How Mobile Passport saved me when a banana foiled my Global Entry dreams
Why do I not have Global Entry? It’s a long story, but it starts with a banana.
Actually, a phantom banana — the lingering essence of which I mentioned at a customs checkpoint at John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK).
The short version goes something like this: I confessed to having a non-existent banana. This, in turn, led to more than a year of secondary searches, long waits in U.S. Department of Agriculture holding rooms and constant stress.
Since I didn't already have Global Entry, it also seemed like my predicament as a possible United States Department of Agriculture fruit threat meant that I wouldn’t be eligible to apply for it. (One of the things that can disqualify an applicant is if you “Have been found in violation of any customs, immigration or agriculture regulations or laws in any country.") Because an application can be discarded without explanation, and the application fee not returned, I hesitated to apply after what had happened, leaving me with a bit of a travel Catch-22.
That’s when I discovered Mobile Passport, which turned out to be both a sanity saver and travel companion par excellence.
Although I truly hope you’re never in the same predicament, it is worth knowing your options for expedited customs procedures (especially if you've been waiting more than 700 days for a Global Entry interview).
So, let me start at the beginning.
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The banana incident
Warning: What you’re about to hear will likely be the most ridiculous travel story you’ve ever been privy to.
Every word is true …
Sleep deprivation. That’s my excuse. It had been a long, sleepless, overnight flight from Lima, Peru, to John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) in New York. Before I boarded, I grabbed a banana for a late-night snack. However, after the piece of fruit was pin-balled from the X-ray machine to the gate before being tilted under my seat, it was no longer looking so fresh. So, I tossed it out before the flight landed without eating it.
Then how did I get in trouble? Call it jet lag motor mouth. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent at JFK asked if I had any fruits or vegetables. The answer, of course, should have been a simple “no.” (Something I should tattoo, Memento-style, on my arm.)
Instead, when the agent asked, I said something along the lines of: “I had a banana, it got squished, so now my bag smells like banana, but I don’t have a banana, but it probably seems like I do because it smells like a … banana.”
I may be paraphrasing, but you get the long-winded idea. My ramblings about banana-scented carry-on luggage went on long enough that it evidently triggered a response in the agent. She stood up, took my passport, and then started to walk away, looking at me only once to say, “Follow me.”
The agent brought me to what I like to call “agriculture jail" — a bleak, windowless holding room located in the airport and operated by the USDA.
Here, again, no one provided an explanation of what was happening or gave me back my passport.
I sat and waited and frantically sent a message to my husband about the situation. “Stop texting,” he responded. “You’re going to get in trouble.” Um, that ship had already sailed.
In case you’re not up on your USDA guidelines for international travel, here’s the official wording: “Travelers entering the United States must declare all agricultural products on their U.S. Customs forms. Almost all fresh fruits and vegetables (whole or cut) are prohibited from entering the United States because of the potential pest and disease risks to American agriculture.”
Here's the kicker: “As long as you declare all the agricultural products you are bringing with you, you will not face any penalties – even if an inspector determines that (the items) cannot enter the country.”
So, theoretically, my banana declaration should have put me in the clear.
When someone finally returned my passport to me and sent me to a secondary screening area, it did seem like my problems were behind me — especially when I told my story to the screener, who seemed both amused and confused as he listened to me and X-rayed my bag. He found nothing amiss and sent me on my way.
Related story: Global Entry member had to show her actual card to get in the line. Do you need yours?
Even more screenings
I honestly would have forgotten about the whole incident but it turns out that this particular banana scene did not simply fade to black. A few weeks later, while returning home from a work trip in South Africa, I was completely fruit-free. However, when I got to the customs desk, the agent scanned my passport and … started walking away with it.
It was USDA Groundhog Day. Back to agriculture jail, then back to the secondary screener … who recognized me. Evidently my banana story was unique enough to be memorable, but my situation wasn’t a one-off.
He grimaced as he gave me the bad news. “This is going to happen to you every time you enter the country for at least a year.” Wait, what?! “You’ve been put on a watch list, and every time you come into the country, you’re going to get flagged.”
In case you’re wondering, I didn’t just get flagged coming into JFK from long-haul routes. My next flight was from Toronto to Newark, and I was with my husband and son. Since, as a family, we were all on the same customs form (a practice we no longer continue), all three of us got sent to the USDA holding area.
Mobile Passport to the rescue
I often wondered during this time what would have happened if I had signed up for Global Entry before my late-night fruit ramblings. Without an agent to hear my snack saga, it's likely I wouldn't have been flagged.
It might not sound like the worst fate to have your bag X-rayed, but having my passport taken away every time I entered the country, worrying about missed connections, having to warn travel companions about my predicament and never just walking up to a customs officer and getting the “welcome home” I used to enjoy all started to take a mental toll.
It added a layer of stress and uncertainty to every flight. I stopped carrying any kind of snacks or food at all, and I even became nervous about souvenirs, worried that I was breaking the rules (even though I’d read every rule multiple times by that point).
Around this time I discovered Mobile Passport. With nothing to lose, I downloaded the app (now called CBP MP) on my phone. It gave me a virtual customs form to fill out.
Have you a been to a farm? NO. Do you have any fruits or vegetables? NO. (Luckily, there's no place to add more comments.) Plus, there were the other — now familiar — questions about how much money I was carrying and other non-agriculture related queries.
I hit "submit" and a QR code appeared, meaning I could go straight to a Mobile Passport line. Not only that, but the Mobile Passport signs at JFK funneled me into the same spot as the "Diplomats" line.
An agent scanned my QR code and said, "Welcome home."
I've used Mobile Passport ever since.
Related: Here's what you need to know about the new Mobile Passport app CBP MP.
It's now been several years since my banana incident. Since that time, I've successfully negotiated U.S. customs in Atlanta, Houston, Newark and New York City using Mobile Passport. Although the app has changed recently, I was still able to use it upon arriving at Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) in April, where I breezed through customs. I am, however, going to apply for Global Entry this year.
Wish me luck, but don't offer me a banana. I still fly fruit-free.