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Unaccompanied Purchases from Insular Possessions and Caribbean Countries

Unaccompanied purchases are goods you bought on a trip that are being mailed or shipped to you in the United States. In other words, you’re not carrying them with you when you return. If your unaccompanied purchases are from an insular possession or a Caribbean Basin country and are being sent directly from those locations to the United States, you may enter them as follows:

  • Up to $1,200 worth will be duty-free under your personal exemption if the merchandise is from an insular possession.
  • Up to $600 worth will be duty-free if it is from a Caribbean Basin country.
  • Of these amounts ($1,200 or $600), up to $400 worth will be duty-free if the merchandise was acquired elsewhere than the insular possessions or the Caribbean Basin. However, merchandise that qualifies for the $400 exemption must be in your possession when you return (must accompany you) in order for you to claim the duty-free exemption. The duty-free exemptions for unaccompanied baggage apply only to goods from the insular possessions and the Caribbean Basin countries listed earlier.
  • An additional $1,000 worth of goods will be dutiable at a flat rate of 5 percent if they are from an insular possession, or from a Caribbean Basin country.
  • If you are sending back more than $2,200 from an insular possession or more than $1,600 from a Caribbean Basin country, the duty rates in the Harmonized Tariff Schedules of the United States will apply. The Harmonized Tariff Schedule describes different rates of duty for different commodities; linen tablecloths, for example, will not have the same duty rates as handicrafts or plastic toy trucks.

Here’s how you can take advantage of the duty-free exemption for unaccompanied tourist purchases from an insular possession or a Caribbean country:

Step 1. At place and time of purchase, ask your merchant to hold your item until you send him or her a copy of Customs Form CF-255 (Declaration of Unaccompanied Articles), which must be affixed to the package when it is sent.

Step 2. (a) On your Customs declaration (form CF-6059B), list everything you acquired on your trip, except the things you already sent home as gifts. (b) Check off on the declaration those items you are not bringing with you--that is, the unaccompanied items. (c) Fill out a separate Declaration of Unaccompanied Articles (form CF-255) for each package or container that will be sent to you after you arrive in the United States. You can often get this form where you make your purchase, but if not, ask a Customs officer for one when you clear Customs.

Step 3. When you return to the United States, the Customs officer will: (a) collect duty and tax, if any is owed, on the goods you’ve brought with you; (b) check to see that your list of unaccompanied articles, which you indicated on the Customs declaration, agrees with your sales slips, invoices, and so on; and (c) validate the CF-255 as to whether your purchases are duty-free under your personal exemption ($1,200 or $600) or whether they are subject to a flat 5 percent rate of duty. Two copies of this three-part form will be returned to you.

Step 4. Send the yellow copy of the CF-255 to the foreign shopkeeper or vendor holding your purchase, and keep the other copy for your records. (When you make your purchase, it is very important to tell the merchant not to send your package to the United States until he or she gets the copy of form CF-255.)

Step 5. When the merchant gets your CF-255, he or she will put it in an envelope and attach the envelope securely to the outside wrapping of the package or container. The merchant must also mark each package "Unaccompanied Purchase." Please remember that each package or container must have its own CF-255 attached. This is the most important step to follow in order to gain the benefits allowed under this procedure.

Step 6. If your package has been mailed, the Postal Service will deliver it after it has cleared Customs. If you owe duty, the Postal Service will collect the duty along with a postal handling fee. If your package is delivered by a commercial courier, the delivery service will notify you of its arrival so you can go to the Customs office holding the shipment and complete the entry procedure. If you owe duty or tax, you can pay it at that time. Alternatively, you may hire a customs broker to do this for you, but be aware that brokers are not U.S. Customs employees, and they charge fees for their services.

Storage Charges: If freight or express packages from your trip are delivered before you return and you have not made arrangements to pick them up, Customs will place them in storage after 15 days. This storage will be at your risk and expense. If they are not claimed within six months, the items will be sold at auction.

Packages sent by mail and not claimed within 30 days will be returned to the sender unless the amount of duty is being protested.

Duty-Free Shops

Many travelers are confused by the term "duty-free" shops. Travelers often think that what they buy in duty-free shops won’t be dutiable when they return home and clear Customs. But this is not true: Articles sold in a duty-free shop are free of duty and taxes only for the country in which that shop is located. So if your purchases exceed your personal exemption, items you bought in a duty-free shop, whether in the United States or abroad, will almost certainly be subject to duty.

Articles sold in foreign duty-free shops are subject to U.S. Customs duty and other restrictions (for example, only one liter of liquor is duty-free), but you may include these items in your personal exemption. Articles sold in duty-free shops are meant to be taken out of the country; they are not meant to be used, worn, eaten, drunk, etc., in the country where you purchased them. Articles purchased in American duty-free shops are also subject to U.S. Customs duty if you bring them into the United States. For example, if you buy liquor in a duty-free shop in New York before entering Canada and then bring it back into the United States, it may be subject to duty and Internal Revenue Service tax. If you intend to purchase tobacco products in a duty free shop, please read the information under the heading " TOBACCO PRODUCTS" in this section.

Prohibited and Restricted Items

The Customs Service has been entrusted with enforcing some 600 laws for 60 other government agencies, such as the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of Agriculture. These other agencies have great interest in what people bring into the country, but they are not always at ports of entry, guarding our borders. Customs is always at ports of entry—guarding the nation’s borders is what we do.

The products we want to keep out of the United States are those that would injure community health, public safety, American workers, children, or domestic plant and animal life, or those that would defeat our national political interests. Sometimes the products that cause injury, or have the potential to do so, may seem fairly innocent. But, as you will see from the material that follows, appearances can be deceiving.

Before you leave for your trip abroad, you might want to talk to Customs about the items you plan to bring back to be sure they’re not prohibited or restricted. Prohibited means the item is forbidden by law to enter the United States, period. Examples are dangerous toys, cars that don’t protect their occupants in a crash, or illegal substances like absinthe and Rohypnol. Restricted means that special licenses or permits are required from a federal agency before the item is allowed to enter the United States. Examples are firearms and certain fruits, vegetables, pets, and textiles.

Cultural Artifacts and Cultural Property (Art/Artifacts)

Most countries have laws that protect their cultural property (art/artifacts/antiquities; archaeological and ethnological material are also terms that are used). Such laws include export controls and/or national ownership of cultural property. Even if purchased from a business in the country of origin or in another country, legal ownership of such artifacts may be in question if brought into the U.S. Make certain you have documents such as export permits and receipts, although these do not necessarily confer ownership. While foreign laws may not be enforceable in the U.S., they can cause certain U.S. law to be invoked. For example, as a general rule, under the U.S. National Stolen Property Act, one cannot have legal title to art/artifacts/antiquities that were stolen, no matter how many times such items may have changed hands. Articles of stolen cultural property (from museums or from religious or secular public monuments) originating in any of the countries party to the 1970 UNESCO Convention specifically may not be imported into the U.S.

In addition, U.S. law may restrict importation into the U.S. of specific categories of art/artifacts/antiquities: 1) U.S. law restricts the import of any Pre-Columbian monumental and architectural sculpture and murals from Central and South American countries; 2) U.S. law specifically restricts the importation of Native American artifacts from Canada; Maya pre-Columbian archaeological objects from Guatemala; Pre-Columbian archaeological objects from El Salvador and Peru; archaeological objects (such as terracotta statues) from Mali; Colonial period objects such as paintings and ritual objects from Peru; Byzantine period ritual and ecclesiastic objects (such as icons) from Cyprus; Khmer stone archaeological sculpture from Cambodia.

Importation of items such as those above is permitted only when the items are accompanied by an export permit issued by the country of origin (where such items were first found). Purveyors of such items have been known to offer phony export certificates. As additional U.S. import restrictions may be imposed in response to requests from other countries, it is wise for the prospective purchaser to visit the State Department’s cultural property website: http://exchanges.state.gov/education/culprop/. This website also has images representative of the categories of cultural property for which there are specific U.S. import restrictions.

The importation of Absinthe and any other liquors or liqueurs that contain an excess of Artemisia absinthium is prohibited.

Automobiles

Automobiles imported into the United States must meet the fuel-emission requirements of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the safety, bumper, and theft-prevention standards of the Department of Transportation (DOT). (Please see Customs pamphlets Importing a Car and Pleasure Boats.) Trying to import a car that doesn’t meet all the requirements can be a vexing experience. Here’s why:

Almost all cars, vans, sport utility vehicles, and so on that are bought in foreign countries must be modified to meet American standards. Passenger vehicles that are imported on the condition that they be modified must be exported or destroyed if they are not modified acceptably.

And even if the car does meet all federal standards, it might be subject to additional EPA requirements, depending on what countries you drove it in. Or it could require a bond upon entry until the conditions for admission have been met. So before you even think about importing a car, you should call EPA and DOT for more information.

Information on importing vehicles can be obtained from the Environmental Protection Agency, Attn.: 6405J, Washington, DC 20460, telephone (202) 564-9660, and the Department of Transportation, Office of Vehicle Safety Compliance (NEF 32) NHTSA , Washington, DC 20590. Copies of the Customs Service’s pamphlet Importing a Car can be obtained by writing to the U.S. Customs Service, P.O. Box 7407, Washington, DC 20044 or checking the Customs Web site at www.customs.gov. EPA's Automotive Imports Fact Manual can be obtained by writing to the Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC 20460 or visit: http://www.epa.gov. Cars being brought into the United States temporarily (for less that one year) are exempt from these restrictions.

Books, Videotapes, Computer Programs, Cassettes, and Other Copyrighted Items

Pirated copies of copyrighted articles-articles that are produced unlawfully without the authorization of the copyright owner—are prohibited from being imported into the United States. Pirated copies may be seized and destroyed.

You may bring back genuine copyrighted articles (subject to duties). The kinds of copyrighted products most travelers are interested in include CD-ROMs, tape cassettes, toys, stuffed animals, clothing with cartoon characters, videotapes, videocassettes, music CDs, and books. Many copyrighted items may only be imported by distributors licensed by the copyright owner. Because most travelers are unaware of items covered by copyright distribution licenses, Customs is allowed to grant a waiver for the importation of one item protected by copyright every 30 days, as long as the item is for personal use. The copyright owner can grant more generous waivers—however, unless you have checked with Customs in advance, don’t plan to bring in more than one copy of a copyrighted item.

Trademarked Articles

There are two categories of trademarked articles that sometimes confuse travelers. You should know about them if you plan to bring back items with trademarks. The first is counterfeit goods. Almost everyone knows what these are: They’re fakes, knock-offs—the “Rolex” watches sold by sidewalk vendors for $12, the “Armani” jeans sold at a discount store for $18. The other category is parallel imports, also known as gray-market goods. These items are legitimate; that is, their manufacture was authorized by the company whose trademark they bear. What makes them gray market is that they’re imported or exported by people or businesses not authorized to do so.

The rule of thumb for items with a trademark is this: You’re allowed an exemption, usually one article of each type that bears a protected trademark (that is, one pair of sunglasses, one pair of binoculars, one designer sweater, one handbag). The “one-of-each-type” rule applies no matter what the trademark is, and no matter whether the merchandise genuine or counterfeit. These articles must accompany you, and you can claim this exemption only once every 30 days. The articles must be for your own use, not for sale. If you sell the exempted article within a year after you import it, the article or its value will be subject to forfeiture. If a trademark owner allows the importation into the United States of more than the exemption just described (that is, more than one of each type), you may bring back as many as you like. For information on copyrighted articles, see the “Books, Videotapes, Computer Programs, Cassettes, and Other Copyrighted Items” section. The rules for copyrighted products are simpler: no counterfeits are allowed under any circumstances.

Ceramic Tableware

Although ceramic tableware is not prohibited or restricted, you should know that such tableware made in foreign countries may contain dangerous levels of lead in the glaze; this lead can seep into foods and beverages. The Food and Drug Administration recommends that if you buy ceramic tableware abroad—especially in Mexico, China, Hong Kong, or India—you have it tested for lead release when you return, or use it for decorative purposes only.

Drug paraphernalia

It is illegal to bring drug paraphernalia into the United States unless they have been prescribed for authentic medical conditions—diabetes, for example. Customs will seize any illegal paraphernalia. The importation, exportation, manufacture, sale, or transportation of drug paraphernalia is prohibited by law. If you’re convicted of any of these offenses, you will be subject to fines and imprisonment.

Firearms

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) regulates and restricts firearms and ammunition; it also approves all import transactions involving weapons and ammunition. If you want to import (or export) either of them, you must do so through a licensed importer, dealer, or manufacturer. Also, if the National Firearms Act prohibits certain weapons, ammunition, or similar devices from coming into the country, you won’t be able to import them unless the ATF specifically authorizes you, in writing, to do so.

You don’t need an ATF permit if you can demonstrate that you are returning with the same firearms or ammunition that you took out of the United States. The best way is to register your firearms and related equipment by taking them to any Customs office before you leave the United States. The Customs officer will register them on the same form CF-4457 used to register cameras or computers (see “Register Items Before You Leave the United States”).

For further information about importing weapons, contact the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, U.S. Department of the Treasury, Washington, DC 20226, or call (202) 927-8320, or visit: http://www.atf.treas.gov/firearms/feib/index.htm.

Many countries will not allow you to enter with a firearm even if you are only traveling through the country on the way to your final destination. If you plan to take your firearms or ammunition to another country, you should contact officials at that country’s embassy to learn about its regulations. And please visit your nearest Customs office before your departure to learn the latest requirements for weapons and ammunition registration.

Fish and Wildlife

Fish, wildlife, and products made from them are subject to import and export restrictions, prohibitions, permits or certificates, and quarantine requirements. We recommend that you contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before you depart if you plan to import or export any of the following:

  • Wild birds, land or marine mammals, reptiles, fish, shellfish, mollusks, or invertebrates.
  • Any part or product of the above, such as skins, tusks, bone, feathers, or eggs.
  • Products or articles manufactured from wildlife or fish.

Endangered species of wildlife, and products made from them, generally may not be imported or exported. You’ll need a permit from the Fish and Wildlife Service to import virtually all types of ivory, unless it’s from a warthog. The Fish and Wildlife Service has so many restrictions and prohibitions on various kinds of ivory—Asian elephant, African elephant, whale, rhinoceros, seal, pre-Endangered Species Act, post-CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), and many others—that they urge you to contact them before you even think of acquiring ivory in a foreign country. They can be reached at (800) 358-2104.

But you may import an object made of ivory if it’s an antique; that is, if it’s at least 100 years old. You will need documentation that authenticates the age of the ivory. You may import other antiques containing wildlife parts with the same condition: they must be accompanied by documentation proving they are at least 100 years old. (Certain other requirements for antiques may apply.)

If you plan to buy such things as tortoiseshell jewelry, leather goods, or articles made from whalebone, ivory, skins, or fur, please, before you go, contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Division of Law Enforcement, 4401 North Fairfax Drive, Arlington, VA 22203-3247, or call (800) 358-2104 or visit: http://www.fws.gov. Hunters can get information on the limitations for importing and exporting migratory game birds from this office as well. Ask for the pamphlet "Facts About Federal Wildlife Laws."

The Fish and Wildlife Service has designated specific ports of entry to handle fish and wildlife entries. If you plan to import anything discussed in this section, please also contact the Customs Service. We’ll tell you about designated ports and send you the brochure "Pets and Wildlife", which describes the regulations we enforce for all agencies that oversee the importation of animals.

Some states have fish and wildlife laws and regulations that are stricter than federal laws and regulations. If you’re returning to such a state, be aware that the stricter state laws and regulations have priority. Similarly, the federal government does not allow you to import into the United States wild animals that were taken, killed, sold, possessed, or exported from another country if any of these acts violated foreign laws.

Game and Hunting Trophies

If you plan to import game or a hunting trophy, please contact the Fish and Wildlife Service before you leave at (800) 358-2104. Currently, 14 Customs ports of entry are designated to handle game and trophies; other Customs ports must get approval from the Fish and Wildlife Service to clear your entry.

Depending on the species you bring back, you might need a permit from the country where the animal was harvested. Regardless of the species, you’ll have to fill out a Fish and Wildlife form 3-177, Declaration for Importation or Exportation.

Trophies may also be subject to inspection by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) for sanitary purposes. General guidelines for importing trophies can be found in APHIS’s publication Traveler’s Tips. Contact USDA-APHIS-PPQ, Permit Unit, 4700 River Road, Unit 133, Riverdale, MD 20737, call (301) 734-8645, or check the APHIS Web site at: http://www.aphis.usda.gov/

Also, federal regulations do not allow the importation of any species into a state with fish or wildlife laws that are more restrictive than federal laws. And if foreign laws were violated in the taking, sale, possession, or export to the United States of wild animals, those animals will not be allowed entry into the United States.

Warning: There are many regulations, enforced by various agencies, governing the importation of animals and animal parts. Failure to comply with them could result in time-consuming delays in clearing your trophy through Customs. You should always call for guidance before you depart.

Food Products

You may bring bakery items and certain cheeses into the United States. APHIS publishes a booklet, Traveler’s Tips, that offers extensive information about bringing food products into the country. For more information, or for a copy of Traveler’s Tip, contact USDA-APHIS (see "Game and Hunting Trophies" section) or visit: http://www.aphis.usda.gov/travel/index.html

Some imported foods are also subject to requirements of the Food and Drug Administration.

Meats, Livestock and Poultry

The regulations governing meat and meat products are very strict: you may not bring back fresh, dried, or canned meats or meat products from most foreign countries. Also, you may not bring in food products that have been prepared with meat.

The regulations on importing meat and meat products change frequently because they are based on disease outbreaks in different areas of the world. APHIS, which regulates meats and meat products as well as fruits and vegetables, invites you to call for more information on importing meats. Contact USDA-APHIS Veterinary Services National Center for Import/Export (NCIE), 4700 River Road, Unit 40, Riverdale, MD 20737-1231; call (301) 734-7830; or visit: http://www.aphis.usda.gov/ncie/.

Fruits and Vegetables

Bringing home fruits and vegetables can be quite troublesome. That apple you bought in the foreign airport just before boarding and then didn’t eat? Whether Customs will allow it into the United States depends on where you got it and where you’re going after you arrive in the United States. The same is true for those magnificent Mediterranean tomatoes. Fresh fruits and vegetables can carry plant pests or diseases into the United States.

You may remember the Med fly hysteria of the late 1980s: Stories about crop damage caused by the Mediterranean fruit fly were in the papers for months. The state of California and the federal government together spent some $100 million to get rid of this pest. And the source of the outbreak? One traveler who brought home one contaminated piece of fruit.

It’s best not to bring fresh fruits or vegetables into the United States. But if you plan to, call APHIS and get a copy of Traveler’s Tips, which lists what you can and can’t bring, and also items for which you’ll need a permit. (For contact information, see "Game and Hunting Trophies" section or visit: http://www.aphis.usda.gov/travel/

Plants

The plants, cuttings, seeds, unprocessed plant products, and certain endangered species that are allowed into the United States require import permits; some are prohibited entirely. Threatened or endangered species that are permitted must have export permits from the country of origin.

Every single plant or plant product must be declared to the Customs officer and must be presented for inspection, no matter how free of pests it appears to be. Address applications for import permits or requests for information to Quarantines, USDA-APHIS-PPQ, Permit Unit, 4700 River Road, Unit 133, Riverdale, MD 20737, phone (301) 734-8645, or visit: http://www.aphis.usda.gov/travel/.




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