I have never smuggled anything in my life. Why, then, do I feel an uneasy sense of guilt on approaching a customs barrier?

JOHN STEINBECK (1902-68)

Customs

Kinder Eggs and Cuban Cigars


Kinder eggs are illegal in the USA because 'the toy surprise hidden inside can pose choking and aspiration hazards to children younger than three.' Furthermore, 'The article is subject to refusal of admission pursuant to Section 801(a)(3) in that it appears to be a confectionery that has a partially or completely imbedded non-nutritive object.' Despite the fact that they are explicitly illegal, though, Kinder Eggs are widely available in the US. Liqueur chocolates are banned from import, but not necessarily from sale – alcohol in sweets is defined as an 'impermissible adulterant', but individual states can opt out of observing this rule if they choose, and 19 of the 50 have done so.
 
All imports from Cuba are banned due to the US’s unilateral blockade of that country, which was imposed in 1962 - the blockade itself is annually declared illegal by the UN (the 17th consecutive vote, in 2008, saw Cuba supported by every country in the world other than the US, Israel and the Pacific state of Palau). Items from North Korea, Cambodia, Iraq, and Libya are likewise banned.
 
Obscene publications are a controversial area; the courts have held that the prohibition is not unconstitutional, but it isn’t often used. Items which have been in contention include Joyce’s Ulysses (in the 1930s) and some artworks which were being shipped to an exhibition in Baltimore. This led to the Kafka-esque 1970 court case The United States of America vs Ten Erotic Paintings.

If you've visited a farm in the last month your shoes may be confiscated and destroyed, to avoid importing diseases. 

Giacomo Casanova described the Customs men at Dover as 'extremely tedious, impertinent, indiscreet and even indecent'.

The Anti-Smuggling Hedge


In Victorian India, the British built a 2,500 mile long customs barrier which consisted largely of hedge. It was started in the 1840s, and was designed to be impassable, to stop people from smuggling. Bits of it were stone wall, but normally it was a hedge 10 to 14 feet high, made of closely clipped thorny trees and shrubs. By the 1870s, it was over 1,500 miles long; at least 800 miles of it made up of live thorn hedging.
 
The Customs Hedge was designed to enforce the Salt Tax – salt smuggling was a huge business, thanks to taxes which made it punitively expensive. The hedge had to be constantly repaired from the damages inflicted on it by white ants, jungle fires and whirlwinds - the latter, according to a contemporary bureaucrat's report, would often 'carry away whole furlongs, and even occasionally, miles, of it in an hour.'
 
The barrier had a chowkie – or customs post – every mile. Each chowkie was joined to its neighbours by a raised path. Each mile was supervised by an officer and ten men; each guard had to sweep his section of the line 'by trailing a large branch, or a special bamboo and grass frame, over the bare earth. This was inspected when he went off duty, and he was held responsible for any footprints that crossed it.'
 
The authorities finally created a continuous, united Customs Line in the 1860s. It was 2,504 miles long, running from 'the foothills of the Himalayas to Orissa, and almost to the sea on the bay of Bengal.' Over the next ten years, no expense was spared on the Line - resources well spent, since British profits in India were so dependent on maintaining the salt monopoly in their territories. During the great uprising of 1857, many miles of hedge were set alight. This would have been an extraordinary sight – a giant of snake of flame writhing through the countryside.
 
The Customs Line was abandoned on 1 April 1879 because of changes in salt duty which meant that smuggling was no longer worthwhile. Incredibly, the great hedge disappeared and was forgotten until British writer Roy Moxham stumbled across a reference to it in an old book in a second-hand shop in Charing Cross Road. After much searching, Moxham managed to find a short surviving stretch of hedge. 

MICK MILLER

I don't like people who take drugs. Customs men, for example.

Josef Mengele passed customs (on his way to Argentina) with several cases full of human body parts.

The fez was banned in Turkey in 1925. As a result there were riots, executions and a thriving fez-smuggling trade.

In 1989, Red Stripe were caught smuggling cannabis into Miami hidden in their beer containers.

US Customs


The USA has very strict - and occasionally eccentric - rules on what you may and may not take into the country. US Customs say the item they seize most is the Kinder Egg, followed by Cuban cigars. The Homeland Security website says that all seized items are destroyed by burning - including, of course, confiscated Cuban cigars.

Things you can’t take into the US include:

  • Lottery tickets (you can be jailed for two years for doing so).
  • Cough medicine and diuretics (without a doctor’s note).
  • Absinthe.
  • Liqueur chocolates.
  • Obscene publications.
  • Most plants, as well as cuttings, seeds, unprocessed plant products or 'plant-based handicrafts'.
  • Many types of food and produce (canned meats are the third most seized item).
  • 'Hell notes' (counterfeit money for use in the afterlife, traditionally burned at Chinese funerals).
  • Seditious and treasonable materials, products made by convicts or forced labour.
  • Unsterilised specimens of human and animal tissue (including blood, body discharges and excretions – so no grubby handkerchieves).
  • Pre-Columbian artefacts.
 
Things you can take into the USA include Persian carpets (there was a ban on them, which has been lifted) and flick knives  - provided they are 'for use by a one-armed traveller.' Otherwise, they're banned.

TIn 1950s America, housewives in Wisconsin used to smuggle yellow margarine across the border from Illinois.

A British customs officer once stranded his wife abroard for three years by adding her to a 'No Fly List' after she went on holiday.

STEVEN WRIGHT

When I was crossing the border into Canada, they asked if I had any firearms with me. I said, 'Well, what do you need?'