Illustration by Rosaleah Macedo
What Does Duty-Free Mean?
Your personal, or duty-free, exemption is the total value of the merchandise you're allowed to bring back into the country without paying additional duty. Generally, this allowance is $400 and carries limitations on how much alcohol and tobacco products can be included in this total.
You are eligible for your personal exemption if you meet the following criteria:
- Items are for your personal use or use in your home.
- You have been out of the country for longer than 48 hours. (Any visit to the U.S. Virgin Islands or Mexico -- no matter how long -- counts. You may be eligible for a $200 exemption if you've been away for less than 48 hours, but, in this instance, you are not allowed to group your family's exemptions together.)
- Items are (physically) with you (Purchases that are being shipped to your home may not be included in your personal exemption, with the exception we mentioned earlier. You can, however, lighten your load by mailing home your dirty clothes, as long as they were made in the United States and haven't been altered. You can claim duty-free status by labeling your package "American Goods Returned.")
- You haven't used your exemption, or any part of it, in the past 30 days. (If you've used part of it on a trip, you must wait another 30 days before you are eligible for another $400 exemption. However, you may qualify for a $200 exemption, with all the same limits on amounts of alcohol and tobacco products applying.)
- You have declared all items that you did not have when you left the United States (even if you're wearing them).
Overall, if you're not sure whether something should be declared, Customs officials say that it's better to err on the side of making that declaration. Otherwise, you risk being perceived as trying to pull a fast one on the officials and having the item in question taken away.
Don't be confused by the term "duty-free shops." It doesn't mean that what you buy in duty-free shops wonÂ’t be subject to duty when you return to the United States -- it will. Merchandise sold in duty-free shops are free of duty and taxes only for the country in which that shop is located. So if your purchases exceed your personal exemption, items you bought in a duty-free shop, whether in the United States or abroad, will be subject to duty.
Sometimes a duty-free purchase is a good deal; sometimes it's not. Many veteran travelers find perfume, cosmetics and premium liquors -- all of which are subject to duty -- to be good buys in duty-free shops. You might also find items you've never seen, since sometimes products are test-marketed at duty-free shops before they are sent to local stores. Generally, it's a good idea to check out other stores before you make a large purchase in a duty-free shop -- you may find better deals elsewhere.
The $400 Personal Exemption
Basically, you are eligible for a $400 exemption if you are returning from any country other than a Caribbean Basin country or a U.S. insular possession (U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa). This eligibility applies only to items that you actually have in your possession. Items that you mail home to yourself are duty-free if their value is $200 or less. Good news if you purchase fine art on your travels: Fine art and antiques that are at least 100 years old may be brought in duty-free. Interestingly, handicrafts and folk art are subject to duty.
Tobacco -- Your $400 duty-free exemption may include up to 200 cigarettes and up to 100 cigars -- more than that and you'll have to pay duty on them, even if you haven't gone over your total exemption. (You may also have to pay state or local taxes on tobacco products.)
New federal laws say that you may not bring back cigarettes that you purchased in another country if they were manufactured in the United States for export purposes. That definition includes most cigarettes you would find sold in stores; an exception (a rare one) might be cigarettes someone purchased in the United States, took to another country and tried to sell, Mann says. You'll know the difference because cigarettes made for export purposes don't generally bear the Surgeon General's Warning label or tobacco seal; cigarettes purchased in the U.S. must have these stamps. (Read more about these new laws.)
Tobacco products made in Cuba are prohibited unless you bought them (for $100 or less and for personal use only) in Cuba on an authorized trip and traveled directly back to the U.S.. (Because of the U.S. embargo of Cuba, all Cuban products are strictly regulated or prohibited.) CBP officials say that if you buy or sell any Cuban cigars (no matter where you got them) within the U.S., you're dealing with an illegal substance and are liable for fines and imprisonment. In addition, we are not allowed not bring Cuban cigars purchased in any other country back into the United States.
Alcohol -- You are allowed to bring in one liter (33.8 fluid ounces) of an alcoholic beverage (liquor, beer, wine, etc.) as part of your duty-free exemption if you are 21 (Customs officials say youths returning home from spring break often violate this one) and the beverage is a gift or for your own use. (This allowance is subject to state laws -- check yours out before you leave on your trip. And don't forget, federal laws prohibit the shipping of alcoholic beverages by mail within the U.S..)
If you want to bring back more for your personal use -- unusually large amounts raise red flags about your intentions for the product -- you can. But you will be charged duty and Internal Revenue Service tax. (FYI, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection enforces these laws on behalf of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). This means they are within their rights to decide that these products are being brought in for commercial purposes and to hold the alcohol until you obtain a permit to import it.) Finally, importation of absinthe, a potent green liqueur flavored with European wormwood, or any other liquor or liqueur containing an excess of Artemisia absinthium (wormwood) is prohibited.
Firearms -- Under Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) regulations, no U.S. commercial airline allows firearms in its airplane cabins except in the possession of law enforcement officers.
ATF also regulates and restricts firearms and ammunition and approves all import deals involving weapons and ammunition. (These laws are many and complex, so if you're interested, read more on the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Web site.)
Even if you plan to enter another country by car, you'll still need to contact the embassy of your destination country to see if you will be allowed to enter with a firearm. Some don't permit this even if you're only traveling through on the way to your final destination. (While you're at it, it's a good idea to check U.S. State Department Travel Warnings and Consular Information to see what's happening in your destination country.)
Prohibited and Restricted Items -- Examples of items that you are forbidden to bring into the U.S. are drug paraphernalia (unless you have medical permission for its use), illegal substances (including medications that are not legal in the U.S. or not sold without a doctor's prescription) and dangerous toys.
Generally, U.S. law forbids us to bring in any goods from countries on which travel restrictions are in place -- Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Serbia and Sudan. (The Office of Foreign Assets Control of the U.S. Treasury Department enforces this ban.) These restrictions allow travelers to bring back informational materials (such as books, tapes, recordings or films) back from all these countries -- with the exception of Iraq. If you have been granted government permission to travel to these countries and would like to bring back some things, you will need a specific license (rarely granted) from the Office of Foreign Assets Control.
Other items are restricted, which means that special permission is required from a federal agency before the item may enter the U.S.. This list includes the following:
- Meat products -- These stringent laws say that fresh, canned or dried meat or meat products may not be brought into the United States from most foreign countries. Since these rules often change, the CBP recommends that you contact the USDA-APHIS Veterinary Services, National Center for Import/Export (NCIE) in Riverdale, Maryland for the latest information on disease outbreaks affecting meat and meat products.
- Food products -- Bakery goods and certain cheeses are allowed into the U.S.. (Again, check with APHIS, for a complete list of restricted and prohibited food products.) Some imported foods are also subject to requirements of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
- Fish, wildlife and products made from them -- These are subject to state laws, import and export restrictions, prohibitions, permits or certificates as well as quarantine requirements. For details, contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before you leave if you plan to bring back any wild birds, land or marine mammals, reptiles, fish, shellfish, mollusks or invertebrates or parts of these (such as feathers, bones or fur) or products made from these parts (such as ivory combs or tortoiseshell boxes). We must be aware of endangered species and products made from these species and must obtain permits from Fish and Wildlife to import them. This list includes any kind of ivory (except from the warthog or unless the ivory product is an antique and can be documented as being at least 100 years old); there are specific laws pertaining to each kind of ivory (from African elephants, Asian elephants, whales, etc.) so make sure you know the law before you consider purchasing ivory in a foreign country. (Contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at 1-800-358-2104.) These items are dealt with only at certain Customs entry ports; contact Customs for a list.
- Fruits and vegetables -- This one is not as easy. Whether you will be allowed to keep a vegetable or piece of fruit will depend on where you got it and where youÂ’re going after you arrive in the U.S.. (Remember, the Mediterranean Fruit Fly infestation in the U.S. in the late 1980s? That problem, which cost millions of dollars in American crops, began with one traveler who brought home one piece of contaminated fruit, according to CBP officials.) It's just easier not to bring fruits and vegetables back, but if you're interested in learning more, contact APHIS for a copy of TravelerÂ’s Tips, which includes a complete list of restrictions and of items for which you must get a government permit.
- Plants or plant products -- Every last one of these (seeds, cuttings, plants, etc.) must be declared and brought out for inspection -- no matter how clean or pest-free they may appear. Many require import or export permits and some are completely forbidden.
- Drugs and medications -- The FDA forbids the importation (either on your person or by mail) of medications, narcotics or devices that it has not approved for use in the United States or has approved for use only with a doctor's prescription. These include non-traditional treatments for cancer, AIDS, arthritis or other medical conditions. These items will be confiscated even if you acquired them through a foreign doctor's prescription.
Few of us would be so irresponsible and dishonest as to pick up an item -- however small -- at an archaeological site or museum in a foreign country. However, it's important to know that most countries have laws that protect their cultural property -- items such as art, antiquities and artifacts. These laws include export controls and national ownership of cultural property. Even if you bought a piece from a store in that country, you may be asked to prove that you own it before you can bring it back into the United States. While it's important to have export permits and receipts, these provide no guarantee of ownership.
Although foreign laws may not be enforceable in the U.S., certain U.S. laws, such as the U.S. National Stolen Property Act, may apply. Under this federal law, a person cannot legally own artifacts or art objects that were stolen, no matter how many times the items may have changed hands.
Other Personal Exemptions
The U.S. gives free or reduced duty rates to certain developing countries under a trade agreement called the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP). (Check this site for a list of countries and eligible products.) Some products that would otherwise be subject to duty are not, when they come from a GSP country. Similarly, many products of Caribbean and Andean countries are exempt from duty under the Caribbean Basin Initiative and Andean Trade Preference Act. Most Israeli products may also enter the United States duty-free or at reduced duty rates, and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) allows U.S. citizens returning from Canada or Mexico to bring in goods (as long as they were grown, manufactured or produced in that country) either duty-free or discounted.)
If you return to the U.S. from a Caribbean Basin country, you will be allowed a $600 duty-free exemption. If you return directly or indirectly from a U.S. "insular possession" (U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa or Guam), you are allowed a $1,200 duty-free exemption. Although you may include 1,000 cigarettes in your exemption, at least 800 of them must have been acquired in an American property. You may also include five liters of alcoholic beverages in your duty-free exemption, but one of them must be a product of the American territory or possession.
If you combine travel to a U.S.-owned locale with a trip to one or more of the Caribbean countries listed above -- this scenario could apply on certain Caribbean cruises -- you would be allowed to bring back $1,200 in duty-free merchandise, as long as $600 worth was acquired in the Caribbean country. If you travel to any of the Caribbean Basin countries and to countries where the standard exemption of $400 applies -- say to Trinidad, Tobago and Venezuela -- your exemption is $600, $400 worth of which may come from the non-Caribbean country (Venezuela).
How Much Duty Will I Be Charged If I Go Over My Personal Exemption?
The CBP agent will place the items with the highest rate of duty under your exemption. Then, after subtracting your exemptions and the value of any duty-free items, a flat 10 percent rate of duty will be charged on the next $1,000 worth of merchandise. Any dollar amount beyond this $1,000 will be charged at the applicable duty rates.
The flat duty rate may only be used for merchandise that is for your own use or for gifts. (As with your personal exemption, you may use the flat-rate provision only once every 30 days.) Special flat rates of duty apply to items made and acquired in Canada or Mexico. The flat rate of duty is reduced to five percent on items purchased in U.S. insular possessions, whether the items accompany you or are shipped.
If you owe duty, you must pay it upon arrival in the U.S.. You can pay in cash (no foreign currency), by personal check in the exact amount (drawn on a U.S. bank and made payable to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection), by government check, money order or traveler's check (if it doesn't exceed the duty owed by more than $50). If you're paying by check, you'll be asked to show identification such as your passport (see How Passports Work) or U.S. driver's license. In some locations, you may pay duty with MasterCard or VISA, but don't count on it -- inquire ahead of time or be prepared to pay by cash or check.