Protecting America’s borders
Buyers beware of banned belts, bongs

Robert Szostek
U.S. European Command customs office

MANNHEIM, Germany – Many vacation souvenirs may actually be banned by U.S. or international customs laws.

Travelers can end up in big trouble with foreign and U.S. customs authorities if caught with these items. Vacationers should check what they may buy before they leave, customs officials advise.

A good place to start is the military customs Web site at

It is a crime to take many wildlife items across international borders. People vacationing abroad should never buy live animals such as baby tortoises, turtles or birds and should avoid souvenirs made from hides, shells, feathers, or teeth.

“Seemingly innocuous things made of tortoise shell, coral, ivory, and skins are openly sold in many countries,” said Michael L. Burkert, from European Command’s customs and border clearance agency, “But they are still illegal.”

People buying these products add to the risk of animals and plants becoming extinct and customs can fine you and confiscate the goods. Reptile skins are often used in watchbands, handbags, belts, wallets and shoes.

Most crocodile, lizard, snake and all sea turtle products are prohibited too. Customs will also stop ivory and whale teeth decorations known as scrimshaw and netsuke as well as many plants such as cacti and orchids.

Travelers with more than 250 grams of caviar must even prove that it was legally exported from the country of origin when crossing international borders.

U.S. law also bans many items sold at overseas vacation destinations from import to the United States. For example, hookahs, chillums and bongs are the glass, metal or wooden oriental water pipes sold in Turkey and the Middle East as ornaments or gifts.

Cuban cigars and rum are also not allowed stateside due to the U.S. trade embargo.
Ask a military customs office for the “Buyer Beware” pamphlet, or read it online at or call customs for more information.