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Customs, Duty Free & V.A.T. 


Common Sense

Carry a photocopy of your passport, and keep it separate from your passport, just in case you misplace the original. Also carry a driver's license or government-issued photo ID.

Turn off your cell phone. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials are directed to confiscate mobile phones if they see passengers using them.

No jokes! No wisecracks, no smart-aleck remarks. Don't fuss or make a scene. All may tag you for secondary screening. It's best just to speak -- in a polite, efficient manner -- only when you are addressed.

Do your research. A visa doesn't guarantee entry into the United States. CBP officials make the final determination as to whether to admit you or not. It is often the same for U.S. citizens at foreign ports. Don't assume you are entitled to enter another country.

Other things you need to think about:

Have a misspent youth? You may be deemed "unfit" to enter some countries, such as Canada, if you've ever been convicted of a DUI, driving dangerously, simple assault or even shoplifting.

If you're going off on your own in ports in certain countries (including the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta and the Republic of Korea), you may need a visa. Cruise-sponsored and state-approved tours will get you a visa waiver.

Duty-free Allowances for U.S. Residents

When you re-enter the U.S., you must declare all articles in your possession that you bought or acquired overseas. Flight attendants usually hand out customs forms for passengers to fill out before landing. 
  • If you have been out of the country for 48 hours or more, the first $400 worth of goods that you bought are exempt from duty and federal tax, however...
  • If you are returning from the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, or Guam, you're entitled to a $1,200 exemption; most Central and South American and Caribbean countries have a $600 exemption.
  • If you have not exceeded the limit, you need not list every item purchased. Beyond the exemption,  you must list every item.
  • The next $1,000 worth of goods will be taxed at a flat rate of 10%. All further purchases are taxed at variable rates.

Keep good records. When you return to the U.S., you must declare everything you didn't have when you left. Keep a running tally and all receipts. Don't bring back any meats, fruits or vegetables. No alternative-remedy shopping while in port, either. Customs almost never allows you to bring in medicines purchased abroad that aren't FDA-approved.

The U.S. Customs Service publishes the booklet "Know Before You Go, Customs Hints for Returning U.S. Residents". Single copies are available free from any local Customs Office, or you may obtain a copy by writing to:

U.S. Customs Service
P.O. Box 740 7
Washington, D.C. 20044

V.A.T. Refunds

Value Added Tax is a national sales tax on retail goods and services. Each country sets its own V.A.T. rates, so they differ from country to country. The average rate is approximately 18%.

Take your passport with you when you shop, so that you can verify your status as a foreign citizen.  Before making a purchase, ask the sales clerk for a V.A.T. refund form. Find out if the store charges a fee for making V.A.T. refunds. 

On leaving the country, go to the airport earlier than usual. Don't check any luggage containing V.A.T. purchases until a customs officer has inspected them and stamped the V.A.T. forms or invoices. 

Duty-free Shopping

Duty-free stores sell merchandise free of sales taxes and import fees on items made outside the country where they are sold. Remember that duty-free purchases count towards the limit in foreign merchandise that can be brought into the U.S. without paying customs fees. 

Overseas Shipping Advice

Whenever possible, carry your purchases with you on your return flight. This will avoid shipping costs, delays, and damage to your merchandise. 

If you find you must ship large or bulky items, remember to obtain a shipping agreement in writing that states insurance fees, the total shipping fees, method of shipping, carrier, and port of entry into the U.S. (Shipping charges often apply only to deli very to the port of entry, not directly to your home or office. If so, you will have to arrange for a freight forwarder to pick up your merchandise from the port and deliver it to you.) 

Natural Goods

Keep in mind U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations: No flowers, fresh fruit, vegetables, or meats are allowed into the country. Think twice about the things you buy. If they're made from the hides, shells, feathers, or teeth of endangered species, you risk their seizure by government inspectors, and you may face a substantial fine. 
For a free copy of "Facts About Federal Wildlife Laws", a pamphlet listing restrictions on wildlife
products, write:

Publications Unit
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Department of the Interior
Washington, D.C. 20240

or call (703) 358-1711. 

© 2001-2011  Candy Brock