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Gifts you bring back from a trip abroad are considered to be for your personal use. They must be declared, but you may include them in your personal exemption. This includes gifts people gave you while you were out of the country, such as wedding or birthday presents, and gifts youíve brought back for others. Gifts intended for business, promotional, or other commercial purposes may not be included in your duty-free exemption.

Gifts worth up to $100 may be received, free of duty and tax, by friends and relatives in the United States, as long as the same person does not receive more than $100 worth of gifts in a single day. If the gifts are mailed or shipped from an insular possession, this amount is increased to $200. When you return to the United States, you donít have to declare gifts you sent while you were on your trip, since they wonít be accompanying you.

By federal law, alcoholic beverages, tobacco products, and perfume containing alcohol and worth more than $5 retail may not be included in the gift exemption.

Gifts for more than one person may be shipped in the same package, called a consolidated gift package, if they are individually wrapped and labeled with each recipientís name. Hereís how to wrap and label a consolidated gift package:

Be sure to mark the outermost wrapper with

  • the total value of the consolidated package;
  • the recipientsí names; and
  • the nature and value of the gifts inside (for example, tennis shoes, $50; shirt, $45; toy car, $15).

Packages marked in this way will clear Customs much more easily. Hereís an example of how to mark a consolidated gift package:

Unsolicited gift - consolidated gift package - total value $135

To John Jones - one belt, $20; one box of candy, $5; one tie, $20

To Mary Smith - one skirt, $45; one belt, $15; one pair slacks, $30.

If any item in the consolidated gift parcel is subject to duty and tax or worth more than the $100 gift allowance, the entire package will be dutiable.

You, as a traveler, cannot send a "gift" package to yourself, and people traveling together cannot send "gifts" to each other. But there would be no reason to do that anyway, because the personal exemption for packages mailed from abroad is $200, which is twice as much as the gift exemption. If a package is subject to duty, the United States Postal Service will collect it from the addressee along with any postage and handling charges. The sender cannot prepay duty; it must be paid by the recipient when the package is received in the United States. (Packages sent by courier services are not eligible for this duty waiver.)

For more information about mailing packages to the United States, please contact your nearest Customs office and ask for our pamphlet International Mail Imports.

Duty-Free or Reduced Rates

Items from Certain Countries

The United States gives duty preferences-that is, free or reduced rates-to certain developing countries under a trade agreement called the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP). Some products that would otherwise be dutiable are not when they come from a GSP country. For details on this program, as well as the complete list of GSP countries, please ask your nearest Customs office for a copy of our pamphlet GSP & The Traveler, or look for it on our Web site.

Similarly, many products of Caribbean and Andean countries are exempt from duty under the Caribbean Basin Initiative and Andean Trade Preference Act. Most products of Israel may also enter the United States either free of duty or at a reduced rate. Check with Customs for details.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect in 1994. If you are returning from Canada or Mexico, your goods are eligible for free or reduced duty rates if they were grown, manufactured, or produced in Canada or Mexico, as defined by the Act. Again, check with Customs for details.

Personal Belongings

Your personal belongings can be sent back to the United States duty-free if they are of U.S. origin, and if they have not been altered or repaired while abroad. Personal belongings like worn clothing can be mailed home and will receive duty-free entry if you write the words ďAmerican Goods Returned" on the outside of the package.

Household Effects

Household effects include furniture, carpets, paintings, tableware, stereos, linens, and similar household furnishings. Tools of trade, professional books, implements, and instruments that youíve taken out of the United States will be duty-free when you return.

You may import household effects you acquired abroad duty-free if

  • You used them for at least one year while you were abroad.
  • They are not intended for anyone else or for sale.

    Clothing, jewelry, photography equipment, portable radios, and vehicles are considered personal effects and cannot be brought in duty-free as household effects. However, the amount of duty collected on them will be reduced according to the age of the item.

    Paying Duty

    If youíre bringing it back with you, you didnít have it when you left, and its total value is more than your Customs exemption, it is subject to duty.

    The Customs inspector will place the items that have the highest rate of duty under your exemption. After subtracting your exemptions and the value of any duty-free items, the applicable flat rate of duty will be charged on the next $1,000 worth of merchandise. Any dollar amount beyond this $1,000 will be dutiable at whatever duty rates apply. The flat rate of duty may only be used for items for your own use or for gifts. As with your exemption, you may use the flat-rate provision only once every 30 days. Special flat rates of duty apply to items made and acquired in Canada, Mexico, and the U.S. Insular Possessions. The flat rate would be applied to purchases in the U.S. Insular Possessions, whether the items accompany you or are shipped.

    Here's an example of how different rates would apply if you acquire goods valued at $2,500 from various places:

    Country Total declared value Personal exemption (duty-free) Flat duty rate Various duty rates
    U.S. insular possessions $2,500 $1,200 first $1,000 at 5 percent remaining $300
    Caribbean Basin countries $2,500 $600 first $1,000 at 5 percent remaining $900
    Other countries or locations $2,500 $400 first $1,000 at 5 percent remaining $1,100

    The flat duty rate will be charged on items that are dutiable but that cannot be included in your personal exemption, even if you have not exceeded the exemption. The best example of this is liquor: Say you return from Europe with $200 worth of items, including two liters of liquor. One liter will be duty-free under your exemption; the other will be dutiable at the appropriate flat rate of duty, plus any Internal Revenue Service tax. Family members who live in the same household and return to the United States together can combine their items to take advantage of a combined flat duty rate, no matter which family member owns a given item. The combined flat duty rate for a family of four traveling together would be $4,000. If you owe duty, you must pay it when you arrive in the United States. You can pay it in any of the following ways:

    • U.S. currency (foreign currency is not acceptable).
    • Personal check in the exact amount, drawn on a U.S. bank, made payable to the U.S. Customs Service. You must present identification, such as a passport or driver's license. (The Customs Service does not accept checks bearing second-party endorsements.)
    • Government check, money order, or traveler's check if it does not exceed the duty owed by more than $50.
    • In some locations, you may pay duty with credit cards, either MasterCard or VISA.

    Sending Goods to the United States

    Items mailed to the United States are subject to duty when they arrive. They cannot be included in your Customs exemption, and duty on them cannot be prepaid.

    If you are mailing merchandise from the U.S. insular possessions or from Caribbean Basin countries, you should follow different procedures than if you were mailing packages from any other country. These special procedures are described, under "Unaccompanied Purchases."

    In addition to duty and, at times, taxes, Customs collects a user fee on dutiable packages. Those three fees are the only fees Customs collects; any additional charges on shipments are for handling by freight forwarders, Customs brokers, and couriers or for other delivery services. Some carriers may add other clearance charges that have nothing to do with Customs duties.

    Note: Customs brokers are not U.S. Customs employees. Brokers' fees are based on the amount of work they do, not on the value of the items you ship, so travelers sometimes find the fee high in relation to the value of the shipment. The most cost-effective thing to do is to take your purchases with you if at all possible.

    Unaccompanied Baggage

    Unaccompanied baggage is anything you do not bring back with you, as opposed to goods in your possession-that accompany you-when you return. These may be items that were with you when you left the United States or items that you acquired (received by any means) while outside the United States. In general, unaccompanied baggage falls into the following three categories.

    U.S. Mail Shipments

    Shipping through the U.S. mail, including parcel post, is a cost-efficient way to send things to the United States. The Postal Service sends all foreign mail shipments to Customs for examination. Customs then returns packages that donít require duty to the Postal Service, which sends them to a local post office for delivery. The local post office delivers them without charging any additional postage, handling costs, or other fees.

    If the package does require payment of duty, Customs attaches a form called a mail entry (form CF-3419A), which shows how much duty is owed, and charges a $5 processing fee as well. When the post office delivers the package, it will also charge a handling fee.

    Commercial goods-goods intended for resale-may have special entry requirements. Such goods may require a formal entry in order to be admitted into the United States. Formal entries are more complicated and require more paperwork than informal entries. (Informal entries are, generally speaking, personal packages worth less than $2,000.) Customs employees may not prepare formal entries for you; only you or a licensed customs broker may prepare one. For more information on this subject, please request the Customs pamphlet U.S. Import Requirements or contact your local Customs office.

    If you believe you have been charged an incorrect amount of duty on a package mailed from abroad, you may file a protest with Customs. You can do this in one of two ways. You can accept the package, pay the duty, and write a letter explaining why you think the amount was incorrect. You should include with your letter the yellow copy of the mail entry (CF-3419A). Send the letter and the form to the Customs office that issued the mail entry, which youíll find on the lower left-hand corner of the form.

    The other way to protest duty is to refuse delivery of the package and, within five days, send your protest letter to the post office where the package is being held. The post office will forward your letter to Customs and will hold your package until the protest is resolved.

    For additional information on international mailing, please ask Customs for the pamphlet International Mail Imports.

    Express Shipments

    Packages may be sent to the United States by private-sector courier or delivery service from anywhere in the world. The express company usually takes care of clearing your merchandise through Customs and charges a fee for its service. Some travelers have found this fee to be higher than they expected.

    Freight Shipments

    Cargo, whether duty is owed on it or not, must clear Customs at the first port of arrival in the United States. If you choose, you may have your freight sent, while it is still in Customs custody, to another port for Customs clearance. This is called forwarding freight in bond. You (or someone you appoint to act for you) are responsible for arranging to clear your merchandise through Customs or for having it forwarded to another port.

    Frequently, a freight forwarder in a foreign country will take care of these arrangements, including hiring a customs broker in the United States to clear the merchandise through Customs. Whenever a third party handles the clearing and forwarding of your merchandise, that party charges a fee for its services. This fee is not a Customs charge. When a foreign seller entrusts a shipment to a broker or agent in the United States, that seller usually pays only enough freight to have the shipment delivered to the first port of arrival in the United States. This means that you, the buyer, will have to pay additional inland transportation, or freight forwarding, charges, plus brokers' fees, insurance, and possibly other charges.

    If it is not possible for you to secure release of your goods yourself, another person may act on your behalf to clear them through Customs. You may do this as long as your merchandise consists of a single, noncommercial shipment (not intended for resale) that does not require a formal entryóin other words, if the merchandise is worth less than $2,000. You must give the person a letter that authorizes him or her to act as your unpaid agent. Once you have done this, that person may fill out the Customs declaration and complete the entry process for you. Your letter authorizing the person to act in your behalf should be addressed to the "Officer in Charge of Customs" at the port of entry, and the person should bring it along when he or she comes to clear your package. Customs will not notify you when your shipment arrives this is the responsibility of your carrier, If your goods are not cleared within 15 days of arrival you could incur storage fees.

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