Why is the customs agent asking what I do for a living?

Lately, I’ve been flying to the States a lot because my boyfriend lives in Maryland. The first few times were easy. The customs agents asked me the same questions I was used to from crossing the border on day trips to Vermont: where I’m from, where I’m going, how long I’m staying, and whether I have anything to declare. With the airport, add a passport check.

Then, a couple times ago, the agent got mad at me because I hadn’t filled out my boyfriend’s full address on the little customs form. I hadn’t had it memorized! Luckily I found it in my address book, which I don’t normally bring with me. But then he asked me how I met my boyfriend, and what he does for a living. Why? How can that matter? And then, when I answered his next question, about my current occupation, with the obviously threatening word “student”, it got worse. Where? What school? What program? Show me your school ID!

Luckily I actually had it with me, because usually I remove all my extra cards from my wallet before traveling. But the school only issues an ID that’s good for one year, and I have to go back each semester for a little sticker to show I’m still a student. Because this was my internship semester and I was in the hospital all the time instead of school, I hadn’t gotten around to it. I explained that to him, but he gave me such a look that I was starting to feel guilty despite having done nothing at all. I was shaking, thinking he was going to tell me I couldn’t go.

I asked what would happen if I didn’t have my ID at all, and his answer was “I need proof you’re a student, or proof of gainful employment”.

What gives? If I’m unemployed, can’t I go visit family in the States? And now that I’m not a student anymore, because I graduated, what the heck is proof of gainful employment? A pay stub? A hospital ID? Should I bring my boss along?

My guess, and it is only a guess, is that your frequent trips are making you look like someone who may decide one of these days to just stay in Maryland. In other words, the customs agent wants some assurance that there is something in Canada which will make you go back in a timely manner. He doesn’t want you to overstay your visa, assuming you have a visa, which you may not because you are coming from Canada. This is a category of illegal aliens, those who came legally but stayed longer than they were supposed to, which has been getting a lot more attention in the press lately than it used to.

I can’t answer your question, but Jakeline and I just ducked over the border to Windsor during a road trip from Detroit to Washington, DC (which was part of a longer trip from LA, but I digress).

At any rate, leaving Detroit, we kept seeing signs saying, “This way to Canada,” and since neither of us had ever been, we figured we’d make a quick jaunt over. Crossing over to the Canadian side of the border was no big deal, although the customs agent thought we were a bit silly (not an inaccurate assessment, by the way). But coming back to the US? Good Lord…we were grilled six ways from Sunday, in a very unfriendly manner, despite the fact that we actually had our birth certificates (and our driver’s licenses) on us. He wouldn’t even look at our birth certificates (?), but he seemed to have the hardest time believing that two Americans on a road trip would want to go to Canada for an hour just to say they’d been.

I’ve since been told by random folks that the U.S. is trying to make a show of beefing up the Canadian border to prove they aren’t only focused on Mexico. I have no idea how true this is. But I experienced much less hassle coming back from Mexico on a cruise last year than on this trip to Canada. :rolleyes:

I think they usually ask a question to see how confidently you reply. If you quickly answer the question like the answer is second nature, then you pass, if not they ask more questions.

It seems like you not knowing the address of your b/f who you are visiting qualified you for more questions.

That is all there is too it really. They are just trying to see if you are lying about anything and they throw out random questions to see how quickly and confidently you can answer them.

True story: I once traveled back home into the U.S. via Puerto Rico. In the customs line, an agent pulled me off to the side for some reason. He asked the standard citizenship and address questions. Then, he just blurted out “What is the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution?”. I replied “The right to bear arms” and he let me go instantly and complimented me on being the first person that day to get the question right. The have to stand there all day and they have to entertain themselves. Wouldn’t it be cool if you just ask people random questions anytime you wanted?

And sometimes they’re just being assholes because they can. I’ve crossed the border many, many times, and usually there’s no issue, but every now and then you get grilled over the most inane stuff imaginable. No, when I say that I’m not bringing anything into the country, I don’t mean there’s no spare tire in my trunk. I’m sorry I didn’t think to declare my spare tire, I just assumed you’d use your brain. Would you like me to tell you how much fuel is in my tank as well? A complete inventory of the maps in my glove compartment? :rolleyes:

I didn’t actually say that at the time, though. Never disagree with people wielding their little bit of power in a petty fashion when they’ve already demonstrated that they’re assholes.

Actually, Eureka probably has it right. You’re visiting your boyfriend/fiance. You own no property in your country, left no kids behind, and are not gainfully employed. The risk of you not returning to your home country is high.

I have a friend who traveled to England to visit a boyfriend and because she was (1) unemployed, (2) owned no property, and (3) left behind no minor children, they wouldn’t issue her a visitor visa and made her return to the U.S. She would have to apply for a visa from within the U.S. which would only allow her a very limited visit, or her boyfriend could apply for a special fiance visa which would allow her to visit longer.

Also, years ago, a friend from Colombia wanted to bring her mother and sister to New York for a visit. She was denied because the mother, who was a widow, owned no property and did not work. They would not even allow the sister, who was a minor, to visit alone. Once my friend bought property in her mother’s name in Colombia, she was allowed to visit the U.S. Go figure!

You’d probably have less problems getting into the country by saying your coming to visit friends than to visit family or fiance, especially if you don’t have what they consider “strong ties” to home.

I am not sure the border guards have ever been terribly pleasant. But that said, they have a shitty job. You sit in a booth all day breathing car exhaust and putting up with a fair share of assholes. Then if the next Osama does actually get through on your watch, they would roast you on a spit.

I generally do not find the same when I fly home from abroad. The only time I got a hassle was on a flight from Amsterdam. And then I just challenged the lady to do work. I suggested we go over and search all of my stuff. At that point she waved me through.

And so I am not beating up on those charged with a reasonably important job, British customs at Heathrow have been just as tough.

My dad used to cross the border about twice a year to pick up my brother, who was studying in the U.S. One of the standard questions the US Customs always asked: “Have you had any dealings in drugs in the past 24 hours?”

He always answered “yes”.

He was the local pharmacist.


If it’s any comfort, I’ve had the same experience, in the other direction, both times I visited Canada – exhaustive grilling about my program of study, whether I work, how it was that I had enough money to travel, the spending limits on my credit cards, etc. Funnily enough, they never asked to see a student ID, though (and both times I was too nervous to think of offering to show it).

Fretful, they asked me about money too. How can I afford the trip if I’m a student? Did I buy my own ticket? And when I told them that I work part-time, I got an “ah-ha!” out of them, like they’d caught me in a horrible horrible lie! When you ask what I do for a living, I didn’t think to go past “student” and list my last three jobs and the fact that I enjoy baking cupcakes on weekends. :rolleyes:

The funny part is that I am planning on moving down there eventually. I’ll do it nice and legally, with a work visa and all, as soon as I can manage it. It’s not like I’m trying to sneak across and stay there.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that their job is to keep bad people out of the country. But why do I always feel like I’m in a brightly-lit interrogation room and I’ve commited a crime I can’t remember?

These people freak me out and I’m just not sure what to expect on my next trip! I’m working in a hospital now - are they going to call me a biohazard and refuse to let me in? I’m wondering if I should bring my vaccination record, just in case!

If anyone can help me out and tell me what I should bring for “proof of gainful employment”, if that is indeed a new requirement for border crossings… I’d feel lots better.

You just reminded me that we did have a minor (and amusing) exchange with the Canadian customs agent over being too literal. She asked us if either of us had been fingerprinted, and we both said “yes” (my wife was fingerprinted because she was a bank employee, and I have a security clearance where fingerprints were part of the application). Well, there was a moment of consternation, but we were all able to figure out eventually that what the agent meant was, had we ever been fingerprinted by a police agency because we’d been involved in criminal activity. :smack:

Fortunately, the agent was really nice, and we all had a good laugh about things once the issue was clearned up.

How about either a recent pay stub, or a letter from your immediate supervisor, on your employer’s letterhead?

When I and my friends were all 20, we went to the Canadian border to go to the nearest Pub to get a drink, one of us was a designated driver who didn’t drink. We got through the Canadian border easy enough, but when we got back into the U.S they grilled us for about an hour and ransaked our car. They just couldn’t believe that a few 20 year olds would go to Canada just to drink a couple beers and go back. :rolleyes:

I’m in the US on an F1 student visa, and on the occasions when i’ve left the country and re-entered, i often get this sort of third degree.

Sometimes the official is agressive and hostile, and other times he acts like he’s my best friend, but i know that, whether i get “good cop” or “bad cop,” the routine is pretty much the same.

I usually try to maintain an attitude somewhere around boredom and disinterest, answering the questions deadpan and making quite clear i’m not interested in getting chummy with anyone. On my last return, the guy asked me where i went to school, and i told him. He asked me what i was studying, and then asked me again where i went to school. I rolled my eyes and gave exactly the same answer as i’d given ten seconds before. He sent me on my way.

There is a large problem with smuggling people into the country as well. Not so much terrorists, but regular people looking to “defect”.

My cousin just got caught doing this a few months ago. He is a US Citizen, but was going to Canada and getting Canadians and bringing them back here. For respect to him, I won’t go into too many details other than they held him for three days without letting him contact anyone, not even a lawyer. Questioned him to death, all the organizations grilled him too

His mom (my aunt) and his wife thought he was dead or kidnapped. It was scary they said, they were calling me asking if I’d seen him and everything. It scared me too. Needless to say, he was told he would be facing 25 to life for each person he brough in. He’s in a lot of trouble right now. Dumbass. Thing is, he was already making good money and didn’t need th extra loot.

Why didn’t the Canadians just go by themselves and say they were going on vacation?

I once annoyed a New Zealand immigration agent when I was asked if I had ever been convicted of a felony. I know the difference, but still said “I didn’t know that was still a requirement.” More than the smartass answer, he was annoyed by me pretending I thought NZ was part of Australia.

Well, that was a pretty stupid thing to say, in all honesty. An Immigration Official having a bad day could deny you entry to the country for a crack like that, and there’d be nothing you could do about it. (Unless you held an NZ passport).

Something I’ve learnt from travel: Customs Officials Do Not Have A Sense Of Humour- at least, not before they’ve stamped your passport.

Instead of a customs horror story, I’d like to praise the Irish Customs officer who processed Mrs. Piper and me on a recent trip. He was friendly, and asked all the standard questions without giving the impression that one wrong answer would open the trapdoor under us. Then, when he found out where in Ireland we were planning to go, he started giving us tips on what to see and where to go. It was almost as if Customs and Tourism are the same department in Ireland! All in all, a most pleasant experience.