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Passport, Visas, Customs

If you buy goods during your travels outside of the U.S. , you will need to declare the value of these goods when you return and pass through Customs.  We provide an overview of Customs, including information on duties, exemptions, and procedures.  You can spend a long time in Customs if you break the rules.  Read our article to stay out of the "dark side". 


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Travel Advice - Some facts you need to know about clearing Customs


Buying goods and gifts is an important part of most journeys. When you are returning home from a U.S. based vacation with gifts for friends, you get off the plane and go home.

  • On returning from an international trip, you must pass through "Customs" and may be required to provide the U.S. Customs Service with a list of the items you purchased or were gifted outside of the U.S., including the costs of the items.
  • In the “language” of the Customs Service, you must "declare" these items, meaning  that when you are re-entering the US, you must report all goods you are bringing back that you did not have when you left the United States.

"Duty" and "dutiable" are two additional words you need to understand to prepare for clearing Customs.

  • “Duty” is the amount of money you must pay the government for items you are bringing home which were purchased in another country.
    • Duty is a tax collected only on imported goods.
  • “Dutiable” describes items on which duty may have to be paid.
  • Most items have specific duty rates, which are determined by a number of factors, including where you got the item, where it was made, and what it is made of.


If you are traveling by air or sea, you may be asked to fill out a Customs Declaration Form before disembarking the transport. The airline or cruise line usually provides this form. If the form is not available from your transportation provider, a form will be available when you arrive at  the Customs Hall.

You will find it easier and faster to fill out the Declaration Form if you do the following:

  • Keep your sales slips from purchases made abroad in case you are asked to verify the cost of any of the items that you listed on your customs declaration.
  • When packing, try to group the items you will need to declare in the same luggage, in case you need to remove them for inspection
  • Read the signs in the Customs area. They contain helpful information about how to clear Customs. If you need help clearing Customs, please do not hesitate to ask the Customs inspectors for assistance

Under U.S. law, Customs inspectors are authorized to examine luggage and cargo. Under the search authority granted to Customs by the U.S. government, every passenger who crosses a U.S. border may be searched.

What items do you need to declare on your Customs Declaration?

You are required to declare the following items:

1. Items you purchased abroad and are carrying with you upon return to the United States.

2. Items you received as gifts while outside of the US, such as wedding or birthday presents.

3. Items you inherited (and transferred to you while you were outside of the U.S.).

4. Items you bought in duty-free shops or on the ship or plane.

5. Repairs or alterations to any items you took abroad and then brought back, even if the repairs/alterations were performed free of charge.

6. Items you brought home for someone else.

7 . Items you intend to sell or use in your business.

You must state on the Customs Declaration Form, the cost, in United States dollars, you actually paid for each item. The price must include all foreign taxes.

If the item was a gift - get an estimate of its fair retail value in the country where you received it.

If you bought something on your trip and wore or used it on the trip, it is still dutiable. You must declare the item at the price you paid or, if it was a gift, at its fair market value.


Personal Exemption

The "duty-free exemption", also called the "personal exemption", is the total value of merchandise you may bring back to the United States without having to pay duty.

  • You may bring back more goods than your personal exemption allows, but you will have to pay duty on the excess.
  • In most cases, the personal exemption is $800, but there are some exceptions to this rule based on the geographical area visited.
  • Family members who live in the same home and return together to the United States may combine their personal exemptions into what is called a Joint Declaration. Children and infants are allowed the same exemption as adults, except for alcoholic beverages.

The duty-free exemptions ($600 (applies to 24 Caribbean Basin countries),  $1,600 ( applies to US Insular possessions) and the next $1,000 is taxed at a flat rate of 1.5%, or $800 ( applies to ROW – Rest of the World) and the next $1,000 is taxed at a flat rate of 3%, are in effect, if:

1. The items you are carrying are for your personal or household use.

2. The goods are in your possession (that is, they accompany you) when you return to the United States. Items mailed back home may not be included in your $800 duty-free exemption.

3. They are "declared" to Customs. If you do not declare something that should have been declared, you risk forfeiting the object if it is discovered during the Customs process.  If in doubt, declare it.

4. You are returning from an overseas stay of at least 48 hours. For example, if you leave the United States at 1:30 p.m. on June 1, you would complete the 48-hour period at 1:30 p.m. on June 3. This time limit does not apply if you are returning from Mexico or from the U.S. Virgin Islands.

5. You have not used your exemption, or any part of it, in the past 30 days. If you use part of your exemption - for example, if you go to England and bring back $150 worth of items - you must wait another 30 days before you are allowed another $800 exemption.

6. If you cannot claim other exemptions because you have been out of the country more than once in a 30-day period or because you have not been out of the country for at least 48 hours, you may still bring back $200 worth of items free of duty and tax. As with the exemptions discussed earlier, these items must be for your personal or household use.

7 . The items are not prohibited or restricted. Visit the Customs Service website  to familiarize yourself with items on the restricted list.


Gifts you bring back from a trip abroad are considered by the Customs Service to be for your personal use. They must be declared, but you may include them in your personal exemption. This includes gifts people gave you while you were out of the country, such as wedding or birthday presents, and gifts you have brought back for others.

Mailing Packages

Duty on items you mail home to yourself will be waived if the value is $200 or less. Antiques that are at least 100 years old and items of fine art may enter duty-free, but folk art and handicrafts are generally dutiable.

Summary - the Customs Service and travel

Passing Customs is serious business for the traveler. The Customs inspectors frequently “sample” travelers from flights or cruises to ensure that they have declared all of their goods and that they are not attempting to import and illegal goods or information.

We have been stopped, questioned and had our bags searched many times, as we  must fit a profile.  On one occasion,  we were shunted to a special station and told by the Customs Agent that she was examining our bags to ensure that we had complied with currency rules and were not bringing more than $10,000 of U.S. currency into the country. After a short search of my luggage, the Agent gave us a clean bill of health. Obviously!   If we had $10,000 in cash, we would still have been on vacation.

At times, the length of passing through customs is irritating. Take our recommendation and avoid attracting attention. Even if you have complied with all regulation, the extra time that you could spend in Customs examination far exceeds the amount of time you will spend if you just go with the flow. The inspectors are serious, hard working and have heard all of the jokes and all of the excuses a million times before. Make their job easier and comply with the regulations and their requests.

For the latest information about the changing world of the Customs Service, visit  to be sure you know your obligations under the laws the Customs enforces.

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