By Amy Farley
Updated: January 20, 2017
© Juice Images / Alamy
© Juice Images / Alamy

Q: Are there any souvenirs that I can’t bring home with me? —Sarah Neff, Austin, Tex.

A: Everyone loves a good souvenir, but be mindful when shopping overseas—there are certain items that you simply cannot bring back with you because of U.S. import restrictions, or that you should avoid buying due to environmental and safety concerns. Here, a look at the souvenir-shopper’s blacklist.

Cultural Artifacts

The United States has import restrictions that protect the cultural property of countries whose art and antiquities have traditionally been vulnerable to theft and illegal trafficking. The Department of State has agreements with 16 nations, including Cambodia (covering Khmer archaeological materials: ceramics, stone, and metal articles) and Peru (restricting certain textiles, sculptures, wood, and metal articles from both the pre-Columbian and colonial periods). The U.S. has similar agreements to prohibit the trade of culturally significant items from China, Greece, Guatemala, Italy, and Mali, among other countries. (See for more details.) Be aware that countries without U.S. import agreements may have their own export protections in place. Look into local permissions and permits for any relic or antiquity you plan to carry back to the States.

Plants and Wildlife

Endangered species—and products made from them—are subject to multinational trade restrictions thanks to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which 178 countries have signed, and the U.S.’s own Endangered Species Act of 1973. Among the products subject to regulation: anything derived from tortoiseshell (including jewelry and hair accessories); goods containing fur from most of the world’s big cats, such as jaguars and leopards; and anything with ivory from African and Asian elephants. (You should also avoid teeth and tusks from whales, walruses, narwhals, and seals.) Reptile skins and leathers are subject to local restrictions; check the laws in your destination before traveling.

It’s important to note that most corals are covered under CITES: black coral, and popular decorative species such as blue, fire, stony, and lace corals among them. While some of these species can be sold legally abroad, ocean advocates caution that the trade is highly unregulated and that there’s no way of knowing what has been harvested sustainably. The deepwater red and pink corals often found in jewelry are as yet unregulated, though there’s a movement to get them listed under CITES. In the meantime, according to Rick MacPherson, conservation programs director of the Coral Reef Alliance, if you care about the health of ocean reefs, it’s best to avoid coral products altogether.


Ceramic tableware made abroad often contains dangerously high levels of lead. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends testing any foreign-made ceramics for lead if you plan to use them to hold food or beverages. (They should be fine for decorative use.) Be particularly careful with ceramics made in Mexico, China, and India.

Embargoed Products

Don’t even think about bringing in Cuban cigars—even if you purchased them in another country. The Department of the Treasury has a ban on all goods of Cuban origin—likewise items from Iran and most of Sudan, though you may bring back informational material, such as books and magazines. Good news: import sanctions against Burmese-made goods were lifted last November, with the exception of anything containing jadeite or rubies.


In my April Trip Doctor column I covered food and alcohol restrictions. The short report: fruit, vegetables, meat—generally no; cheese and pantry items—generally yes; alcohol—yes, except absinthe. Visit for my full breakdown.


Though U.S. Customs and Border Protection seizes counterfeit goods coming into the States, there are exemptions for personal use. You are allowed to carry one trademark-infringing article (handbag, accessory, item of clothing) and one piece of copyright-protected pirated material (book, DVD, music CD) into the country every 30 days. So choose your knockoffs wisely.

1.6 million: The number of interceptions of prohibited plants, meat, and animal products by Customs and Border Protection in 2012.

Have a travel dilemma? Need some tips and remedies? Send your questions to news editor Amy Farley at Follow @tltripdoctor on Twitter.