If you are tapped for a personal search, Customs officers have the right to conduct a pat down search (and, in only the most extreme cases, a more thorough inspection that might require disrobing). These searches must be done with the approval of a supervisor with two officers present during the search, and officers of the opposite sex may not search you.
Finally, if you miss a connection flight because you were delayed in Customs, you cannot take action against the federal government. Most airlines will put you on the next available flight without penalty if you explain the reason for your delay.
Customs regulations give you a personal exemption to bring up to $800 worth of purchases or gifts when you return to the United States without paying any duties, taxes, or penalties. The exemption decreases to $600 if you are returning from one of the following Latin American or Caribbean nations: Antigua and Barbuda, Aruba, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, British Virgin Islands, Costa Rica, Dominica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Grenada, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Jamaica, Montserrat, Netherlands Antilles, Nicaragua, Panama, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, or Trinidad and Tobago. The exemption increases to $1,200 if your destination was a U.S. insular possession such as American Samoa, Guam, or the U.S. Virgin Islands.
To qualify for this exemption, you must:
- have the items in your carryon or checked baggage;
- list the items on your Customs form;
- have traveled outside the United States more than fortyeight hours (the exception is travel to Mexico);
- have items for your personal or household use; and,
- not have used your personal exemption within the past thirty days.
Keep your sales slips in the event that you are questioned about the actual value of any item.
Limitations and Duties
Certain items carry additional limitations. For example, you can include in your personal exemption no more than 100 cigars or 200 cigarettes and no more than one liter of alcohol. These items may not be included by minors in their exemptions. You may have to pay federal excise taxes or state and local sales taxes on them even if they are exempted from Customs duties.
Also, you may bring back with you free of duty any belongings that you purchased in the U.S. To avoid confusion at the Customs station when you return home with your own video camera, laptop computer, jewelry, or other valuables, you should carry your purchase receipts with you if possible and register these items with Customs (Form CF 4457) before you depart the United States at the beginning of your trip.
Know Before You Go
Items purchased at the dutyfree shop are free of duty only in the country where the shop is located. When you return to the U.S., that perfume or those sunglasses will be subject to Customs duties. (Beware of the markups at dutyfree shops, too—you can usually find better bargains at discount shops in your final destination.)