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Traveling with Samples: the impossible journey

It’s the end of a long a productive field season abroad. You’ve collected, processed, and packed thousands of precious samples. These samples are your life-blood. They will be the foundation of not only your thesis, but dozens of theses to follow, the cornerstone of a long and prosperous scientific career. There’s only one barrier left between you and scientific glory – you have to get those samples home.

Traveling with samples, especially internationally, carries with it a bit of diplomacy, some tact, confidence, and a huge amount of (often undue) stress. Even if you’re completely on the level, there are horror stories about overzealous security guards, irate customs agents, suspicious packages, and the risk of being detained, having a visa revoked, being stuck on the next plane out of the country, or, worst of all, losing your samples. As you pack up your gear and prepare to board your flight home, take a step back and remember the immortal words of Douglas Adams – don’t panic.

The first thing to remember is that you’re not a smuggler. Everything you’re bringing in is perfectly legal, though to a tired customs agent it may look suspicious. That being said, you want to make your travel home, and the customs agents’ job as easy and hassle free as possible. Which brings us to the single absolutely concrete rule when traveling with samples – Make sure all you paperwork is in order before you get on the flight and carry copies of everything in triplicate.

You need export papers from the country you’re leaving, import papers from the country you’re entering, if the US, you may need documents from Fish and Wildlife, if you work on endangered species you may need CITES permits. There’s no definitive list of every permit you need, so make sure you call customs, your embassy, the embassy of the country you’re flying out of, and any other agency that might be involved, and make sure you have every required document, before you head into the field. This is the only advice that matters, the rest are just suggestions to make your life easier.

A few things to keep in mind during travel:

Split your samples up. Put some in your checked luggage, some in carry-on, and some shipped, so if a bag gets lost, you don’t lose everything. Make sure they’re mixed up, so if you lose a bag, you don’t lose all of one thing. Obviously the stuff you would least like to lose should be in your carry-on.

“Scientific samples of no commercial value” will be enough for almost everyone you meet.

For regular security, don’t say anything. They’re worried about weapons and things that go boom. I’ve never had security ever look at sample tubes.

For US Customs you may have to go through Agriculture. These agents are much better trained than the standard customs agents and have likely dealt with scientists before. It may be a little more difficult to get through if you’re not American, but that should only be a time issue. Always be polite, but stubborn. If you get stuck with an agent who’s not going to let your samples through, ask to talk to his or her supervisor. If you’re really worried, call the customs office at the airport you’re flying into ahead of time, let them know you’re coming, and find out if they need anything. Again, “scientific samples” should satisfy almost everyone. And don’t be nervous; their job is to determine if you’re bringing in endangered species, potential invasives, or other controlled or hazardous organisms. You’re job is to let them know that you’re not.

Declare it. Don’t try to sneak anything through.

Try not to say “snail” to anyone but the agent in charge at US Agriculture. Even then, try to avoid referring to any gastropods as “snails”.

When traveling as a mixed group, it’s a good idea for the most precious/suspicious samples to be carried by a citizen of the country you’re entering, if possible.

DO NOT try to import anything else on your way in. If you have any wooden souvenirs mail them home. Many carvings are required to be fumigated before entry into the US. Most people never even think about those things, and never get caught, but assume all your bags will be picked through with a dissecting scope. Eat or throw out your food, even wrapped food from the airport, before you get to customs. I would even recommend avoiding Duty Free as well. Basically, don’t bring in anything else that customs needs to look at.

If you have any other advice for traveling with samples, or horror stories of trips gone wrong, please leave them in the comments.


Deep-sea biologist, population/conservation geneticist, backyard farm advocate. The deep sea is Earth's last great wilderness.


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