What Do I Have to Declare at Customs When Entering The United States?

Customs laws can be confusing. When entering the United States, certain items must be “declared” (i.e., one must alert customs officials that they are in that person's possession). This could lead to the requirement to pay a small “duty” fee to bring the item into the country, or it may be seized and you may not be allowed to bring it into the country at all.

In essence, you have to declare any items you purchased and/or are carrying with you upon your return to the United States that you did not have when you left. This may include gifts you bought for others or received while abroad, souvenirs, or even found items. If you inherited something and went to collect it in another country, that must also be declared even though it may have “belonged” to you long before you brought it into the country. This is also true of something you bring across the border for someone else, whether you bought it for them yourself or it was given to you to pass along to them.

Duty Shop Items

A great deal of confusion focuses on items bought in duty-free shops or that are identified as “duty-free” on a ship or plane. Although you will not have to pay the duty fees on these items (provided you are only bringing in an amount below a legally established maximum), you will still need to alert customs officials that you are bringing the items into the country. This allows customs officials to track how much of that product is being brought across the border by individuals and to ensure that you do not have more of the product than you are allowed if seeking to avoid the duty fees.

Items Repaired While Overseas

Another category of products most people do not consider are those items that you had repaired or altered while abroad. Even if the repair or alteration was performed free of charge, you must still declare the item at customs. This prevents smuggling in the item and also helps to track the import of any components that may have been used in the repair or alteration, such as electrical components or mechanical parts which could be removed from the item and resold. It also helps to prevent the accidental import of things like insects that might live in certain fibers used to repair or alter clothing or other textiles, or illegal animal products like whale bone or elephant ivory that may be incorporated as decorative elements into certain fashions.

Business Items

Obviously, most customs questions pertain to items of personal use or enjoyment, but what about items one wishes to sell or use in a business? These items must be declared upon re-entry into the United States. Indeed, large quantities may have to be arranged for well in advance of entry at the port to avoid temporary or permanent seizure. But, you will also probably need to declare any items you bring across the border for use in a business, like merchandise samples, even if you left with them and are now returning. This helps avoid smuggling by simply claiming that one had the product with them when they left. For that reason, it may be better to ship merchandise samples separately through a commercial parcel carrier rather than transporting it in one's own luggage.

Monetary Items

Another item that surprises many people is that all monetary instruments such as traveler's checks, cash, gold coins, negotiable checks, money orders, promissory notes, and securities or stocks must be declared at customs, as well. This helps to prevent money laundering and tax evasion.

Customs Forms

When going through customs, you will need to fill out some forms. On these forms, you will be asked to state the amount, in U.S. currency, that you actually paid for each item, including taxes, or its fair market value if you did not actually buy the item yourself. You will also have to identify the country from which you bought or received the item (not where it was manufactured). Even if you used the item on your trip or it was purchased used, you must still declare it and estimate its fair market value or indicate its purchase price.

To Declare or Not to Declare?

As a general rule, when in doubt about whether something must be declared or not, it is best to simply declare it or mention it to the customs official to get their input. If you are planning a trip abroad and believe you will be returning with items which you will need to declare at customs, but still have questions about the process or whether there are better ways to go about avoiding the hassle (like shipping the item) you may wish to consult with an attorney familiar with American import/export laws.

Provided by HG.org

Disclaimer: Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication at the time it was written. It is not intended to provide legal advice or suggest a guaranteed outcome as individual situations will differ and the law may have changed since publication. Readers considering legal action should consult with an experienced lawyer to understand current laws and.how they may affect a case.

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