Even first-time travelers know not to pack firecrackers, lighter fluid and other explosives when traveling to another country. Most are also aware that what’s euphemistically called “adult reading material” will at best will be confiscated on entry to most countries, and at worst could land you in really big trouble.
What you might not know, though, is that there are a lot of things that are heavily restricted or even prohibited from being imported to or exported from some countries — unexpected items like face masks, holy water and even ballpoint pens.
While some international customs regulations are logical, others are just, well, downright weird. Rather than find out the hard way, you’ll just have to take it on trust that the following rules, however strange they might seem, have to be obeyed.
Japan – Allergy Meds
Think of spring in Japan and visions of cherry blossoms — elegant displays of delicate pink and white petals fluttering in a gentle breeze — come to mind. Sounds heavenly, doesn’t it?
It is...unless you suffer from hay fever, sinus problems or allergies.
In Japan, everyday, over-the-counter meds like Sudafed and other allergy and sinus medications are banned. Even innocuous items like Vicks inhalers are forbidden because they can contain components such as pseudoephedrine that can be converted into drugs, which are illegal under Japan’s anti-stimulant drug laws.
So think twice before packing your normal go-to allergy meds...unless you want to stay in Japan longer than you planned.
Nigeria - Ballpoint Pens
Nigeria has a long history of prohibiting seemingly random items from being imported into the country, often to boost the country's own manufacturing industries. The list is exhaustive, but over the years it has included objects such as plastic flowers, spaghetti noodles, toothpicks, footwear, suitcases and telephone recharge cards.
One item, though, is particularly surprising: ballpoint pens and all their parts, including the refills. (It is, however, legal to bring in the pen tips, that is the nibs used in fountain pens only.)
Rather than risk finding out the ins and outs of why this rule is in place, it might be safer to just travel with a pencil.
Malawi – Aphrodisiacs
An aphrodisiac is any substance that increases one’s sex drive when consumed. Foods readily available in many countries, such as oysters, ginseng, figs and apples, are all believed to boost libido. So are natural concoctions sold under names like “horny goat weed.”
But while such aphrodisiacs may seem harmless, Malawi, in southeastern Africa, marks them as prohibited in official statements. The country doesn’t really go into detail about which aphrodisiacs are and aren’t ok, so it’s probably best to err on the side of caution and leave the stimulants at home.
The United States – Kinder Surprise
Chocolate is always a good present to bring back from an overseas trip — especially foreign versions of locally available brands that come packed with childhood nostalgia.
Unless, of course, the chocolate in question is a Kinder Surprise with a build-your-own-toy inside.
In the 1930s, the United States banned candies like the Kinder Surprise with non-food items inside them, as they posed a choking hazard. In the decades since, thousands have attempted to smuggle the treat into the country; 30,000 eggs were confiscated by customs and hefty fines were handed out in 2015 alone.
Luckily for Kinder fans, a new version called Kinder Joy was released in 2017, with the eggs and toys packaged in two halves. This safer version of the candy is allowed in.
Saudi Arabia – Full Face Masks
Until recently, the majority of visitors to Saudi Arabia had been taking part in the hajj, a religious pilgrimage to Mecca considered the most important religious duty a Muslim can complete. Getting a visa had been difficult, and people planning a laid-back holiday usually found the absolute ban on bringing in alcoholic beverages an itinerary changer.
However, as of April 2018, Saudi Arabia started to issue tourist visas for the first time ever. These electronically issued visas makes it much easier and more tempting to explore the fascinating culture and peoples of this little-explored country.
But if you want to take advantage of these more lax travel requirements, be warned: The import of masks disguising the face is absolutely forbidden. So maybe go during a time other than Halloween.
Guatemala - Police Whistles
In Guetamala, bringing in police whistles is strictly prohibited. But there is, at least, a reason for the rule: a government crackdown on civilians impersonating cops in the country.
What is weird is that only the whistles are forbidden...meaning you're free to bring in police uniforms and other paraphernalia.
Zimbabwe – Prison-Made Goods
Zimbabwe has a long history of banning imports for personal use in order to promote the purchase of home-grown products, even where no equivalent exists. It also bans the import and export of items in order to maintain revenue, conserve foreign currency and protect intellectual property against infringement of rights such as trademarks, copyrights and patents.
Coffee creamers, baked beans and even wheelbarrows have all been on the list of forbidden items at one time or another. Of the current list of goods that aren't allowed in or out, the most befuddling is prison- and penitentiary-made goods.
Whatever the logic, you have been warned.
Fiji – Holy Water
The local Fiji community is primarily split between three religious groups: Christians and, in smaller numbers, Hindus and Muslims. Common to them all? The habit of going on pilgrimage and bringing back Holy Water.
Christians believe Holy Water protects them against evil, Muslims think it will grant their prayers, and for Hindus, this water is the spiritual manifestation of God. The result has been an influx of Holy Water brought into the country, which has prompted the government to confiscate Holy Water not certified as being cholera- and typhoid-free.
So if you’re religious and looking to bring in some Holy Water for your Fiji trip...think again.
Morocco – Maps and Money
It’s always good to be prepared when you plan a trip to a country for the first time. Even with all the apps and computer gadgetry now available for travelers, it can be handy to carry a map to plan the route.
Unless, that is, Morocco is your destination.
Due to a longstanding dispute with the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic over who controls a thin strip of land in the Western Sahara desert, any maps or geographic charts that don’t comply with the Moroccan take on the border territory are a no no.
Also prohibited? Importing or exporting the local Moroccan currency, dirham, above an amount of about $100 USD. It's officially deemed a closed currency that can only be legally traded and exchanged within Morocco.
Singapore – Chewing Gum
It’s widely believed that visitors to Singapore are forbidden to bring chewing gum into the country. The truth is that chewing gum is allowed in small quantities for personal use, or in large quantities if it’s for dental hygiene. However, chewing gum in public is forbidden, and has been banned since 1992.
Back in 1965, Singapore gained independence after being expelled by Malaysia. Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s first prime minister, set about changing it from a small port to a global center. Cleanliness and hygiene were high on his agenda. The local habit of sticking gum on any and every available surface was seen as detrimental to development, as was using chewed gum to jam up the doors of the subway trains so they couldn’t open.
Thus, chewing gum in public was forbidden, and still today it's considered as bad as littering. Spit your gum out onto the street you could be fined between $500 and $1,000 USD.
Turkey – Angora Goats
Back in the 1990s, all guidebooks on Turkey warned travelers that it was forbidden to take two things out of the country — antiquities and Angora goats. How a goat could be folded into a backpack or suitcase was never made clear, but it’s an intriguing rule with an equally fascinating history.
In the 15th and 17th centuries, Angora goats, named after the country’s capital of Ankara, were highly valued for their fleece, which were the source of the luxury cloth mohair.
During the long reign of the Ottoman sultans, the export of Angora goats was forbidden because the Turks wanted to keep this lucrative industry for themselves. These days Angora goats are off the banned list, though the regulations about antiquities still apply.
Maldives - Religious Icons
Long popular with romantics and lovers of nature, the Maldives chain of 26 atolls in the Indian Ocean is well-known for the plethora of delights it offers visitors.
Less known is the fact that the archipelago adopted Islam as it principal religion in the 12th century, and has since maintained its religious base. Today, any public observance of a religion other than Islam is prohibited, and religious icons or statues (which, admittedly, would be difficult to fit into a suitcase anyways) are not allowed in.
One can, however, bring in religious literature, like Bibles, for personal use.