What Does Duty-free Mean?

Depending on the country you are returning from when you enter the U.S., your personal duty-free exemption will be $200, $800 or $1,600. This personal duty-free exemption is the total value of the merchandise you're allowed to bring back into the country without paying additional duty. There are limitations on how much alcohol and tobacco products can be included in this total, which we will explain later.

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. (The 48-hour rule is waived for visits to Mexico.) If you've been away for less than 48 hours, you may be eligible for a $200 exemption, but 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 of those shipped from a Caribbean Basin Initiative country or insular possession. 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 have, you must wait another 30 days before you are eligible for another $800 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 [source: U.S. Customs and Border Patrol].

Don't be confused by the term "duty-free shops." It doesn't mean that what you buy in duty-free shops won'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 [source: Cheng].