Bringing Back Your Bounty: Getting Through Customs

The next time you plan a shopping trip to London or decide to redecorate with authentic Balinese furniture, the first thing you should do is review the latest news on airport customs. What you can and cannot take with across borders, and how much it will cost, may be a determining factor in your purchases made abroad.

The Process

Every time you enter a new country, or return to your own, you’ll need to clear customs. The primary mission of customs is to ensure that nothing harmful, potentially harmful, or illegal is brought into the country. With that in mind, every traveler will be asked if they have anything to declare. What they mean is: did you bring anything back with you that was purchased or received as a gift on your trip. If you are traveling into another country, customs officials will want to know if you are traveling with anything potentially dangerous or illegal. This could include plants, fruits and vegetables, meats, alcohol, automobiles, and animals. Traveling with these items can be prohibited or heavily restricted. For example: automobiles purchased in another country must meet the fuel-emission and safety requirements of U.S. vehicles in order to be imported in the United States. All items must be declared when crossing borders, and must comply with the country’s regulations or they will be confiscated. 

Those items are the big ones. Customs officials will also want to know if you purchased anything else on your trip. They want to know about clothes, jewelry, electronics, furniture, or anything else that may be dutiable. When you purchase goods outside of your own country, you are subject to a duty fee upon returning with those items. The cost of the duty fee will vary depending on the item and its worth. Be careful when buying expensive jewelry or electronics from certain countries because they can be subject to a 100% duty fee at border crossing. This means that you would pay the full amount of the item at the time of purchase and again at border crossing. Check with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website ( if you plan on making any expensive purchases while traveling abroad.

The good news about duty fees is that each person is eligible for an exemption on goods costing up to a certain amount. The amount of the exemption is dependent upon the country you visited, but in most cases will be $800. For a U.S. insular possession (U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa or Guam), the duty-free exemption is $1600. This exemption can be used toward anything purchased while abroad except alcohol and certain tobacco products. These products are excluded from your personal exemption and charged a flat rate of duty instead.

Some Points about Exemptions

Frequent travelers will want to keep in mind that this standard exemption is only good every 30 days and must be used all at once. This means that if you travel out of the country more than once in a month and you declare $400 on your first trip, you have used your entire exemption allowance for 30 days. When you return from your second trip in that month, you will be subject to duty fees on any purchases, regardless of their cost. Another consideration is the length of time you were abroad. If you traveled less than 48 hours, you are not eligible for your standard exemption. In both instances; however, you may bring back $200 worth of items without being charged duty fees.

For the standard $800 exemption, family members may pool their personal exemptions to bring a more expensive item back into the country. Family members may not pool a $200 personal exemption when traveling for less than 48 hours or more than once in a month. 

Gifts for family and friends upon your return, as well as gifts given to you while abroad must be declared and are considered part of your personal exemption. Gifts worth up to $100 may be sent to family and friends in the U.S. free of duty and tax, but the same person may not receive more than $100 worth of gifts in a single day.

Duty Free Shops

When purchasing items in a duty free shop, be aware that you may also be subject to duty fees on these items upon returning to your country. Articles sold in a duty-free shop 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 likely be subject to duty.

Before Traveling

If you are planning a trip abroad make note of what you pack. Any expensive jewelry, foreign made electronics or camera equipment can be questioned upon your return. If you leave the country with these items, be sure to bring along receipts or register the items before leaving the country or they can be subject to duty fees upon your return.


Items purchased in many countries may have been charged a VAT (value added tax) at the time of purchase. If you purchased an item that included a VAT, you may get the VAT amount refunded as you leave the country. Be sure to have any receipts for these items and plan on extra time to process the paperwork at border crossing. For most countries, you must apply for your VAT refund as you leave the country, or you are no longer eligible for the refund.

The next time you travel abroad, you might want to think twice about that ivory necklace from Africa or the pricey video camera from Japan. You could end up paying double for it, or have the item confiscated altogether as you return to your home country. The bottom line: you may want to think twice about any unusual or highly expensive item when making your purchases.