When you return to the U.S. after a trip abroad, you can’t necessarily just stroll through the airport with all your keepsakes tucked away in your luggage. You may need to complete a Customs declaration form and, possibly, a finance form. If you aren’t sure what property could prompt these requirements, here’s a helpful breakdown.
What to Declare
The general rule is to declare all goods you return with unless you know for certain that they are exempt. According to the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) website, the following specific items must be declared:
- Any item you purchased abroad that you are now bringing back with you.
- Any gift you received or purchased for another person.
- Any inheritance.
- Duty-free items purchased at the airport or onboard the ship or plane.
- Items you brought with you that were repaired or altered in any way while you were abroad—even if the alteration or repair was done for free.
- Any merchandise or goods that will be sold by your business. This includes merchandise that you brought abroad with you that is now returning to the U.S.
- Any financial instrument, such as foreign currency, traveler’s checks, stocks, bearer bonds and so on. For negotiable currency and checks worth more than $10,000, travelers should first complete the currency-specific form FINCEN Form 105 or they risk funds being seized. In some countries, anything that exceeds the $10,000 limit must be electronically transferred in, so it’s a good idea to check on the specific currency and financial requirements of the region you plan to visit.
On the declaration form, travelers will be asked to state—in U.S. dollars—what they paid for each item including taxes, so be sure to track this on your trip. Additionally, if the item was a gift or was given for free, you’ll be asked to estimate a fair value for it.
When you mail parcels to yourself from abroad, it’s considered unaccompanied baggage—even if it’s an item that originated in the U.S. that you brought abroad with you. These shipments are examined by Customs to determine whether there is any duty due on them.
If a merchant mails a package to you after you purchase an item with them, even if it’s purchased in certain U.S. territories, it must be declared.
Safety and Duty
The purpose of customs declarations is twofold. First, it helps ensure the safety of other travelers and U.S. citizens. It ensures that harmful plants, foods, animals, chemicals, property and insects aren’t intentionally or unintentionally brought into the country. In addition, it levies a tax on property purchased abroad that will be used and stored in the U.S.
There are some duty exemptions for items of a certain dollar value and those purchased on certain U.S. territories. In general, goods that originated in the U.S. but were brought abroad are exempt from duty charges as well. However, if their value or condition was improved abroad, then duty may be due on the change in worth or value of the labor that increased its worth. The CBP website uses gold as an example of a U.S. good that can be taken abroad and improved when it is transformed into a finished piece of jewelry. Generally, Customs considers this a “substantial transformation.” However, they make an exception when goods are only assembled overseas, rather than completely transformed (such as in the jewelry example). If the change limits the item’s use, it likely won’t be eligible for the exemption.
Goods inherited from a non-parent relative or friend may be subject to duty. If you inherited goods from your parents that were not in your home while growing up or while you lived with your parents at any point, then you will be expected to pay duty on them. Antiques over 100-years-old and items that were left by a deceased friend or relative that you lived with while the goods were present, may also be duty-free.
Payment of Duty
Duty can be paid by many methods, including cash, U.S. checks, cashier’s checks, money orders and credit cards. At some entry locations, duty must be paid with a credit card, so be sure to find out the requirements of your port of entry before you return.
If you plan to buy valuable items while abroad or are picking up an inheritance, check the limits of your international insurance policy to ensure that it is sufficient to cover the value of any item that might be damaged while traveling or might get lost or stolen in transit.