Posted in General Travel

A Quick Overview of US Customs Guidelines

It is very important to be familiar with the US Customs guidelines before traveling internationally.  And it is especially important if you are planning to bring back any food, wine or souvenirs from your trip.  I have put together a few notable items in this post to help you Know Before You Go!

What to Expect

Declarations Form

You have several entry options once you return from your trip. All travelers must complete a CBP Declaration Form itemizing all purchased merchandise and agricultural products.

Here are your options:

  1. Complete a paper form 6059B that may be obtained at the port of entry or on the flight or cruise
  2. If you have Global Entry, you may complete the online form at a Global Entry kiosk
  3. Complete the online form at an Automated Passport Control kiosk.

Keeping all your purchase receipts handy in an envelope in your carry-on bag will ease this process. If warranted, the CBP officer will calculate the duties to pay on your newly acquired goods.


Customs Interview

To keep our borders secure and our nation safe, CBP must inspect everyone who arrives at a U.S. port of entry. The CBP officers are authorized to ask you questions about your trip and your personal background, including:

  • Your citizenship
  • The nature of your trip
  • Anything you are bringing back to the United States that you did not have when you left.

Officers have legal authority to search you, your baggage or your vehicle. If asked to, place your opened baggage on the exam station. After the exam, you will be asked to repack and close your baggage.


You are allowed to bring home $800 worth of items per person duty-free in your luggage, once every 30 days (family members can combine their individual $800 exemptions on a joint declaration). The next $1,000 is taxed at a flat 3 percent. After that, you pay the individual item’s duty rate.

You can bring in duty-free one liter of alcohol, 200 cigarettes, and up to 100 non-Cuban cigars. Household effects intended for personal use, such as tableware and linens, are also duty-free.

Just because a duty-free shop in an airport sells a food or product, it doesn’t mean it will automatically pass US customs. Make sure you check the rules for that item before you fly.


How to Pay Customs Duty

If you owe Customs duty, you must pay it before the conclusion of your CBP processing. You may pay it in any of the following ways:

  • U.S. currency only.
  • Personal check in the exact amount, drawn on a U.S. bank, made payable to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. You must present identification, such as a passport or U.S. driver’s license. CBP does not accept checks bearing second-party endorsement.
  • Government check, money order or traveler’s check if the amount does not exceed the duty owed by more than $50.

In some locations you may be able to pay for duty with MasterCard or VISA credit cards.


Figuring out the Customs Rules

Some US Customs rules are definitive while others have several layers you will have to peel apart to find the true answer.  These rules may differ depending on which state you are entering through, as is the case with alcohol.  CBP will enforce the state’s law even if it is more restrictive than the federal regulations.


US Customs Regulations on Alcohol 

Alcohol is an example of how one item falls under more than one layer of Customs rules.

Alcoholic Beverages (per Customs and Duty information at CBP)

One American liter (33.8 fl. oz.) of alcoholic beverages may be included in your returning resident personal exemption if:

  • You are at least 21 years old.
  • It is intended exclusively for your personal use and not for sale.
  • It does not violate the laws of the state in which you arrive.

Federal and state regulations allow you to bring back one liter of an alcoholic beverage for personal use duty-free. However, states may allow you to bring back more than one liter, but you will have to pay any applicable Customs duty and IRT.


While federal regulations do not specify a limit on the amount of alcohol you may bring back beyond the personal exemption amount, unusual quantities may raise suspicions that you are importing the alcohol for other purposes, such as for resale.


If you return from Europe with two liters of liquor, one liter will be duty-free under your returning resident personal allowance/exemption. The other will be dutiable at 3 percent, plus any Internal Revenue Tax (IRT) that is due.

State of Michigan Regulations on alcohol

Importation of Alcoholic Beverages Into Michigan for Personal Consumption

Section 203 of the Michigan Liquor Control Code requires persons who wish to bring any type of alcoholic beverages in to the State of Michigan for personal consumption to obtain prior written approval of the Commission with the following exceptions:

A person of legal age who has been outside the U.S. territorial limits for at least 48 hours and has not brought alcoholic liquor into this state during the past 30 days, may bring up to one liter in to the state without prior approval (MCL 436.1203(7)).

My Interpretation of the State & Federal Regulations on Alcohol

So although the Federal guidelines do not specifically limit how much alcohol you can bring back (within reason), the state (Michigan in this instance) says you can only bring in 1 liter unless you obtain prior approval.  Since the State law trumps the Federal law in this instance, you can only legally bring in 1 liter.  You can see that it can be a bit complicated.

Remember this differs by State so check the rules for your State of arrival (which may not be the state you live in) before you go.  If that State allows you to bring back 2 liters of alcohol, you could based on the Federal allowances.  You would also get a free pass on Duty on the first liter, but would pay a 3% Duty on the second liter per the Federal Duty rules.

What Items Can You Bring Into The US?

Here is a short list of common items that you can and can’t bring into the US along with a link to the full list at the Customs and Border Patrol website.

Prohibited and Restricted Items

Food items can carry diseases or pests,  so they are strictly regulated. You may bring home vacuum-packed cheeses; dried herbs, spices, or mushrooms; and canned fruits or vegetables, including jams and vegetable spreads. Baked goods, candy, chocolate, oil, vinegar, mustard, and honey.  Fresh fruits and vegetables of any kind are not permitted. Meats are generally not allowed; however, canned meat is allowed if it doesn’t contain any beef, veal, lamb, or mutton.

So that fresh lemon my husband kept trying to hide from me in Italy would have gotten us in a whole heap of trouble at Customs.  Fortunately, I found and discarded it while packing.


Summing up the Process

Read up on Customs regulations if you plan to bring any items back with you from your international trip. If you are still unsure, you can consult the helpful CBP links I have included first to find out what rules may apply to that specific item.

US Customs & Border Protection

Understanding all the US Customs rules and regulations can sometimes be tricky  because they may have multiple layers or exceptions to the main rule.  Keeping receipts for any purchases is helpful when completing your declarations form.  Fill out your Customs declaration documents completely, correctly and honestly in order to avoid an issues when entering back into the US.  You would hate to have them confiscate any of your goodies.  Be polite and truthful with the Security Officer conducting your Customs Interview.  Appearing nervous, overly chatty or trying to make jokes with the officer can seem like red flags causing them to become suspicious of you.  Provide only the information they request to keep things simple and speed up the process.   Don’t freak out if they look through your bags, they are just doing there jobs.

Remember, if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about!  It’s just a process to keep everyone safe.


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Just an Art and History Nerd from MI Who Loves to Travel, Explore, Save Money, Share Tips, Enjoy the Best Foods & Adult Beverages🍷🥂🍸 Then Blog About It!