Wednesday 27 May 2009

US Customs - What's their problem?

I’ve just spent the last 4 days State side visiting Chicago for the first time. Having checked out the East and West coasts by visiting New York and San Francisco, I thought it would be good to visit the capital of the Mid-West.

I have to say Chicago is a fantastic city, which I would recommend to anyone, but once again my initial first impressions and experience of the country was somewhat clouded by the now obligatory rude, suspicious and slightly aggressive form of interrogation that you can expect to receive from US Customs when trying to enter the United States.

I really don’t understand their attitude on why they insist on treating you as a potential criminal, based purely on the fact that you actually want to enter their country!

Having filled out the necessary forms and handed over my passport to the Customs Officer, the following conversation took place:

Customs Officer: ‘Do you know anyone in Chicago?’

Me: ‘No I don’t know anyone’

Customs Officer: ‘Why would you visit somewhere, where you don’t know anyone?’

Me: (Feeling slightly confused by the question) ‘Er…because I’m on holiday’

I thought what a ridiculous question, as if you need to know people to visit a particular destination. I know they can make life very difficult for you in these situations so it's important to remain polite and calm and answer their questions, but I did feel like saying:

'Just because you lot never travel anywhere beyond your own state, doesn’t mean to say that the rest of us around the world have to act the same.’

Following more questions regarding my job in England which the officer didn’t even seem that interested in hearing about, I was asked for further I.D in the form of a business card, this despite having my passport and a print out of my flight and hotel booking.

None of this was clearly good enough, as I was then asked to step aside from the desk where I had to wait for a few minutes before being escorted to another waiting room.

After a few minutes there, I was questioned again by two more Customs officers who proceeded to ask me exactly the same questions as the first officer. I thought it was all a little excessive. When asked how much money I had brought into the country, I replied:

‘Around $95 Dollars. You can count it if you want?’

Customs Officer: ‘95 Dollars! (In a tone of shock) Do you not have a Visa card?’

Me: ‘Yes…I have a Visa card!’

I thought ‘Of course I have a Visa card, as if I'm going to travel with the equivalent of only £60 pounds or so. I’m just going to use my card to take money out of an ATM machine, what’s the problem here?’

Eventually I was given back my passport and allowed to leave, but the experience was over the top and frustrating, particularly when you’re being asked questions which you consider to be stupid and naïve. Then, when you try and answer you find you haven’t given enough information, or they can’t understand you because of your British accent, so you have to repeat everything a second time.

During this interrogation I was thinking that as a UK citizen I should at least expect a slightly easier ride, we are after all America’s closet ally, have they never heard of the ‘Special relationship'? In addition to this, we’ve stood shoulder to shoulder with them in their misguided ‘War on Terror’. The least we can expect back is some appreciation of this, reflected in a slightly less aggressive form of questioning.

In the end it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of what is a stunning city, but I shall be more prepared to deal with US customs when I next visit the United States.


  1. I hear you Rodney! All the times that I have been to the states, I actually get nervous when going through customs.

    All of my experiences I have found them to be rude and ask unnecessary questions. My last trip to DC the conversation went like this:

    Customs Officer: ‘Do you know anyone in DC?’

    Me: ‘yes I am here visiting friends’

    Customs Officer: ‘Where do they live?’

    Me: Luckily, enough I was well prepared from previous trips so had it written down in my diary despite already clearly having it down on the card that I handed to them!

    Customs Officer: What do you do for a living?’

    Me: I am a teacher

    Customs Officer: What do you teach?

    Me: Geography

    Customs Officer: What is the capital of Peru?

    By this point, I was shocked and confused, not because I did not know the answer (because I did!) but because the customs officer was so serious, there was no emotion in his face and he looked so threatening!

    Anyway, he continued his interrogation and eventually let me go!


  2. Last time I went to the US I got grilled coz I only had a backpack! maybe a backpack wasn't the best bag to take.