U.S. Customs is often a bewildering, annoying experience for most travellers. It probably always will be. Hopefully, though, I can help in some small way by outlining some of the rules and regulations that you will face when going through U.S. Customs. For a thorough understanding of the process as well as up to date information regarding duty fees and restricted items, see the website of the U.S. Customs Service, address located at the bottom of this writeup.

Declaring Your Purchases

One of the most important things to remember about going through customs is that you will have to declare the value of the items you purchased abroad. One of the most central aspects of a customs official's job is that he or she search for illegal drugs as well as do something called "safeguarding the revenue." This basically means they have to keep track of how much value is being exchanged back and forth between countries. Things that won't be allowed in the States can include: fresh meat, fruits and vegetables, plants, and soil from abroad. Things that you will have to declare will include:

  • All items that you bought while abroad
  • All gifts you received while abroad.
  • All items you may have inherited while abroad.
  • All repairs you made while abroad, even if they were done for free.
  • All items you intend to sell in the future or that you will use for a business.


Duty is a form of tax that is charged on the total value of items that exceed your exemption allowance. If you have items that you purchased abroad that, total, are worth more than your exemption allowance, you will have to pay duty. If you are a resident of the U.S. who has been out of the country for more than 48 hours, your exemption amount will be:

  • $400: This can include 100 (non-Cuban, fool!) cigars and one carton of cigarettes regardless of your age, plus one liter of wine, beer, or liquor provided you are above 21 years of age. The same regulations apply to vistors to the United States although only $100 is duty-free.
  • $1,200: This amount applies if you are returning from Samoa, Guam, or the U.S. Virgin Islands. Included in this can be five cartons of cigarettes and five liters of alcohol, so long as one liter is produced in one of the aforementioned countries.
  • $200 If you leave the States for less than 48 hours or more than once in a 30 day period during which you used up your exemptions, you can only get $200 exemption. Included in this can be 50 cigarettes, 10 cigars and 5 oz. of alcohol, or 5 oz. of perfume which contains alcohol. Also, if you should bring back over $200 worth of items, duty will be charged on the entire amount as opposed to having $200 deducted off the top as is normal.
Mail Things Back to the States

The best way to get around duty regulations is to mail things back to the States. Of course, this applies only if you can trust the postal system in the country you're visiting. Packages sent through the mail which are clearly marked "personal use" are duty free for up to $200. If you should label your package "gift," the exemption will only be $100. A description of the items and their value has to be marked on the outside of the package. You will be limited to one package per addressee per day — this also means no alcohol, tobacco, or perfume worth more than $5.

Duty owed on packages sent through the mail will be paid after it arrives in the States. Despite what retailers abroad say, you cannot prepay duty. If duty is required on a package, customs will attach a form to it with the amount you have to pay plus a $5 handling fee. When it is delivered, the post office will also charge a handling fee so it would be smart to mail things together if you're looking to save money on the fees.

Duty Prices

If the items you purchased are valued at $1,000 more than your exemption amount, you will have to make an itemized list on your declaration form. The customs officials are good enough to put the items that have the highest duty rates under your exemption. Then, a flat rate of 10% is charged on your next $1,000 worth of goods. 5% will be charged if you are coming back from Samoa, Guam, or the Virgin Islands. Beyond that first $1,000, duty rates get hairy in that they vary according to where you bought the items, where it was produced, and what it is made from. If you're really curious, heft through the Harmonized Tariff Schedule published by the International Trade Commission.

Free Entry

If you travel often with such items as Swiss watches or foreign made cameras, it is important that you know that anything manufactured outside of the states of such value is subject to duty charges every time you enter the States. In order to avoid this, you must have proof of prior ownership like a bill of sale, insurance policy, or a receipt of purchase. However, the best way to assure that you won't have to pay duty is to get a Certificate of Registration (CF 4457) from an international airport or any US customs office. This document will be valid for as long as you own the items.


Items that you by in duty-free stores are free of the tax on the initial purchase only. Items bought in these American shops that re-enter the country are subject both to duty and to federal taxes. If you buy stuff in foreign duty-free stores, they will be subject to duty unless included in your exemption.

Antiques, defined by the U.S. Customs Service as being any object over 100 years old, and original artworks done completely by hand are completely duty free and aren't included in your exemption allowance. However, folk art and crafts aren't considered fine art. Certain art items, such as some cultural artifacts are restricted from coming into the country entirely. Things like Pre-Columbian artifacts from Central and South America, cultural artifacts from native Canadian tribes, and some other cultural and ritual objects are totally restricted by U.S. law from coming into this country.

Other exemptions from duty can include items from a Generalized System of Preferences country which gives preference to some developing nations. More info can be had at the U.S. Customs website.

General Rules for Going Through Customs

(aka d'uh, stupid.)

  1. Yes, yes. Leave all of your weapons behind. No knives, guns, switchblades, nun-chukas, mace, pepper spray, or any other creative weapons you may have in your possession. Exemptions to this can be had if you've got massive amounts of paperwork.
  2. Be Quiet. Once you approach the customs compound, turn off your radio, CD player, cell phone, and don't say things like "Hide the bong under your seat, dammit!" There's (really) a way in which they can pick up some of the sounds coming from your car.
  3. Get out your proof of citizenship or residency. If you're a citizen of the States, they probably won't ask you for anything. If you're from another country, be ready to show your papers.
  4. Be polite. It may seem like a funny idea to fuck with the customs officials, but they can really make life a pain in the ass for you. It's easier just to answer their questions nicely. Then you'll be on your way.
  5. They randomly inspect vehicles. Don't take it personally if they tell you to pull over for inspection. They usually do things like inspect every 7th white car, or some such pattern. Don't worry about it (unless you didn't declare those two cases of beer).
  6. Customs officials don't have a sense of humor. Okay, maybe they do, but just assume that they won't laugh if you make jokes about pot, Cuban refugees, Canadians, explosives or drugs.
  7. Traffic laws. Don't breathe a sigh of relief after being inspected and then hit the gas and tear away from the border compound. You'll regret it, and I'll laugh at you. :P
  8. Customs officials can impound your vehicle on suspicion. This goes along with the thing about trying to joke with them. They can take your car apart looking for contraband and then impound your car. If they turn out to be wrong, they may not apologize. It's the way it goes.

U.S. Customs is a pain in the ass. Yes, they make it hard on non-U.S. citizens. I think it sucks. But those are the regulations for anyone entering this country. Happy travelling!



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