Treated Like a Criminal in My Own Country

Just a few days ago I said I would never complain about U.S. Customs and Border Patrol again. That was before I came back to America earlier this week and had to deal with another humiliating interrogation session and bag check at Philadelphia International Airport. I am getting very tired of this.

I try to be honest in all things and always fill out my landing card honestly. That meant I put down where I had been on this trip--Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Germany. I did not put down Canada, the UK, and Azerbaijan, because I did not actually enter those countries officially--I merely passed through them.

First off, I know I have been talking about Global Entry for years and have never got around to it. Now, I've put it off a few more months because United is supposedly making it free for top-tier elites. But every time I find myself stuck in an immigration line or having the contents dumped out of my bag, I always regret my procrastination. This time was no different.

After waiting for more than hour in line (and truly, this was a record for me--even Washington Dulles at rush hour has never been this bad), I came up to an extermely pale middle-aged man with a moustache. Of course the Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan entries raised an alarm.

AGENT: "Why were you in Kay - zak - a -stan?" (yes, that is how he pronounced it)

ME: "I got a good deal on the airfare. I wanted to go to Germany and by booking this trip, I got to see both Germany and Kazakhstan and save $300."

AGENT: "What? That doesn't make any sense."

ME: "The ticket to fly to Kazakhstan, then back to Philadelphia with a stop in Germany was less than just flying to Germany and back. My trip was $500. Just going to Germany was $800."

AGENT: "That doesn't sound right. Why would an airline charge less to go further?"

ME: "You should ask Lufthansa that, but I took advantage of it."

Our conversation continued in a similar fashion, with more skeptical questions. He then wrote "BGC" (bag check) on my arrival form and shook his head one last time. I told him, "Look, do I look like a criminal to you? I've been perfectly honest with you and served in the Air Force. Come on, this is three times in a row. Am I going to have to do this every time I come back to my country?"

He chuckled and said, "You take care sir."

Next, I proceeded to the secondary check area past baggage claim, where I had to wait about 15 minutes for an agent to check my bag. He asked why I was here, saying, "If it's just an extra carton of cigarettes, I'll getcha out quick." Then he looked at my arrivals form and said, "Oh, Kazakhstan. We'll have to do a full search." (at least he pronounced it correctly)

He handed me off to a colleague, who proceeded to empty everything...every last pen and pencil from my bag. He then began to talk as he rifled through my belongings, making remarks about how he would never want to go to Kazakhstan and oddly about how he had heard on the radio that the health care law is unconstitutional. I don't know how he got on that topic.

He found nothing and instructed me to pack my bag up as he walked over to his computer, pulled up my name, and typed away for a few minutes. Sadly, my dossier seems to be growing. He thanked me and said, "Welcome home...finally."

I was finished.

I have faced interrogations and bag checks on my last three international trips---at LAX, MIA, and PHL. Why is it that my fat passport filled with so many stamps and stickers raises the suspicion of so many border agents? Will I ever be able to get Global Entry now? Why is there an incentive to be dishonest to DHS?

As an American citizen, I don't think I should have to explain to dopey border guards where I travel and why I choose to. What is it about visiting Kazakhstan that is so sinister? Or Chile for that matter? Oh how I wish the US border agents would be a bit more like their counterparts in Germany...


Kent March 30, 2012 at 01:05 am


AFAIK, United started reimbursing 1Ks $100 for the Global Entry application before the merger. Regardless, I would strongly recommend that you apply for Global Entry ASAP so you can skip the queue and the 100 questions each time you travel internationally. I have Global entry, and it makes a world of difference arriving back into the US as the only wait I have is to reclaim or pick up my bags. The $100 fee is well worth acoiding the lost time and energy one has going through the normal arrivals process.

robert March 30, 2012 at 05:39 am

I have global entry .. apply for it - it makes a world of difference - Think of it as a $100 investment offset from the $300 you saved on your last trip. No waiting and no unfortunate conversations with the occasional less educated examples of our border guards who may have been kicked out of bed on the wrong side that morning. Well worth $100 and it lasts 5 years (I think) or until your passport expires .... a great investment for anyone who travels internationally more than 2 or 3 times a year. Believe me - just do it - you won't regret it ....

bluto March 30, 2012 at 06:06 am

+1 for global entry. Get the Amex Plat, spend the time you would have spent in line to do the GE app, and be done.

Downside: no more blog material re: customs hassles.

Will March 30, 2012 at 06:48 am

I've definitely gotten similar treatment. Arriving in Miami last month from Mexico, I was asked a ton of random quesions, including why I had traveled to China and Indonesia the previous year. The final question was interesing - "Are you carrying more than $10K with you?" If only I were so lucky! I wasn't forced to go to secondary, but I've been given the third degree on each arrival back into the United States for the last year.

ftp March 30, 2012 at 07:11 am

Make them pack up your bag that they emptied. Those jerks.

MrLincoln March 30, 2012 at 08:46 am

Kazakhstan is on the opium smuggling route out of Afghanistan, and Chile's near Bolivia -- I wouldn't be surprised if that were the reason for all the bag checks you've been encountering.

A. S. March 30, 2012 at 11:12 am

DO NOT GET GLOBAL ENTRY!! I so enjoy reading about your mishaps! :) They make me feel better about mine! ;)

LarryInNYC March 30, 2012 at 03:02 pm

Technically speaking (I'm not a lawyer), I think that being questioned at a border point and undergoing a luggage search isn't being "treated like a criminal". It's called "crossing a border". I'd go so far as to say "a hassle".

It's pretty clear that you're being profiled as someone who made a quick visit to a troubled part of the world. The agent told you as much when he said that Kazakhstan requires a full bag search. I doubt you helped your situation by trying to explain to the officer why you, specially, deserved to be exempted.

In a country as paranoid about foreigners as the US (you were in Europe? Sure hope you didn't have any socialism in your luggage!) it's par for the course to get sent to the Group W line if you have stamps from "enemy" or "potentially enemy" countries — which includes just about everywhere except Great Britain. And, honestly, can we be too sure about Wales?

@Kent: I've had Global Entry since 2009 and was never offered a refund on the fee from UA because of my 1K status.

@Matthew: I'm sure you'll be approved for GE, although your processing time will likely be longer than usual. The one-on-one interview at the airport may also take longer, due to your "unusual travel history" ;)

mike March 31, 2012 at 08:19 am

You don't have a choice on the search of the bags due to it being an exception as a border search but you can decline to answer questions including the card except if you are brining back $10K. You could just ask them before being sent to secondary if they are alright with letting you in without a bag search and if not then you will make your bag available for a search due to the fact it is a border exception search but you will decline to answer any questions except your name, SSN, and address, and present your passport.

Marc April 1, 2012 at 03:28 pm

Come get so many freebies, you probably have a nice well-paying job....stop being penny wise and pound foolish. Pay the Global Entry fee to stop the torture on yourself...

arcticbull April 1, 2012 at 08:04 pm

I managed to get Nexus (GE+Canada) and I have half the middle east and south America in my passport. They just laughed a bit during the interview. Shouldn't be a problem!

ptahcha April 3, 2012 at 08:05 pm

Interesting experience. By comparison, I took the same flight from Almaty through FRA on LH. Using Global Entry, and not even using my US passport (since I wasn't a citizen at the time), got through within 5 minutes in JFK.

Andy April 3, 2012 at 10:31 pm

@LarryInNYC: US citizens have the right of abode on US soil. Unless there is an arrest warrant, officers cannot deny Matt's entry regardless of his travel. Therefore, the whole conversation with the border agent is pointless and is a waste of time.

Pho Real April 8, 2012 at 02:27 pm

Global Entry doesn't mean that they won't search your bag(s). It means that you can bypass the line and go directly to their automated entry system.

The longer you wait, the more entries you have to make in your application with all your international travels. Amex Platinum reimburse the $100 fee.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.