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I'll be flying internationally next week with the express purpose of collecting DNA samples from some Aunts and an Uncle. I'm bringing a number of FTDNA kits with me (totalling 8 vials). I plan on bringing them with me in my carry on luggage. Should I be at all concerned about getting those vials out of and back into the United States from a customs perspective? Does anyone have any experience or advice?

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I didn't want to say anything until I was back home, but bringing everything in my carry on bag in both directions, worked. So, I'm now home successfully with 8 vials of DNA sample obtained from relatives in a foreign country.

I actually phoned FTDNA about this issue before leaving and they assured me that it wouldn't be a problem and very kindly emailed me a simple PDF letter stating that the samples are indeed just that:

FTDNA Letter

The letter is on FTDNA letterhead, dated and signed, with phone numbers, etc. I would suggest that anyone wanting to do the same just call FTDNA and ask for one at the time of their travel. They emailed it to me just minutes after the phone call.

Being such a simple letter, I typed it into Google Translate and attached a Spanish translation to it as I was going through customs in South America. So, I kept a copy of the FTNDA letter and the Spanish translation with each one of the kits, but I never needed to show it to anyone.

I'll feel good about doing the same thing in the future, which I will probably have to do sooner rather than later...

Update Dec 19 2016: I went to a holiday party today and happened to meet a former TSA Airport employee. He had all kinds of interesting stories, but of course I asked him about this issue. He said in general, it should be fine. It's a big and significant help to have an official letter from FTDNA on hand, just in case. My Google Translate Spanish letter is a thoughtful gesture, but it isn't necessary as there should always be someone on hand to interpret such documents in any language. If somehow a TSA or customs official does have an issue with the vials, or wants to open them, etc., you should immediately ask for a supervisor and explain the situation to them.

However, beyond all of that, the former TSA employee said that if you truly don't want any chance of a hassle, you're better off following @lkessler's original advice and shipping the DNA back home. Just sending it through in your checked luggage is another option, but one I don't think I would ever do.

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    Thanks for telling us this. This is good to know. Contacting FamilyTreeDNA beforehand was the right thing to do. – lkessler Dec 12 '16 at 14:03
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    @Peter_Chamdo4Ever Can you scan a copy of the letter or a link to it if on their website and edit it into your answer. – CRSouser Dec 13 '16 at 21:10
  • @CRSouser Done! – Peter_Chamdo4Ever Dec 13 '16 at 22:53
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Common sense would dictate that you're okay taking the test kits to your relatives, as long as you leave the packages unopened and as you received them.

Once you are with your relative and take their sample, I would not recommend you attempt to take them back. Instead, I'd suggest you mail them from whatever country you're in. Why even risk trying to risk taking a DNA sample into the country? It's not worth the worry.

  • Well, I'm too late on leaving the packages unopened. I always open the test kit to make sure that all the kit numbers match on all the vials, etc. I suppose if I lose the kits at customs, worst case I could call FTDNA and have them express mail me some kits there... – Peter_Chamdo4Ever Nov 27 '16 at 4:52
  • They do say to check them, but I've never heard of that mistake being made. Even so, unused test kits should not be a problem. But I would not attempt to take human DNA across a border. – lkessler Nov 27 '16 at 5:12
  • For whatever it's worth, I did bring some human DNA samples (FTDNA vials) across the Canadian/U.S. border by car some years ago, without incident. But the U.S. / Canadian border by car is a far cry from international air travel. Why would mailing them back be any different? Customs are still customs. – Peter_Chamdo4Ever Nov 27 '16 at 5:25
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    I'm in Canada, and I have not had trouble mailing my samples back to FamilyTreeDNA which is in Texas, and I've not heard of anyone else having trouble. If we did, FamilyTreeDNA would not tell us to mail them back. They do state that the kits qualify as parcels, not letters, and need appropriate postage, but they do not mention anything that indicates that they are at all concerned about customs. In contrast, just try to take some fruit through a border crossing. – lkessler Nov 27 '16 at 5:47
  • Yes, my experience in Canada was successful. I'm going to countries in South America. I wonder why bringing them in carry on luggage would be different than sending them by mail -- either way, they're going to hit customs. – Peter_Chamdo4Ever Nov 27 '16 at 6:08
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A couple of things to note, first of all the sample that you return to The Laboratory is not a DNA sample until it has been processed by The Laboratory.Wwhen you return it it is just a swab of a certain type. Also, if a relative gave you a birthday card in an envelope to be posted on your return, that they had licked down, nobody would give it a second thought.

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