You have just spent a well deserved vacation in the sun and fun of a tropical island destination and are now sitting on your return flight. You packed all those wonderful souvenirs for everyone you bought for your friends and relatives and some unusual trinkets that you found for yourself. You hear an announcement that the flight attendants will be handing out customs declaration forms shortly. If you are a well seasoned traveler you already know that this is the form used by U.S. Customs to make sure that you are not bringing items into the country that are not allowed and that the total cost of what you spent on allowable items does not exceed the accepted monetary limits set by the United States government. If this is the your first experience with the form then you will probably be somewhat, if not very, confused by it.
I remember traveling with some friends who were first time international travelers who asked me to help them understand what they needed to fill out. Two of them had filled out the simple information but when I looked them over I saw that they had put Irish and German in answer to the question of their nationality. I snickered because I knew that they had confused nationality with ancestry. I asked them if I could see their passports because I had never seen a German or Irish passport. When they said their passports were U.S. issued is when I told them of their error in answering the question. The rest of the easy stuff was filled out correctly. The part of the form that throws the unseasoned traveler into full panic mode is having to list everything that they bought and are bringing back with them along with the value of each item in U.S. currency. You do have to list everything whether you bought it as a gift for yourself or someone else as well as items that you may have received as a gift while you were out of the country. The items listed should be detailed. Putting the word souvenirs down and listing an amount really is not acceptable because the purpose of customs is to make sure that you are not bringing items in that are not allowed.
When you arrive into U.S. Customs you show the form to the customs agent who checks it and codes it. The coding determines whether or not you will be flagged for inspection. Once you have claimed your checked-in luggage, you are then directed to another another customs agent who will ask you questions about what you brought back with you. They may be satisfied with your answers and wave you through or they may ask you to open all of your luggage for inspection. If you are asked to open your luggage for inspection, it is not a wise idea to throw a temper tantrum or claim that they are profiling you. They are just doing their job which is to ensure that the items that you brought back are legitimate and do not fall into the category of those deemed to be illegal.
Here is a short list of some of the things that you need to list and declare:
1. Items you have purchased abroad that you are carrying with you.
2. Items that you bought in duty-free shops, on the airplane or ship.
3. Items that you are bringing home for others.
Before you purchase something abroad, it is a good idea to know if it is allowed to be brought back to the United States. This "not allowed" list is always changing but their are some constants that will help to guide.
1. If you know or even suspect that the item was made from an endangered or protected species, don't buy it. This includes items that you found on the beach or in the water and items used in jewelry. Big no-nos are Black and Red coral, Turtle Shells, Puka Shells and Conch Shells.
2. Plants and seeds are not advised as they could be considered an invasive species. This also applies to items made using plants and seeds.
3. Meats, Cheeses, Breads and Vegetables. There are countless reasons that these should not be brought in.
4. Items with counterfeit trademarks.
5. Items made in Cuba.
6. Drugs and drug paraphernalia.
While it may sound as if the U.S. Government doesn't allow you to bring back anything, in reality there are exceptions in each of the guidelines that I have presented. For more information you can click on the links below which may or may not help you to snorkel your way through customs.
RELATED READING:US Customs & Border Protection: Prohibited & Restricted Items