Customs Update

Customs Update

The Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency has a difficult mandate: to enforce the regulations of more than 40 different government departments. After repeatedly answering their questions on that familiar blue form, we decided it was our turn to ask the CBP about their new role in a post-9/11 world.

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.


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. 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.

When the United States implements sanctions against a country, it’s not a one-size-fits-all action but a highly individualized system of pressures and incentives, designed to effect a very particular set of goals. Currently there are embargoes against 12 countries, but only one of them—Cuba—also has a travel ban. Translation?Your souvenir options are completely dependent on where you’re traveling. The tribal mask you bring back from the Ivory Coast may be permissible, but from Iran, you’re only allowed carpets or other floor coverings, and you won’t be able to bring home anything from Burma. Except, of course, your photos.

For customs purposes, an antique is any object more than 100 years old and is—like any original work of art—duty-free. But buying older objects can be complicated these days, as debates rage about the legality of the antiquities trade.

At a groundbreaking 1970 unesco conference, 103 countries recognized the importance of cultural artifacts to a nation’s heritage and pledged to police their trafficking, and there has been substantial international cooperation in these efforts. If a nation grows concerned that certain of its cultural artifacts are under particular threat, it can appeal to the State Department to have the importation of these items into the United States completely blocked for a period of time. At the moment there are a dozen such restrictions in place, including those against Byzantine religious items from Cyprus, 6th- to 16th-century Khmer vessels, and many pre-Columbian pieces from Peru.

Still, the black market for these highly desirable objects is said to be worth some $4 billion a year. If you purchase fine art or antiques abroad, be sure to collect all requisite documents and export certificates. Any reputable dealer will supply these as a matter of course.

3 percent:The duty charged on the first $1,000 of goods beyond the personal exemption (after the first $1,000, duty rates depend on the product and country of origin). Note: State taxes may be due as well.

$300: Penalty for first offense of failing to declare foodstuffs.

$10,000: Maximum penalty for unknowingly importing products containing cat or dog fur.

$250,000, plus 10 years in prison: Maximum individual penalty for importing Cuban products.


CBP Customer Service: 877/227-5511;

Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (the USDA agency that regulates the importation of fruits, vegetables, and edible animal products):

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for the latest on admissible nonfood animal products:

State Department Web site discusses cultural artifacts that cannot be imported:

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