Import duties (Third of three parts)

By Philip Wagenaar
This item appears on page 50 of the February 2015 issue.

Last month, I presented the second installment of my report on import duties. This month I complete my review, covering “gifts you bring back and gifts you mail to the US.”   GIFTS Bringing gifts back for others Below are the rules that apply to gifts you bring back from abroad for others and gifts you mail to the US, etc.  A. Gifts you bring back — In your personal exemption of $200, $800 or $1,600, you may include gifts which you received and those which you are bringing back for others. Alcoholic beverages, tobacco products and perfume containing alcohol and worth more than $5 retail may not be included in the gift exemption. B. Gifts you mail — Gifts valued up to $100 may be sent, free of duty and tax, to friends and relatives in the United States, as long as the same person does not receive more than $100 worth of gifts in a single day. If the gifts are mailed or shipped from an insular possession (US Virgin Islands, American Samoa or Guam), this amount is increased to $200. Unless returning to the US from an insular possession, you don’t have to declare gifts you sent while you were on your trip, since they won’t be accompanying you. C. What should I do if I am bringing in gifts for more than one person? Gifts can be consolidated in the same package if they are individually wrapped, each gift is labeled with the recipient’s name, and the value of each gift does not exceed $100 (or $200 if sent from the US Virgin Islands, American Samoa or Guam). D. Can I send a gift to myself? You, as a traveler, cannot send a gift package to yourself, and people traveling together cannot send gifts to each other. But there would be no reason to do that anyway because the personal exemption for packages mailed from abroad is $200, which is twice as much as the gift exemption. E. For information about sending store-bought foods (i.e., chocolates, candies, canned goods, etc.) as gifts to the US, go to,-candies,-canned-goods-etc.). Many travelers are finding that vendors will not ship food directly to US residents because the reporting requirements can be time-consuming to complete. Prohibited and restricted Items Before you leave for your trip abroad, you might want to talk to CBP about the items you plan to bring back to be sure they’re not prohibited or restricted.  “Prohibited” means the item is forbidden by law to enter the United States. Examples of prohibited items are dangerous toys, cars that don’t protect their occupants in a crash, bush meat, and illegal substances like absinthe and Rohypnol. “Restricted” means that special licenses or permits are required from a federal agency before the item is allowed to enter the US. Examples of restricted items are firearms, certain fruits and vegetables, animal products, animal byproducts and some animals. To find information about importing any of the prohibited or restricted items listed below, visit and in the Search bar type “absinthe” or “alcoholic beverages” or whatever. This will bring up the appropriate webpages. The following are restricted or prohibited items: absinthe (alcohol); alcoholic beverages; biologicals; ceramic tableware; cultural artifacts and cultural property; defense articles or items with military or proliferation applications; dog and cat fur; drug paraphernalia; firearms; fish and wildlife; food products (prepared); fruits and vegetables; game and hunting trophies; gold; Haitian animal-hide drums; meats; livestock and poultry; medication; merchandise from embargoed countries; pets; pornographic film; plants and seeds; soil; textiles and clothing, and trademarked and copyrighted articles. I will provide more details about the requirements for alcohol, automobiles and, summarily, electronics in the following sections. When returning from Europe, keep in mind that the $800 allowance is usually adequate now, since almost everything is much cheaper in the US than in Europe. A. Alcohol Generally, one liter of alcohol per person may be imported  into the US duty-free by travelers who are 21 or older, although travelers coming from the US Virgin Islands or other Caribbean countries are entitled to more. Additional quantities may be brought in, although they will be subject to duty and federal excise taxes, which will be assessed and collected at the port of entry. Alcoholic beverages purchased in duty-free shops are subject to duty and federal excise tax when accompanying you into the US. Most states have restrictions on the amount of alcohol that can be brought in. Each state’s restrictions apply only to residents of that state. Usually, people transiting a state are not subject to those restrictions, but sometimes regulations change. If this is a matter of utmost importance to you, you can check with the state Alcoholic Beverage Control board where you will be arriving to find out what their policies are. There is no federal limit on the amount of alcohol a traveler may import into the US for personal use. However, large quantities might raise the suspicion that the importation is for commercial purposes, and a CBP officer could require the importer to obtain an Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) import license (which is required for all commercial importations) before releasing it A general rule of thumb is that one case of alcohol is a personal-use quantity, although travelers are still subject to state restrictions, which may allow less. If you intend to bring back a substantial quantity of alcohol for your personal use, you should contact the US Port of Entry (POE) through which you will be reentering and make prior arrangements for the importation. Also, state laws might limit the amount of alcohol you can bring in without a license. If you arrive in such a state, that state’s law will be enforced by CBP, even though it may be more restrictive than federal regulations. CBP recommends that you check with the state government about their limitations on quantities allowed for personal importation and additional state taxes that may apply. Ideally, this information should be obtained before traveling. In brief, for both alcohol and cigarettes, the quantities eligible for duty-free treatment may be included in your $800 or $1,600 returning-resident personal exemption, just as any other purchase should be. But, unlike other kinds of merchandise, amounts beyond those discussed here as being duty-free are taxed, even if you have not exceeded, or even met, your personal exemption.  For example, if your exemption is $800 and you bring back three liters of wine and nothing else, two of those liters will be dutiable and Internal Revenue taxed (see Dec. ’14, pg. 57).  Federal law prohibits business-to-private consumer shipping of alcoholic beverages by mail within the US. B. Automobiles Automobiles imported into the US must meet the fuel-emission requirements of the Environmental Protection Agency and the safety, bumper and theft-prevention standards of the US Department of Transportation, Office of Vehicle Safety Compliance.  For information about purchasing a vehicle outside the US and then importing it into the US, go to and do a search on the term “Importing or Exporting a Car.” Several websites come up that are worth perusing.  Almost all vehicles that are bought in foreign countries must be modified to meet American standards, except most late-model vehicles from Canada.  And even if the car does meet all federal standards, it might be subject to additional EPA requirements, depending on what countries it was driven in. You are strongly encouraged to contact EPA before importing a car. The EPA “Automotive Imports Facts Manual” can be found by searching for that phrase on Google, again bringing up a number of informative websites. Cars being brought into the US temporarily (for less than one year) by nonresidents are exempt from these restrictions.  It is illegal to bring a vehicle into the US and sell it if it was not formally entered on a CBP form 7501. C. Electronic transmissions Information and materials downloaded from the Internet are not subject to duty. Thus, goods or merchandise that are electronically transmitted to the purchaser, such as CDs, books or posters, are duty-free. However, the unauthorized downloading of copyrighted items could subject you to prosecution. To get info from CBP For general Customs & Border Protection inquiries, call the CBP Info Center at 877/227-5511 or 202/325-8000 between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. Eastern time, Monday to Friday. This is the end of the 3-part article on import duties. After having read and memorized this report, you may even qualify for a job at the Customs service!