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Customs Regulations


The U.S. Customs Service is America's frontline against the smuggling of drugs and other prohibited goods. Customs has discovered large amounts of drugs in baggage, vehicles, and on passengers themselves. 

When you return to the United States, we will treat you in a courteous, professional manner. We realize that very few travelers actually violate the law, but we may still need to examine your baggage or your vehicle, which, by law, we are allowed to do. We may ask you about your citizenship, your trip, and about anything you are bringing back to the United States that you did not have with you when you left. 

If you need help clearing Customs, please do not hesitate to ask the Customs inspector for assistance. 

"Duty" and "dutiable" are words you will find frequently throughout this brochure: Duty is the amount of money you pay on items coming from another country. It is similar to a tax, except that duty is 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. 

To "declare" means to tell the Customs officer about anything you're bringing back that you did not have when you left the United States. For example, you would declare alterations made in a foreign country to a suit you already owned, and you would declare any gifts you acquired overseas. 

U.S. Customs Mission

We are the guardians of our Nation's borders - America's frontline. We serve and protect the American public with integrity, innovation, and pride. We enforce the laws of the United States, safeguard the revenue, and foster lawful international trade and travel. 

When You Return to the United States

When you come back, you'll need to declare everything you brought back that you did not take with you when you left the United States. If you are traveling by air or sea, you may be asked to fill out a Customs declaration form. This form is almost always provided by the airline or cruise ship. You will probably find it easier and faster to fill out your declaration form and clear Customs if you do the following: 

  • Keep your sales slips! As you read this brochure, you'll understand why this is especially important for international travelers. 
  • Try to pack the things you'll need to declare separately. 
  • Read the signs in the Customs area. They contain helpful information about how to clear Customs.

Be aware that under U.S. law, Customs inspectors are authorized to examine luggage, cargo, and travelers. Under the search authority granted to Customs by the U.S. Congress, every passenger who crosses a U.S. border may be searched. To stop the flow of illegal drugs and other contraband into our country, we need your cooperation. If you are one of the very few travelers selected for a search, you will be treated in a courteous, professional, and dignified manner. If you are searched and you believe that you were not treated in such a manner, or if you have any concerns about the search for any reason whatsoever, we want to hear from you. Please contact the Executive Director, Passenger Programs. 

What You Must Declare

  • Items you purchased and are carrying with you upon return to the United States.
  • Items you received as gifts, such as wedding or birthday presents. 
  • Items you inherited. 
  • Items you bought in duty-free shops or on the ship or plane. 
  • Repairs or alterations to any items you took abroad and then brought back, even if the repairs/alterations were performed free of charge. 
  • Items you brought home for someone else. 
  • Items you intend to sell or use in your business. 
  • Items you acquired (whether purchased or received as gifts) in the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam, or in a Caribbean Basin Economic Recovery Act country (please see section on $600 exemption for a list of these countries) that are not in your possession when you return. In other words, if you acquired things in any of these island nations and asked the merchant to send them to you, you must still declare them when you go through Customs. (This differs from the usual procedure for mailed items, which is discussed in the section on Sending Goods to the United States.

You must state on the Customs declaration, in United States currency, what you actually paid for each item. The price must include all taxes. If you did not buy the item yourself - for example, if it is 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's still dutiable. You must declare the item at the price you paid or, if it was a gift, at its fair market value.

Joint Declaration

Family members who live in the same home and return together to the United States may combine their personal exemptions. This is called a joint declaration. For example, if Mr. and Mrs. Smith travel overseas and Mrs. Smith brings home a $600 piece of glassware, and Mr. Smith buys $200 worth of clothing, they can combine their $400 exemptions on a joint declaration and not have to pay duty. 

Children and infants are allowed the same exemption as adults, except for alcoholic beverages. 

Register Items Before You Leave the United States 

If your laptop computer was made in Japan - for instance - you might have to pay duty on it each time you bring it back into the United States, unless you could prove that you owned it before you left on your trip. Documents that fully describe the item - for example, sales receipts, insurance policies, or jeweler's appraisals - are acceptable forms of proof. To make things easier, you can register certain items with Customs before you depart - including watches, cameras, laptop computers, firearms, and tape recorders - as long as they have serial numbers or other unique, permanent markings. Take the items to the nearest Customs Office and request a Certificate of Registration (Customs Form 4457). It shows Customs that you had the items with you before leaving the U.S. and all items listed on it will be allowed duty-free entry. Customs inspectors must see the item you are registering in order to certify the certificate of registration. You can register items with Customs at the international airport from which you're departing. Keep the certificate for future trips.

Personal Belongings and Household Effects

What Items are Duty-free?

Personal Belongings

Your personal belongings can be sent back to the United States duty-free if they are of U.S. origin and if they have not been altered or repaired while abroad. Personal belongings like worn clothing can be mailed home and will receive duty-free entry if you write the words "American Goods Returned" on the outside of the package. 

Household Effects

Household effects include furniture, carpets, paintings, tableware, stereos, linens, and similar household furnishings. Tools of trade, professional books, implements, and instruments that you've taken out of the United States will be duty-free when you return. 

You may import household effects you acquired abroad duty-free if: 

  • You used them for at least one year while you were abroad. 
  • They are not intended for anyone else or for sale. Clothing, jewelry, photography equipment, portable radios, and vehicles are considered personal effects and cannot be brought in duty-free as household effects. However, the amount of duty collected on them will be reduced according to the age of the item.

Money and Other Monetary Instruments

You may bring into or take out of the country, including by mail, as much money as you wish. But if it's more than $10,000, you'll need to report it to Customs. Ask the Customs officer for the Currency Reporting Form (CF 4790). The penalties for not complying can be quite severe. 

"Money" means monetary instruments and includes U.S. or foreign coin currently in circulation, currency, traveler's checks in any form, money orders, and negotiable instruments or investment securities in bearer form.

Sending Goods to the United States

Items mailed to the United States are subject to duty when they arrive. They cannot be included in your Customs exemption, and duty on them cannot be prepaid.

If you are mailing merchandise from the U.S. insular possessions or from Caribbean Basin countries, you should follow different procedures than if you were mailing packages from any other country. These special procedures are described, in the section on " Unaccompanied Purchases ". 

In addition to duty and, at times, taxes, Customs collects a user fee on dutiable packages. Those three fees are the only fees Customs collects; any additional charges on shipments are for handling by freight forwarders, Customs brokers, and couriers or for other delivery services. Some carriers may add other clearance charges that have nothing to do with Customs duties. 

Note: Customs brokers are not U.S. Customs employees. Brokers' fees are based on the amount of work they do, not on the value of the items you ship, so travelers sometimes find the fee high in relation to the value of the shipment. The most cost-effective thing to do is to take your purchases with you if at all possible. 

Unaccompanied Luggage 

Unaccompanied baggage is anything you do not bring back with you, as opposed to goods in your possession - that accompany you - when you return. These may be items that were with you when you left the United States or items that you acquired (received by any means) while outside the United States. In general, unaccompanied baggage falls into the following three categories. 

U.S. Mail Shipments

Shipping through the U.S. mail, including parcel post, is a cost-efficient way to send things to the United States. The Postal Service sends all foreign mail shipments to Customs for examination. Customs then returns packages that don't require duty to the Postal Service, which sends them to a local post office for delivery. The local post office delivers them without charging any additional postage, handling costs, or other fees. 

If the package does require payment of duty, Customs attaches a form called a mail entry (form CF-3419A), which shows how much duty is owed, and charges a $5 processing fee as well. When the post office delivers the package, it will also charge a handling fee. 

Commercial goods - goods intended for resale - may have special entry requirements. Such goods may require a formal entry in order to be admitted into the United States. Formal entries are more complicated and require more paperwork than informal entries. (Informal entries are, generally speaking, personal packages worth less than $2,000.) Customs employees may not prepare formal entries for you; only you or a licensed customs broker may prepare one. For more information on this subject, please request the Customs pamphlet U.S. Import Requirements or contact your local Customs office. 

If you believe you have been charged an incorrect amount of duty on a package mailed from abroad, you may file a protest with Customs. You can do this in one of two ways. You can accept the package, pay the duty, and write a letter explaining why you think the amount was incorrect. You should include with your letter the yellow copy of the mail entry (CF-3419A). Send the letter and the form to the Customs office that issued the mail entry, which you'll find on the lower left-hand corner of the form. 

The other way to protest duty is to refuse delivery of the package and, within five days, send your protest letter to the post office where the package is being held. The post office will forward your letter to Customs and will hold your package until the protest is resolved. 

For additional information on international mailing, please ask Customs for the pamphlet International Mail Imports and visit "Know before you go" page. 

Express Shipments 

Packages may be sent to the United States by private-sector courier or delivery service from anywhere in the world. The express company usually takes care of clearing your merchandise through Customs and charges a fee for its service. Some travelers have found this fee to be higher than they expected. 

Freight Shipments

Cargo, whether duty is owed on it or not, must clear Customs at the first port of arrival in the United States. If you choose, you may have your freight sent, while it is still in Customs custody, to another port for Customs clearance. This is called forwarding freight in bond. You (or someone you appoint to act for you) are responsible for arranging to clear your merchandise through Customs or for having it forwarded to another port. 

Frequently, a freight forwarder in a foreign country will take care of these arrangements, including hiring a customs broker in the United States to clear the merchandise through Customs. Whenever a third party handles the clearing and forwarding of your merchandise, that party charges a fee for its services. This fee is not a Customs charge. When a foreign seller entrusts a shipment to a broker or agent in the United States, that seller usually pays only enough freight to have the shipment delivered to the first port of arrival in the United States. This means that you, the buyer, will have to pay additional inland transportation, or freight forwarding charges, plus brokers' fees, insurance, and possibly other charges.

If it is not possible for you to secure release of your goods yourself, another person may act on your behalf to clear them through Customs. You may do this as long as your merchandise consists of a single, noncommercial shipment (not intended for resale) that does not require a formal entry-in other words, if the merchandise is worth less than $2,000. You must give the person a letter that authorizes him or her to act as your unpaid agent. Once you have done this, that person may fill out the Customs declaration and complete the entry process for you. Your letter authorizing the person to act in your behalf should be addressed to the "Officer in Charge of Customs" at the port of entry, and the person should bring it along when he or she comes to clear your package. Customs will not notify you when your shipment arrives, as this is the responsibility of your carrier, If your goods are not cleared within 15 days of arrival you could incur storage fees. 

Customer Service Programs and Other Travel-related Information 

Customer Service Programs

The Customs Service is expanding its methods of improving customer service to international travelers at major U.S. travel hubs. One method is having supervisory Customs inspectors, called passenger service representatives, available to travelers on a full-time basis at more than 20 international airports and some seaports and land border ports of entry. The representatives' major purpose is to help travelers clear Customs. 

Photos of the passenger service reps are posted wherever the program is operating, so you can find them if you need assistance. If you have a concern or need help understanding Customs regulations and procedures, ask to speak with the passenger service rep on duty. 

The second initiative involves kiosks, the sort of automated booths you see in malls, banks, department stores, and airports. Customs Service kiosks are located at international airports. 

Think of them as automated passenger service reps: They're self-service computers with a touch-screen display. All you have to do is type in your country of destination and the computer will print the information for you. The screen displays a telephone number to call for more information. The kiosks also have pockets with Customs pamphlets on a variety of topics of interest to travelers: regulations on transporting currency, agriculture and food items, medicines, and pets, to name just a few. 

Customs kiosks are located in the outbound passenger lounges at the following international airports: Atlanta; Boston; Charlotte, North Carolina; Chicago; Dallas/Ft. Worth; Detroit; Houston; JFK, New York; Los Angeles; Miami; Newark, New Jersey; Philadelphia; San Francisco; San Juan; and Washington/Dulles. More kiosks are planned. 
If you have any questions about Customs procedures, requirements, or policies regarding travelers, or if you have any complaints about treatment you have received from Customs inspectors or about your Customs processing, please contact:

Executive Director, Passenger Programs
U.S. Customs Service
1300 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Room 5.4D
Washington, DC 20229

Allegations of criminal or serious misconduct may be reported to the Office of Internal Affairs at 1-877-IA CALLS. You may also write them at P.O. Box 14475, Washington, D.C. 20044. 

Other Travel-related Information

Frequently, we are asked questions that are not customs matters. If you want to know about: 

Immigration- The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) is responsible for the movement of people in and out of the United States. Please contact the Department of Justice, INS, for questions concerning resident alien and nonresident visa and passport information at 800-375-5283 

Baggage allowance- Ask the airline or steamship line you are traveling for more information. 

Currency of other Nations- Your local bank can be of assistance. 

Last Updated: January 04