Duty and Duty-Free Items

Duty is the tax paid on certain imported goods, including wedding gifts, inherited items, and articles purchased at duty-free shops in other countries or in the States, if items are returning here. Customs duty generally is a percentage of an item's dutiable value, but it also may be a specific rate or a combination of rates.

Duties for items from countries granted most-favored nation status by the United States typically are lower than for items from other nations. Although items purchased outside the States and brought into the country are subject to internal revenue tax and duty, many household goods purchased abroad (such as furniture carpets, paintings, tableware, and linens) and used for at least one year may be imported duty-free.

U.S. residents moving back to the States ordinarily are permitted a duty exemption on $400 (retail value) worth of items purchased abroad—provided these items accompany the resident into the country and are for use either as personal goods or gifts.

U.S. residents returning from American Samoa, Guam, or the U.S. Virgin Islands receive an exemption of $1,200.

A $600 exemption is allowed for U.S. residents returning from one of about two dozen "beneficiary" countries, which generally are in the Caribbean and in Central and South America. The U.S. Customs Service maintains a list of these countries.

You may include in your $400 exemption one liter of alcoholic beverages if you are at least age 21 and if alcohol is allowed by your destination state. You may include up to 100 cigars and 200 cigarettes. If you qualify for the $1,200 exemption, you may include 1,000 cigarettes.

Note that Cuban cigars and cigarettes are not allowed. This prohibition is strictly enforced.

If you cannot claim any of the aforementioned exemptions, you are permitted a $25 exemption and may include: up to 50 cigarettes, 10 cigars, 4 fluid ounces of alcoholic beverages, and 4 fluid ounces of alcoholic perfume.

After deducting your exemptions and duty-free items, a flat 10 percent rate of duty will be applied to the next $1,000 worth of merchandise that is for personal use or to be given as gifts. Any amount exceeding $1,000 will be dutiable at the rates applicable for the various items.

For items from American Samoa, Guam or the U.S. Virgin Islands, the flat rate of duty for the next $1,000 worth of items after the exemption is 5 percent.

Returning residents may send to friends and relatives in the United States bona-fide gifts of up to $50 in total value free of duty and tax, as long as each recipient does not receive more than $50 in gifts on the day they are processed by customs.

If sending gifts from American Samoa, Guam, or the U.S. Virgin Islands, the total value limit is $100.

Do not declare mailed gifts upon your return to the States. Further, gifts accompanying you do not qualify for this exemption.

Nonresidents who are entering the United States, including children born outside the States, are permitted to bring in the following items free of duty:

  • Bona-fide gifts up to a combined value of $100.
  • Personal items, such as clothing, jewelry, cosmetics, items for personal hygiene, and hunting, fishing, and photographic equipment.
  • Vehicles for personal use, provided they are imported in conjunction with your arrival. Automobiles that comply with U.S. standards may remain in the country indefinitely, but those that do not must be exported within a year.
  • The personal and household effects of military or civilian employees employed by the U.S. government are eligible for duty-free entry if the person is returning to the States after concluding an extended assignment abroad. The items must have been in the person's possession prior to departure for the States.

A copy of the government orders terminating the person's assignment must accompany the items in an attached sealed envelope. The cartons should be marked "Returned Personal Effects—Orders Enclosed."

Please keep in mind the price quoted for transporting your shipment does not include customs duties, taxes, or any other fees imposed by the U.S. government. In some cases, additional charges can arise from the random inspection of shipments.

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