US Customs explained, know before you visit


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Your first few times going through US customs are bound to be a bit intimidating. There’s a lot of new jargon to learn and a handful of regulations to be familiar with. You might also be wondering if there’s anything you can do to avoid being searched and what to do in the event that you are. This article seeks to ease some of your worries by demystifying the customs clearing process.  By the end of this article, you will be familiar with the following:

This article is based on the “Know Before You Go” guide from the CBP, which can be downloaded directly from the official US Customs website.

The CBP exists to keep America’s borders safe and secure, not only from people who may wish to do us harm, but also from toxins and microorganisms that may threaten our health and food sources.

A few weeks ago, a shipment of rice arriving at Los Angeles International Airport was found to contain an adult Khapra Beetle and eight larvae.1 The Khapra Beetle is one of the most dangerous agricultural pests in the world, infecting grain and seed products.  To date, the pest has not yet been established in the United States. The US customs personnel who inspect inbound shipments work 24/7 to keep it this way.

The government has strict policies with regards to who and what can enter our country, and for good reason.  Would you sleep better at night knowing that dangerous pests could be making their way into your local produce? Probably not.  Keep this in mind as you familiarize yourself with the CBP clearing process.

Your experience with CBP begins before you even land in the US.  As you approach your US destination, a cabin crew member will hand you a US Customs Declaration Form 6095B–1 per family.  You are to use the 6095B form to “declare” any objects in your possession that you received while abroad.

Declaring an item means two things: 1) stating that you have the item in your possession as you re-enter the country, 2) providing an estimate of the item’s dollar worth. On the 6095B form, there are places to put how much you paid for each item or how much an item is worth if it was a gift.  If you don’t remember specific numbers, that’s okay–you can estimate.

After you land, you will proceed to Immigration first, where you will speak to an CBP officer.  The officer will take stamp your passport, verify your citizenship, and welcome you home.

After Immigration, you will proceed to the Customs Inspection area. This is where you will retrieve your checked baggage and present your declaration form to a CBP officer to be released.  The officer may select you for additional screening based on a host of factors, from the types of items you have declared on your 6095B form, to the country you’ve traveled to.  Not everyone is selected for secondary screening–consider yourself fortunate if you are spared.

The declaration process makes it easier to determine whether or not you have to pay a tax on the items you’re bringing into the country–this tax is known as duty.  The amount of duty you pay depends on the country you’re traveling from, and the types of items that you have.


Fortunately, the government gives travelers an allowance, up to which there is no duty that has to be paid–this is called an exemption.

The $800 exemption rule typically applies to most tourists coming from European, Asian, and South American countries (see the CBP guide to learn about all the other types of exemptions).  The $800 rule states that each person can bring up to $800 USD worth of items back into the US without without having to pay duty on them (duty-free).  Family members who live in the same home can combine their exemptions; for instance, a couple returning to the US is allowed up to $1,600 worth of duty-free items.

Note, however, that this exemption allowance is in effect for 30 days. If you come back with $400 worth of goods during your first trip, you will only have $400 worth of allowance for the next 30 days should you enter the country again from abroad.

Within a 30 day period, if you use up your $800 exemption, the next $1,000 worth of merchandise is charged a flat duty rate, typically 3% if you’re coming from Europe, Asia, or South America.  Like the $800 duty-free exemption, family members can pool their flat-duty rate allowances together; a family of 3 can have up to $3,000 of merchandise that will be charged a flat duty rate.  Above your flat-duty rate allowance, any remaining merchandise will be dutiable at “whatever rates apply,” according to the CBP guide.

Prohibited and Restricted Items

Before you depart on your next trip, it’s a good idea to make sure that the items you plan on bringing back are not prohibited or restricted.  Prohibited items cannot enter the US legally at all.  Restricted items (e.g. alcohol in excessive quantities) can only be imported if you have a permit administered by a federal agency to do so.


A frequent question regarding customs has to do with alcohol.  How much booze can you bring back from your trip? Well, if you’re 21 or older and your alcohol is for personal use or a gift, you can technically bring back as much as you want.  BUT only 1 liter of alcohol will be duty-free with your $800 exemption.  Anything in excess will be charged a duty tax as described above for normal items.

You’ll will raise some red flags if you come back with many large boxes of alcohol.  It will seem like you’re bringing the alcohol into the country to resell it, in which case you would need to get a permit to import the alcohol before CBP will release it to you.

Lastly, be aware of any laws that your State may have with regards to importing alcohol.  If the State you arrive in has laws that are more strict than the federal government’s, the stricter State standard will apply.

Cultural Artifacts and Antiques

Some travelers are excited by the prospect of returning home with cultural artifacts (e.g. sculptures, paintings, and antiques) from their travels abroad.  Note, however, that several countries have laws that protect such cultural artifacts and restrict whether and under what circumstances they may be exported.  For instance, US law restricts the importation of pre-Columbian monumental sculptures from Central and South America, Native American artifacts from Canada, and 7th century relief plaques from Italy.  In order to bring these items into the US, you must obtain an export permit from the country of origin where the items were first found. The U.S. State Department’s website provides a comprehensive listing of restricted cultural items that can be accessed here.

In light of the restrictions on cultural property explained above, you mustbe careful when purchasing expensive antiques from abroad.  Be absolutely certain that the items you are purchasing or receiving are not stolen.  Under the US National Stolen Property Act, stolen items cannot be legally brought into the United States, no matter how many times the items have changed hands before they get to you.  Furthermore, antique vendors have been known to offer counterfeit export certificates along with their goods.  Be certain that any “export certificates” you receive are legitimate.  You can do this by contacting the cultural affairs office in the items’ country of origin.  Contact information for countries with export restrictions is listed on the US State Department’s import restrictions webpage.


Import rules on food can get a little complicated.  In general, many prepared foods, condiments, vinegars, oils, packaged spices, honey, coffee, and tea are admissible.  However, just about anything containing meat products (e.g. bouillon, soup mixes, etc.) is not admissible.  Furthermore, travelers are generally discouraged from importing fruits and vegetables, as they can harvest pests that can destroy American crops.  If you do plan on bringing food back into the US, it’s best to consult the FDA and USDA websites on imports and exports.


It is illegal to bring back drugs that are not FDA approved, and depending on the type of drug in question, there can be severe penalties for trying to do so (e.g. for narcotics). If you are on prescription drugs that are potentially addictive or contain narcotics (this includes, among other things, sleeping pills, antidepressants, and certain cough medicines) and these drugs must be taken with you on your trip abroad, the CBP strongly recommends that you take only the medications you will need, and only in the exact amounts that you will need them.  For addictive and narcotic drugs, the CBP says you must also do the following:

  1. Declare all drugs when you are re-entering the US
  2. Carry the drugs in their original containers
  3. Carry only the amount of the drug that a typical person with your condition would normally carry
  4. Have a copy of your prescription order or a written statement from your doctor stating your drugs are being administered under a doctor’s supervision and that they are necessary for your health while you are traveling.

Medications legally sold in the US are manufactured under highly regulated procedures that are meant to ensure the drugs are both effective and safe.  Other countries may have different regulatory and safety standards for drugs sold and/or manufactured within their borders. In order to protect the American public from potentially harmful foreign drugs, the CBP will, in general, only allow you to bring back medications that can be legally prescribed in the US.

During your travels you may come across “miracle drugs” that promise to cure things like cancer or AIDS.  Regardless of whether such drugs are legal in the country you encounter them, they may not be brought back with you if the FDA has not approved them for use in the US–even if a foreign doctor prescribes them to you. Note that there are a few exceptions to this last rule, like if you’re going abroad to receive medical treatment for a serious condition that cannot be treated domestically.  If this scenario applies to you, more information can be found on the FDA website that deals with importing drugs for personal use.


While CBP officers can select anyone for secondary screening, there are a few common sense things you can do that may decrease your likelihood of being searched, and/or streamline the search process if you are selected.

  1. Pack light. Think about it from the perspective of CBP officers.  Who has more places to hide a restricted or otherwise questionable item?  A woman with a shoulder purse and one large suitcase, or a man with an entire cart full of sealed boxes, suitcases, and bags?
  2. Pack neat. In the event that you are selected for secondary screening, packing neatly allows you to quickly and easily separate the different types of items in your luggage. At the very least, you’ll probably feel better if you are forced to unpack a neat and organized suitcase as opposed to one that looks like a portable pigsty.
  3. Pack all the items that you will need to declare separately. This goes along with packing neatly.  If all of your to-be-declared items are separately packed, they can be easily retrieved for inspection.
  4. Keep all sales receipts for objects purchased abroad. This will make it easier to keep track of items you will have to declare when you return to the US.
  5. Be duty-conscious if you are purchasing a lot of merchandise abroad. Before you buy that 2nd liter of booze, be sure to factor in the duty you will have to pay on your way home.  Read the section on personal exemptions in the CBP’s “Know Before You Go” guide carefully so you know exactly how much stuff you can buy without having to pay duty.
  6. You may still have to pay duty on items bought in a duty-free store. The items in a duty-free store are only tax/duty-free in the country in which the store is located.
  7. Keep your checkbook on hand as you enter the country. Realize that duties are due at the point of arrivaland must be paid in US currency.  Personal checks, government checks, traveler’s checks, and money orders are okay too.  Some locations accept credit cards.

Our next post will discuss programs you can take advantage of if you’re a frequent US traveler and would like to take the “fast lane” through Customs and Immigration.  Stay tuned for updates.

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