Since March 2003, the collection of duties—the taxes or "customs" levied against imported goods—has fallen to the newly minted Customs and Border Protection (CBP), a Department of Homeland Security agency that encompasses four previously independent offices and enforces the border-sensitive laws and regulations of more than 40 other government divisions, from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to the Department of Agriculture.
"After September 11th," explains Lucille Cirillo, CBP officer and spokeswoman, "customs concerns shifted from restricting the illegal flow of goods to safeguarding our national borders against terrorist threats." At the same time, global economies have become increasingly interdependent, and the U.S. flat duty rate—applied to the first $1,000 of imported goods beyond the standard exemption—has dropped from 10 percent to 3, since 1995, as the government seeks to foster freer trade.
Duty rates for individual items are determined by a complex web of national interests and applied to a dazzlingly thorough list of goods compiled by the Brussels-based World Customs Organization (there are 25 subdivisions within "jewelry" alone). The United States then tweaks its own rates for a variety of reasons—to stimulate growth in developing countries, to honor trade agreements—which is how a silk skirt from Thailand gets assessed at .9 percent of its value, when one from Singapore requires no duty at all.
Most of these tariffs concern commercial use, which accounts for the vast majority of imported goods. Ten million people passed through JFK alone last year, but independent travelers represented only a tiny fraction of the duties CBP processed—which isn’t to say that customs officials aren’t interested in the goodies you’re bringing home. They are. And, technically, duty rates can be applied to anyone crossing a U.S. border. So exactly what does that little blue form mean for the average traveler?Turn to page 159 to find out.
THE CUSTOMS DECLARATION UP CLOSE
3. Number of family members traveling with you
Exemptions for immediate-family members are compounded, even for children, and a family need file only one form. For example, a married couple traveling with their infant can bring in up to three times as many goods before having to pay any duties than one person can.
11(a). I am (We are) bringing...fruits, vegetables, plants, seeds, food, insects
A few items are virtually restriction-free—mushrooms, roasted nuts—but most plants and plant foods warrant close monitoring. "Tourists accidentally carrying an apple won’t usually get in trouble," says Jim Rogers of the USDA. "But as a rule, if you haven’t declared it, you can be fined."
11(b). Meats, animals, animal/wildlife products
Canned or heat-treated foods, and meats cured for more than 60 days, are usually fine. Raw items come under far greater scrutiny. Restrictions on non-food animal products are designed to protect endangered species, currently more than 1,200 animals and plants. "To be honest, the safest thing to do is avoid purchasing animal products altogether," advises John Neal of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
11(d). Soil or have been on a farm/ranch/pasture
Nice as it might seem (and as often as people attempt it), don’t bring a bag full of mother-country sod home with you—it won’t make it past customs. The potential soil contaminants are too risky. Farm stays and visits to vineyards shouldn’t be a concern, but brush clumps of dirt from your shoes before packing.
13. I am (We are) carrying currency or monetary instruments over $10,000 U.S. or foreign equivalent
You can carry an unlimited amount of currency—and checks, stocks, and bonds—but anything in excess of $10,000 must be declared in order to deter money smuggling. There is no fee for bringing in more than $10,000, but it is necessary to complete a FinCEN 105 form.
15. Total value of all goods
Generally, each U.S. citizen is allowed to bring $800 worth of goods into the country every 30 days without paying any duty. One exception is relevant for many Caribbean cruises: travelers combining visits to an American insular possession (for instance, the U.S. Virgin Islands) with a stop on another Caribbeanisland are eligible for a $1,600 exemption.
15. ...gifts for someone else, but not items mailed to the U.S.
Gifts worth $100 or less, and personal purchases valued at up to $200, can be mailed back to the States duty-free. If the seven lines provided on the back aren’t enough to itemize the haul in your bags, ask the CPB officers for an additional form—they’ll happily provide it.