Monday, March 03, 2008

Business or Pleasure?

When I travel out of the US to attend a conference or some other research-related event, I never know whether to check the box next to Business or Pleasure on the arrivals form on my return. Here is why I am confused:

FSP return to US #1, checked "Business" on form after attending international science conference: agent at passport control asks the purpose of my trip, I say 'scientific conference', agent says I should have checked "Pleasure" because no commercial transactions were involved. I get a stern lecture about the importance of filling out the form correctly and honestly.

FSP return to US #2, checked "Pleasure" on form after attending international science conference: agent at passport control asks the purpose of my trip, I say 'scientific conference', agent asks if this was part of my work or just a hobby, I say it was related to my work, agent says I should have checked "Business" because it was a work-related trip. I get a stern lecture about the importance of filling out the form correctly and honestly.

FSP return to US #3, checked "Business" on form after attending international science conference: see 'return to US#1' above for identical experience.

and so on.

Of all the difficulties and indignities associated with travel these days, especially compared to those experienced by non-US citizens traveling to the US, this is a trivial issue. Even so, I wish there were a box for "Non-commercial Business" or "Work-related Pleasure" just so I could avoid the stern lecture.

My husband never gets lectured or corrected no matter which box he checks, nor does another male colleague who just responded to my question about this, so perhaps I fit some profile for which the instruction for passport control agents is: "Give her a stern lecture".

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

I once ticked both boxes, as I (non US citizen) was going to attend a conference first and visiting a friend after that. It caused major confusion. While I did not get lectured, it did take me 10 minutes to explain (and show my poster to a customs officer). Ever since I calculate what the majority of my days will be. If it's more than 50% conference (or if I am carrying a poster holder), I tick the business box...

Wendy said...

I sounds like the term "scientific conference" is causing the problem. Why don't you be less specific with a response of "a conference for work"?

Anonymous said...

I usually check pleasure, and when asked say I am visiting friends at the university associated with the meeting. My main reason is that I was once pulled aside at a Canadian checkpoint and told that a conference was business, and that I would owe Canadian taxes on my honorarium (it was the rare "conference" with one. Another "benefit" of NAFTA.

Mark P

geomom said...

OK, so I've never had that happen to me. I always check business when I go to a conference. Situation #2 is correct, the trip is work related. I am trying to think if I ever volunteer that I was attending a scientific conference or if I just say something more vague. I think commenter #1's example is a reminder that one should not volunteer too much. I'm an FS (though a researcher, not a P) and I don't particularly enjoy being questioned in an unpleasant manner but the way things are these days...

sandyshoes said...

I was going to suggest "check both" until I saw the anonymous 12:45 comment. Hmmm.

All else I can say is it doesn't surprise me the tiniest bit that your husband is never hassled in this way.

ScienceGirl said...

I used to feel like a scrutinized criminal when going through customs. Since I've become a U.S. citizen though, customs are a breeze on all borders! Same person + different passport = different treatment.

I did get asked one time why I checked "business;" my "The purpose of my travel was a work-related meeting" was not further questioned.

Female Science Professor said...

If I just say "conference", I get asked what kind of conference, so now I go straight to "scientific conference" (sometimes being more specific even than that).

Anonymous said...

One way to identify a terrorist or smuggler is to place them under stress and look for signs that they are not what they seem. Accusing you of doing something wrong is a way to ratchet up the stress and see how you react. In the US, they have trained observers looking for subtle body language associated with deception, which are more likely to be revealed when someone is under stress. If you behaved in an unusual way, then you might be taken aside for more questioning. It doesn't matter what the actual content of the question is.

Professor Staff said...

My corworkers and I all encounter this confusion a lot (regardless of gender). I've resorted to checking "pleasure" and telling them I'm visiting "professional acquaintances" while on the course of a pleasure trip.

Academia just doesn't fit in with either of these notions (nor are we students on an educational trip!) I've been told that they key issue is "is commerce being transacted?"

I wish they'd revise those forms!

I'm glad to see someone else annoyed by this.

chall said...

Rather than to explain that "transactions in science is usually intellectual ideas being transacted" I usually tick "Buisniss" and then say "work conference". I too, got a stern lecture when I went to Canada and ticked pleasure but then when asked said I was attending a conference. After that the pass port person asked when the conference ended and when I said Friday the response got "but you are here until Sunday?! WHY?".

"Enjoying the city?" was my response after ticking through a few others in my mind....

單中杰 said...

Dear Anonymous (the very first one),

If you went on a trip which is p business and 1-p pleasure (where p is between 0 and 1), I would recommend that you flip a biased coin (with probabilities p and 1-p) to decide what to put on the form. This way customs can accurately estimate the proportion of trips that are business vs pleasure.

(Non-US citizen; male; never questioned about any of the dozens of US customs forms I've filled out.)

Anonymous Three said...

I wonder what would happen if you tried lecturing them first. Not sternly, of course. But my customs interactions tend to go something like:

CUSTOMS: What is the purpose of your visit?
ME: A conference
CUSTOMS: Which conference?
ME: Oh, it's the XYZZY conference, we study eXperiments on Young Zombielike Zebra of Yesteryear. It's kind of a combination of history and zoology... [substitute actual description of your research area here]

After a sentence or two in that vein, they seem to be happy to let me go. You know, until now it had never occurred to me why...

blop said...

Did you ever try to reply "business meeting" instead of "scientific conference"?

Anonymous said...

As a US citizen who will be traveling abroad for a conference soon, I have thought up a snarky reply if I am asked about this. "Well, you better hope it's not just pleasure if your taxpayer dollars are paying for it!"

(I am painstakingly cobbling together funding sources and it's all "the government" in one way or another.)

I'm a short blonde grad student and I was not lectured about this last time I returned from Germany. The customs guy quizzed me about math (my area) but it was mostly pleasant.

Anonymous said...

Ah yes, describing the nature of your visit. If you're a scientist especially in chemistry, don't offer up any extra details about the nature of your work. nothing about biological chemistry, DNA, nuclear magnetic resonance, laser etc. Of course there's certain buzzwords that they look for despite behaviours. As a grad student/scientist/prof, stuff like this is on the brain almost 24/7 but for others, it's another language with a lot of mis-connotations. Give a minimalistic answer otherwise you'll get pulled over and grilled for hours.

Ms.PhD said...

I'm with wendy, I think they're confused when you say you're a scientist (scientist + female raises all kinds of red flags, don't you know that by now???).

And/or your body language might be making it worse. You seem very mellow on this blog, but are you a calm traveler in real life?

I tend to be calm to the point of zombie-like (though maybe not quite a zombie zebra of yesteryear).

I'm also fairly tolerant of stern lectures. Just nod and smile, try to be cheery.

I usually find that smiling a lot helps with these kinds of customs people, and at the DMV.

Just think of their miserable jobs, probably dealing with grouchy people all day, every day! A little smile goes a long way.

I also usually say I'm traveling for work, and then if they ask I say something related to the disease I work on. No need for a protracted discussion about how I'm not that kind of doctor!

And yes, definitely avoid any jargon of any kind. This tendency of mine, which means I'm often taken less seriously in The Academy, does make it much easier to interface with the general public!

Global Girl said...

If you're not paying for the tickets (i. e. some funding agency, department, whatever - just not your personal money) I'd consider it business. I consider conference trips business trips, but then again as a business brat I would :)

MathGeek said...

I guess I'm a bit of a shit-disturber, but after that, I'd write up a a little blank form stating "When the purpose of a trip is a scientific conference at which only ideas are exchanged, not goods or money, the policy of [Government] is that the correct answer is (check one)" and Name, Date, Title, Location.

Then ask the agent to give it to me in writing, for future reference.

This then becomes a fun game, because if I can collect two of them with contradictory answers, I then get to send it off to the relevant Head Office for arbitration. With a nice polite cover letter demanding an answer "so that the University may better advise its students and faculty on this often-confusing aspect of international travel."