag? Interesting story, nonetheless.

    1. Earl

      Hey Brian – That theory would make sense if I had a blog back then but that was a few years before the thought of having a blog even came into my mind 🙂 And you can call it dumb if you’d like, means nothing to me…

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  18. David

    I can see both sides. Don’t bring a bullet through customs – that should be a no-brainer. Bringing in anything Osama-related is going to get some questions. Culturally insensitive at the very least to do that in the USA.

    That said, I’ve heard enough customs horror stories to turn me off from ever going to the USA. No big problem, there over 150 others still to visit…

  19. 50+ and on the Run

    Hey, I once had a TSA agent take my tweezers and a lip gloss. Really? I was still muttering about it when I rummaged thru my backpack and realized I had totally forgotten to leave my (tiny) pocket knife out of my pack. oops.

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    1. Kayla

      Aww, I promise, that’s only a stereotype, and though there are crappy stories of customs, most of the time it goes just fine. I promise, not all Americans are arrogant, just like not all Europeans are arrogant, not everybody from the Middle East is a terrorist, not everybody from Central and South America does drugs… the list goes on. Really, we’re just people, like everybody else in the world, just trying to make a living and take care of our families.

  22. Chris

    Well, here’s my horror story: I am 67 and have had an artificial right knee for 3 years. The first time I went through the scanners after the nmew knee was at Reagan. They were unable to determine what was setting off the gate scanners, so I helpfully volunteered, “Right knee.” This was a huge mistake! I was then subjected to “intensive” pat-down, which includes fondling of the privates and extensive questioning as to motives for travel, etc. I was completely cooperative. But I was also advised that my name would be put into a data base to “ease” my future travels. That turned out to be a lie. My name was put into a database that requires “intensive screening” whenever I fly.

    When I fly, I always just keep my mouth tightly shut. The TSA agents are unable to detect the artificial knee and are nable to determine what sets off scanners, gates, and wands. And I leave it that way. BTW an artificial knee is about the same composition and bulk as a handgun. I usually answer their questions with either “Yes.” or “No.” or with another question. If they ask, “Did anyone else have possession of yout bags?” I just ask, “Such as?” And they say something like “Your wife?” and I then say “No.” They are too poorly trained to see that they just got zero information.

    I have writing to the TSA about it and received only a form letter thanking me for “assisting in their process.” I have written my Congessmen, only to be told that they cannot intervene in the TSA process. In short, there is no way to remove your name from their databases. Period. I was even shown my entry, which states, “Cooperative but possible deceptive. Contraband.” by a Delta agent (wearing a Sikh turban) at Heathrow.)

    These people are spending billions of dollars on “security” that is nothing more than theater. But the more sinister problems is that they have a strangle hold on the country’s transportation system. This would be extremely useful politically should push come to shove.

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  24. Jalal Hameed Bhatti

    Thank you for this very candid post and thank you for telling the world that Pakistanis are friendly – it is only those paid mercenaries who have tarnished the image f Pakistan. I have shared the link in my blog so that my viewers/readers too read your account.

  25. MdAmor

    About 20 years ago I was on a business trip working in the UP of Michigan. I decided to drive into Canada for the day. I went over the bridge and stopped at the Canadian border. A nice woman asked me why I wanted to enter. I told her that I wanted to take a drive around. No problem. When it was time to come back I saw a couple hitchhiking at the bridge. I gave them a ride and went to the US side. They were teens from France. At the USA border they got out and were led to the walkin center. From what I could tell they were immediately allowed to enter. I pulled my rental car up to the gate and the woman took my drivers license. She looked at it (Florida state DL), pointed to a garage door and told me to drive in. When I got in the building they pulled down the door. It was a small building with pull down doors on both sides. The next thing I know is 2 military men with M-16’s come out and completely search my car. I had an expensive piece of electronic test equipment in the car, but nothing else. I thought that they would take it! Luckily after about 45 minutes they let me go. I will never forget how 2 hitchhiking young foreigners that spoke little English entered the USA with no problem, but me a 30 something USA businessman got totally harassed!!!

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  28. Payman

    I’ve been all over the world and the only place on the planet where usually, immigration officers treat people like animals have been in the US. It’s such a pity as the US is a great country to visit and ever since that, I have decided to completely boycot the US. Not worth the hassle. Even when flying to Asia or South America, if I were to get a ticket with a connection in the US, it would be 3-400 cheaper than a direct one from Canada, but I gladly pay that extra 3-400 and avoid the US altogether. I’ve always been treated with respect and as a human being anywhere else except the US. These ignorant animals of TSAs are not giving a good image of their countries not making people want to visit the US. Such a pity as it’s a great place with great people. Such a pity and such a waste as I’d love to visit more frequently and even toyed seriously with the idea of making Miami my part time residence. But that’s not going to happen with the hassle that is going and leaving the US.

  29. becky

    I spent 4 years with DHS, at a major airport(not there any more)
    and am surprised to read so many females claiming males either did their pat down or wanding (on the 3 year old girl)
    unless things have changed, here in the states the policy is the Agent must be the same gender as the passenger, no exceptions.
    Since this is the DHS policy, I’d definitely demand answers as to why they didn’t follow policy and procedure.
    I wasn’t TSA so please don’t bounce on me….
    I’m sure most of us have security stories from all over the globe…
    But like I said….take a copy of their policies and procedures (it’s online) and if they try it again, I’d think you’ve got them by the balls

  30. Kendall

    I had a small confrontation in the Bogotá airport. When you enter the airport, even if you come in via another flight, you have to walk outside and then come back through their security, which is manned by military personnel. Each gate in the terminal is a separate room, with another security check before you can enter. In Colombia, they do not allow passengers to bring water on to the plane. Even unopened bottles of water purchased in the terminal. You can, however, bring open bottles of alcohol onto the plane. This was the last leg of nearly twenty-four day, and I was very tired. When they wouldn’t let me bring water on the plane, I argued, in my broken Spanish. This, of course, did not go over well. As I began to attract the attention of more military personnel, I decided that as a sixteen year old girl, it probably wasn’t really in my interest to spend the day in the airport holding cell.

  31. Sebar

    Recently I found myself in a similar but not as serious situation when I traveled to the US to visit my girlfriend in NYC.

    I already was used to my picture as well as my fingerprints being taken upon entering the US. The last time I entered the US though it was in the Midwest, and I was treated very nicely and respectfully.

    This time I arrived in Newark and I think the two points that caught the customs officer’s attention were me giving him a honest answer to the question how I was doing (I’m sorry, but I’m German, and if somebody asks me after a 8 hour flight how I’m doing, I’m gonna tell them that I’m tired) and at which exact day (!) I last entered the US. Obviously I did not remember that exact date. He then asked me a bunch of pretty personal questions about me and my girlfriend (how we met, how long we where together, how we earned money, her race (!), how I could afford to travel to the US as a student (!))… After I answered all of his questions, the guy shouted out “ESCORT” and a big, black guy escorted me to a room in the back. In this room I was not allowed to use my cell (i.e. to call my girlfriend to tell her, I was gonna be late)… I was in that room with about 15 people… most of them were black or at least pretty brown. I was the only white person in that room, apart from some of the officer’s. The officers basically did nothing and talked about private stuff and baseball for about 15 minutes until they called up the first person in the room to ask him some ridiculous questions… Everybody in the room was allowed to leave. Then it was my turn to be asked the exact same questions as at the customs desk before. After they guy put a stamp into my passport and told me I was OK to go, I asked him why I was asked these questions, but the guy just replied to me that “everybody is suspect to suspicions” and that I’d “better leave now”… So I did… My suitcase was the only one left on the belt and my poor girlfriend had to wait 90 minutes for me.

    Once again: I’m a German student, now suspicious stamps in my passport, no legal record or anything like that… ALSO: If you want to enter the US you have to fill out something called “Visa Waiver” where among other ridiculous questions you’re asked whether you ever killed a jew… I was born in 1988… WTF!?

  32. Ju

    well, i know this post is getting old but it’s funny (and comforting) to see that i’m not alone. To make it short: Last week i left France to spend 1 month in Vancouver, Edmonton, Banff and Jasper, Canada. I was supposed to meet up with a friend in Edmonton but before catching my flight i had to go through the immigration office. They basically asked me where i was going, the purpose of my trip and where i was staying. Being honest i answered that i was meeting a friend who was supposed to show me the area and that i would left her to go on on my own. Unfortunately (for me) she happens to have 4 kids and i am 15 years younger than her. The lady officer basically told me what i was “stealing a canadian citizen’s job” because i was going to look after the kids and that i needed a work permit. She gave me no chance to answer or to explain what i was really going to do and she gave me two options: 1. being heard by the immigration board… and maybe facing the 1 year prohibition to come back to Canada (they win most of the time), and 2. withdraw my will to enter the country and go back to my country that day( and paying for my own flight) or the morning after. I really didn’t want to get into trouble ( i’m just a student trying to discover new places) so i accepted to leave. I understand that governments want to protect their job market… but in my case, it was so unfair. If i could write the whole story i would entitle it ” How to lose 2000$, 2L of tears and a month of fun in five minutes” . PS: I’m a student, 50$ notes don’t grow on trees in my world.I had to work like a dog to pay for my flights.

  33. Cindy in the Netherlands

    My son and I moved to the Netherlands when he was 16. My son is a really good kid, very anti-drug and even volunteered on Friday nights here at a local youth center. When he turned 18 he decided to move back to the States. While living here he had started dressing pretty gothic, black clothing, army boots, dying his blond hair blue or black and sometimes wearing a little eyeliner and black nail polish. It was just his way of self expression. I knew that an 18 year old young man flying alone from Amsterdam to Atlanta would be prime target for the customs agents so I suggested that he wore some “regular” clothing for his flight to, hopefully, lessen this chance. He was having no part of it. Sure enough, he gets to Atlanta and is searched three times by customs. They only found his clothing, some book and video games and a stuffed rabbit that he had gotten in his very first Easter basket!! On a return visit to the Netherlands, I picked him up at the airport and lo and behold, he was dressed in jeans and a polo!!

  34. Sundus

    Aww I just read this, good to know not all Americans think us Pakistanis terrorists. Hope you had a great time in Pakistan! My cousin missed 2 flights at the US customs because they kept checking her bags and etc many times. Lol an 18 year old international college student would totally be a threat. -.-

    1. carolyn

      There are unfortunately a lot of Americans who are still knee-jerkingly suspicious of anyone who “looks Muslim” but it is getting better. We’re trying :/

    2. Kirstin

      I promise not all US citizens are like these TSA agents. One of my best friends is Afghani, and he is farther from a “terrorist” than many Americans I know. Please don’t think the worst of all of us- the government and its agents are not representative of the entire populous.

  35. Mack Reynolds

    wow, this is ridiculous. i was getting scared as i read the piece. good suspense writing. that’s pretty shitty of people. it kinda gets outta hand i think. i’m glad you made it out, and that they didn’t physically harm you.

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  37. Kasey

    I grew up overseas and went to boarding school for high school, so I traveled all the time. I had the same passport from when I was 5 until very recently, so its full of visas from all the countries Ive lived in or visited, like Nepal, Vietnam, Nigeria, Venezuela and Indonesia. The last time I flew into the States, about a year ago, I filled out my customs card, marking that I had just recently been to Holland, Germany, Bulgaria, Russia, Spain and Portugal with my friends as a graduation trip. I was in line with a friend, who happened to be Spanish and she and I were chatting in Catalan because Im awful at it and she always helps me. I guess a customs officer heard us talking and laughing, because we both got pulled into separate rooms. Now my passport is fat, because Ive always just gotten extensions put in it instead of getting a new one, because I travel too much, so I got grilled on that. I was grilled on why I traveled, on where I went, and why I went there. Mind you, Im an 18 year old girl, with a heavy Southern accent, freshly graduated from high school, traveling with just one other female friend, who was taken two hours earlier. I got a pat down, from a male officer, who spent a little too much time checking the pockets of my jeans and the underwire of my bra. After the rather invasive pat down, and another 2 hours of being yelled at, I was told that I was “a bad American, and should stay the fuck out of the country” and let go. Needless to say, my family, who was waiting to pick me up, freaked out. Luckily we have a family friend who used to be rather high up in the government, so we contacted him, I told him what happened and now I have a special stamp inside my passport that lets me zip through customs and TSA screening. As for my friend, she got a female agent, who was of hispanic decent. They apparently had a lovely little chat about my friend’s live and my friend was let go after about 30 minutes. C’est la vie, no?

  38. Cara

    This story makes me want to punch someone in the face. How many overly-suspicious and judgmental ignoramuses are working in the U.S. Customs department of the major U.S. airports? I mean, seriously! Could they not actually use their power of LOGIC and determine the difference between someone who actually posed a threat, and some guy who purchased candies with Osama Bin Laden’s face on the box?! It makes me sick to my stomach that they are actually getting paid to act like complete flaming imbeciles.

  39. Mark

    International travel is very inconvenient at times. However, I would much rather these border agents cause a relatively minor inconvenience for you by checking into every suspicion than to look over an actual threat because it is disguised well. These agents know common habits and practices of suspicious persons. It’s generally a good idea to not make yourself a target. Ex: Don’t carry weapons/ammo (lets agents know you’ve been in contact with someone who has weapons), don’t buy bin Laden propaganda candy and expect to not be questioned, and your tip of no anti-American sentiments.
    Anyway, even though I completely agree that customs can be very inconvenient, apparently their tactics work. I can’t recall any terrorist attacks on US soil since 9/11. I’m grateful for their diligence and promise to never cut corners even though it may be the easy thing to do.

    1. Pam

      They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety. I respectfully disagree with you Mark, candy, souvenirs, and books are no where close to legit reasons to detain people in any country, especially a land built on the principles of freedom. As for your ideas of anti-American sentiments, please take a quick look over some high school history books.
      Thank you for posting this Earl, the rest of us out here on the internet appreciate your blog entries and grounded thoughts.

    2. Magic Travel Andrew

      “I can’t recall any terrorist attacks on US soil since 9/11”

      Correlation is not the same as causation. It’s impossible to know that the lack of attacks is due to airport security. I’m sure the people managing the security processes are keen to take the credit for it but unless there has been a known terrorist who definitively stated that they cancelled planned attacks because airport security is just too tough its all speculation.

  40. Maggie B

    Thanks for the great story! US customs can be extremely frustrating and stonewall the hell out of your day. It’s an unfortunate product of the environment. They’re trained to be suspicious to the utmost and in the end they’re just as terrified of you as you are of them (that’s how I see it, anyway). With those assumptions about terrorism, everyone just turns into an asshole.

    When I was flying out of PDX Portland I had forgotten my cell phone and borrowed a man’s phone to call my dad so he could rush it over before my flight. Nothing of particular interest happened with security other than when I asked a woman attendant sitting at a desk by the gate to the outside if I could leave the terminal briefly. She didn’t look at me and I, wondering if she hadn’t heard me, began to repeat my question until she turned her head sharply and snapped, “Ma’am, you can’t talk to me!” I was 18 at the time and had no what proper procedure was in an airport, so, as she continued to sit at her desk and stare straight ahead at the leaving gate (that was her “job,” apparently. What the hell?), I walked cautiously through the gate to see if she would do anything.

    Anyway, it wasn’t a dramatic tale of interrogation like many of you have experienced. I’ve only been through airports probably fewer times than I have toes and fingers, but the air of distrust and suspicion never goes away. I never got to fly through airports pre-9/11. Didn’t they used to be, you know, nicer?

  41. Kerry

    I can’t believe there are so many stories about ignorant Customs officers! I feel like I would have a larger issue with religious interrogation than the rest, though. Especially after Osama, I’m guessing that airport security is going to be off the wall now.
    I do have a less-serious story, though. When I was ten, I went with my family on a Mission trip to Honduras. While going through customs, one of the officers took out my beanie-baby kangaroo. At first he was, like, playing with it…making it dance or something. It was all in spanish, and I was really confused. But then, he took it away, and was putting on rubber gloves. He went into another room with some other men. I didn’t get why a 10 year old, traveling in a group of families (who all look touristy) would seem suspicious, but my parents thought maybe they were looking through it for drugs or something. 30 minutes went by and the guy never came back. We boarded the plane, and went home. I loved that kangaroo toy, dammit.

  42. Li

    I had a similar experience to this! A few years ago, I was flying out of Sky Harbor airport to study abroad at Trinity College in Ireland. I was around 14 at the time and it was my first time leaving the country. My younger sister was around 3 or 4 and tearfully requested to accompany to my departure gate. As we walked through security, the metal detector went off as she passed through it. I watched as the TSA officers approached her and gruffly said, “You need to come with us.”

    Obviously they weren’t going to take my terrified 4-year-old sister away alone, so they told me to follow them as well. First they took us into the private screening box off to the side; they scanned me first, then told my sister to step into the box. Confused, she faced the wrong way; when they told her to lift her arms, she spun around in a 360-circle and put her arms up like a ballerina. Granted, I understand it can be frustrating when you can’t get someone to do as you ask, but she was a toddler and clearly had no idea what was going on, and the unclear commands kept confusing her. One TSA officer overreacted and started screaming, “TURN AROUND! FACE ME RIGHT NOW! PUT YOUR FEET ON THE MAT!”

    My sister, who has never responded well to loud voices, began to cry, and unthinkingly I grabbed her protectively. The TSA officer instantly barked, “Don’t touch her! Ma’am, I need you to step away right now.”

    I reluctantly did so, and he proceeded to scan my little sister. His handheld metal detector kept going off, even though I was sure that she didn’t have anything metal on her. She was wearing a Hello Kitty dress, for God’s sake. My sister was still sniveling, and I noticed that the metal scanner kept beeping around her legs. After the officer determined that there was nothing in her pockets, I pointed out, “It could be the metal buckles on her shoes.”

    Apparently something in my tone sounded edgy and suspicious, because he looked at me and his mouth turned into a grim, flat line. He said coldly, “You’ll need to come with me.” So he brought my four-year-old sister and I into an interrogation room and proceeded to grill us about where our family had come from (our parents immigrated legally from Vietnam) and the history of their political allegiance, as far as we knew it. He kept implying that we were Communist or had Communist ideals–despite the fact that I was FOURTEEN–and despite the fact that, ironically, my grandfather had been the only senator in the capital to oppose Communists at the time, and was thrown into prison camp for his trouble when the Communists took over.

    Then he kept making vague references to the IRA in Ireland and whether I might have any sympathies with them; I didn’t know who the IRA was, thinking they were a business company rather than a rebel movement, but because he kept speaking so loudly and because my sister kept crying, I never thought quickly enough to give him a clear, well-spoken answer. He kept banging on the metal table too, which frightened both of us, and my sister became inconsolable. She kept saying, “I don’t want to go to jail,” which for some reason made him think that we were legitimately hiding something or had something wrong.

    Eventually he let us go. We’ll never know what caused the metal detectors to go off, and my sister doesn’t seem to remember the incident, but I learned that day that certain TSA officials will dog you for anything, even the most obscure suspicions.

  43. Bungle

    Don’t get complacent, the UK also has its fair share.
    I used to live in Paris, working for a games company and while I’ve had a beard for many years I shaved my head every so often instead of going to a barbers.
    So here I am 5 months on the job I head home for a visit, I take the Eurostar and the trip is fun, I spend the last 30 mins amusing some tourists with impersonations of the various accents you get in UK.
    So I am walking up to customs (and they are very relaxed on Eurostar) when this guy asks for my attention, asks me a few questions, he is a little suspect by my changing accent (from welsh back to normal). Then he asks to see my ID, I show him my passport and he asks for more, so I show him my driver’s licence and still he wants more, so I ask him for his warrant card (note for UK: the police will often have IDs round their neck, or on lapels, they still must carry their warrant card and cannot enforce the law without it; legally).
    So he flips it out and I look at it, and then give him all the ID I have (like libary cards from when I was 15), he takes it all and my tickets and leaves saying “Wait here.”
    Naturally I am feeling relaxed as I know I am innocent, so I call my dad and say “It’s so funny I am being stopped as a terrorist” to which he replies in concern, how did I know it was a real cop. “I asked to see his warrant card.” I prompted, his repose scared me “Do you even know what a real one looks like?”.
    So I hung up and ran out of the area, rushed up to the first bobby I saw (Nb. “bobby” is a uniformed policeman), and blurted out “Omg I am so dumb, I just gave away my passport, all my IDs, and tickets to this scammer. Can you help?” He quickly assertained what I was talking about, at which point his fail fell.
    “Do you realise how many laws you have broken when you left the area?! He was CID* and you left when being questioned.”(*Plains clothes policeman, also known as special branch)
    “Can I go back then?” I queried.
    He looked stressed and said “No, you can’t go backwards through customs.” but on further thought decided to ignore his own admission and escorted me through the one way opening doors, muttering about how he was now breaking laws and would be reprimanded.
    As soon as we passed the search area, a hidden door opened and the officer who had taken my ID came out in a fury
    “How dare you leave?! You are being held under the Terrorism Act! You are in so much shit!” (For the record, unless they say “you are being held under the Terrorism Act” you are not, in fact if they don’t say “you are being held” or “must wait here” then you are under no obligation to do so, though if you do leave they might haul you in, so you better be able to prove they didn’t say it.)
    So I was escorted into the hidden door, my bobby, legged it while he could, I was moved into a room with a mirror(yeah right) and told to wait. When asking if I might sit (gonna be very polite now) I was told to stand in the corner, which I did for about 5-6 minutes when someone stopped by to ask why I was standing in the corner and to sit down “silly boy”.
    So I sat and asked if I could read my book, of course the answer was no.
    It was then (I guess) about 45 minutes till they came back to me, time to let me sweat it out. Unfortunately for them I had been up all night packing and cleaning my flat, chatting on the train, this was my first chance to sleep in about 38 hours; I took it. With hindsight I guess that helped me a lot.

    They woke me up with a large book hitting the table, so cliche, and proceeded to question me at length about where I had been for 5 months, whether I had changed religion, or rather a “major” change and despite my friend’s comments I decided saying “yes i converted to Catholism” would not go down well.
    They searched my bags very thoroughly and kept up the questions. For my part I kept up a “stream of conciousness” replying as soon as the words hit my head, I was too tired to do otherwise.
    The only real 2 snags were my talcum powder I had in my bags and that they had never heard of Blizzard or World of Warcraft, thus were unsure where I had been for 5 months. (On this I now always make sure to have buisness cards and better yet, some merchandise with my company name on it so I can show them something).

    This all lasted about 2 hours, by the end of which they were laughing at their mistake. They returned all my ID and escorted me from the secure area. Ironically when returning to Paris I ran into one of them and pointed out the lack of knowledge vs fake IDs/Warrant cards, he was non-commital in his response.

    I have subsquently been stopped a dozen or so times, though with hair it is less often, the most amusing event of all was the last time I came through from Paris, in a rush to catch a connecting train when I was pulled aside and asked if they could ask me some questions. I replied in an exasperated tone “oh no! not again!” at which point he waved me on.

    In retrospect or for others info, the important things to remember (that I learnt) is that anyone with ID stopping people while in a secure section of an international port/station/airport is very likely to be real or caught very quickly.
    Also real terrorists when escaping will always get the local police involved and not just leave 😀

  44. Wendy

    I’m Canadian, and have crossed the border into the states possibly a million times, especially on family vacations. On a recent study abroad period, I got a chance to run into the customs officers of a variety of countries, all European. Even as a Canadian, and as a kid travelling with her parents (and once my darling great grandmother), the American officials were constantly on alert. I’m sure they were easier on us than other people, but there was always this uncomfortable feeling that one time we were going to be the ones having our car searched and played 20 questions with. I know crossing back into Canada, or flying for that matter, was always more pleasant because I knew Canada’s border guards, though vigilant, were incredibly approachable. I have a million stories of conversatiosn with guards, beyond the usual “where have you been” that were way off topic. And in other countries? Nothing but the same pleasant treatment. The US needs to learn that while vigilancy is important, scaring the hell out of citizens and visitors is not a way to instil security in anyone. Or make friends.

  45. Ben

    I am an Irish citizen, and a few years ago was working as a chef on a yacht. Now, this position, as we travel in and out of US ports, namely MIami, Fort Lauderdale and the US Virgin Islands, we must have a B1B2 visa.

    We’re in Ft Lauderdale for several months, in the shipyard. I have my girlfriend fly up, and we get an apartment, and a car, a lovely little ’92 red BMW with low suspension and tinted windows, and some little electronic problems.

    We drive all the way to Canada, on the way back through the Buffalo crossing, I’m presenting the customs officer with an Irish passport, a B1B2 visa, a US Virgin Island Drivers License, a Florida license plate with tinted windows that don’t open, as they electric windows have all died.

    That was fun.

    Three days ago, I was travelling from Bahamas into Miami airport, and it was awful, I was told I was probably carrying money or drugs for someone, that i was surely seeking work in the US, that my paperwork didn’t match up, that my story was made up. I was asked what I was driving, who’s car it was, what license i had, where i was going, what my mothers status in the US is, what i do…. What I do, a chef says I. Now, this goes onto my history, an old Japanese visa, what did I do there asks she, I worked in a French Restaurant, for Gordon Ramsay says I…….. Now, she’s a little sweetheart, who thinks I’m just wonderful. We spoke for several minutes about the celebrity chef before i was allowed go.

    I’m getting sick of this…..I’ve entered the US no less than 50 times, I’m not interested in working here, really, I’m not. And i’ve not even a parking ticket in either the US or Ireland or anywhere. Please, leave me alone.



  46. Market.Travel

    dude…a bullet? seriously?? oh man. you shoulda put that in a pocket of some jeans inside your bag…at the bottom! it is absolutely ridiculous that they would grill you like that simply based on the countries you’ve visited. it is even more disheartening to hear how uneducated, ignorant, and prejudice people are at U.S airports. I got stopped a couple times, once in LAX and once in Dallas, and being of Indian descent was given the 3rd degree in Dallas, so i know exactly wut you’re talking about. But, remember next time, that most of us are smarter than some of those highschool dropouts they have protecting our borders!
    Hope your next trip…well, I hope your next return to the U.S. is much less eventful!

    1. Mario

      Actually, the US Customs and Border Protection have an extremely stringent selection process, and it is very difficult to get hired as an agent. Their standards are very high. Perhaps you should actually know about them before denigrating their standards?

  47. Rudy

    One time, flying back from the Dominican Republic with my mother, I was asked as to how it was possible we were “visiting family” being that we had a German last name. Really? You can’t have family around the world now? I’m with my 72 year old mother… We make a great terrorist team! It is very unfortunate how ignorant and uneducated some of the people taking care of our borders can be (“if you are Puertorican, how come you don’t have a Puertorican passport?” REALLY?) instead of thorough. I’ve found that Latin America has more security getting into an airport than the US. 3 sometimes 4 different check point where your passport and/or bags are reviewed. I actually think we have a lack of security. (I once had an M80 in my back pack getting into Mexico, which was quickly discarded upon realizing I had it… no one else noticed… after going through the x-ray machine.) I don’t mind wasting time for our security. I do mind wasting time dealing with someone uncultured and lacking the sufficient knowledge to perform the job they’ve been hired for. Would truly love to see the type of preparation required for these TSA security guards who swear they’re CIA special agents.

    1. Donald

      I can respond to this, Those TSA agents at most of your airports in the U.S. are ‘Screeners’, just that, nothing more, nothing less. At least that’s what the detailed job description says.

      @Earl: As far as reading this post is concerned, I know I am not even gonna bother taking a trip to the Middle East if that is what you had to go through. Not to put race into it, but I’m a black male, and If they are going to grill you like that then I know they are going to try and hang me. IJS. That literally made my blood boil and almost made me cry. But I dig your courage to want to go through that again. Kudos my friend.

      1. Earl

        Hey Donald – It’s interesting actually because this story above happened after I visited Pakistan/Afghanistan but after my trip to Syria, Lebanon and Iraqi Kurdistan in 2010, US immigration and customs didn’t ask me a single question. They saw that I wrote those countries on the customs form but just let me proceed. So you never know how it will go!

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