The hardest part of a plant buying/collecting trip is getting everything back home safely. Whenever I give a talk about my travels the topic of importing the plants is always the first to come up - followed of course by "when will you propagate and distribute them?" We've had quite a lot of experience with this but the targets always seem to be moving.
The first step is to apply for import permits from the US Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). There are several types of permits so it's a good idea to know what types of things will be imported. You should also know what is and is not allowed into the US from whatever country you are visiting. A constantly expanding list of plants not allowed for import is online and new regulations like the Not Approved Pending Pest Risk Analysis has created new lists and made it even easier to ban plants without real information on whether the plants pose a true risk. The only way off that list is for the USDA to perform a pest risk analysis on the plant in question. Somehow I don't see that in the foreseeable budget of the USDA.
In whatever country you are visiting whether it is Canada or Mongolia, all plants must be inspected and receive a phytosanitary certificate (phyto in the importer's lingo) from the country of origin. Plants and any plant parts must be free of insects and diseases (try explaining to an inspector that the variegated, contorted thing you got in Japan is really not diseased) and free of all soil. They must also be less than 2 years old and under 3 feet in height.
Seed in small quantities - fewer than 50 seeds each of no more than 50 different types of plants - can be shipped into the US without a phyto as long as you have the correct permit. Many countries do not give phyto's so this is the only option for some regions.
When you get everything together, plants and seed must all be shipped to a USDA inspection station like Atlanta, New York, Miami, or Seattle. After a clean bill of health they are shipped on to you. If all goes as planned, from the post office in the other country to your door can be as little as 4-5 days. It can also be 4 weeks if the package gets held up somewhere. Of course if the APHIS inspectors find a problem with your shipment they can destroy all or part of the plant shipment.
Finding plants is easy, getting them by the bureaucracy legally, through the post safely, and growing at home successfully is the difficult part of the process.
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