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Updated 25 July 2015.
WHAT IS CUSTOMS?
When entering most countries around the world, after showing your passport to the armed border police, you are confronted by armed customs inspectors. They have nice pistols. "Do you have anything to declare?" is the vocabulary of these men and women. You're thinking, "Declare? What does that mean?" It means "Are you carrying anything for which you must pay a customs duty?"
Eh? What is a customs duty? Customs duty is a tax imposed on goods brought into a country. The customs inspector is there to ask questions, snoop through your goods, make a determination as to whether or not you should pay a tax, and to collect the tax. Sometimes the inspectors will accept baksheesh in lieu of the tax. Since the customs inspectors are packing heat and have a SWAT platoon on call and you only brought a pea shooter, this is not the time to put up a fight. Just do as ordered with a smile.
Sword or Firing Squad
The customs inspectors are also there to prevent entry of certain contraband. You know what I'm talking about. He can search your suitcases and pockets. His dog will walk all over your stuff, sniffing and sniffing and sniffing. I have witnessed this a number of times at border crossings in Europe. The customs officer will detain you if poochie finds anything illegal. Maybe you think that you are smarter than poochie? Well, maggots are smarter than you when it comes to finding food, and I have witnessed that also.
You've seen the movies and the news. Do not be a fool. If you hear the sargeant shout "Fire!" you are out of here. It reminds me of that movie, "Treasure of the Sierra Madre." The convicts had to dig their own holes befoe the final order. That movie has the best you'll ever see of Humphrey Bogart, or any other actor for that matter. He is the cream de la cream.
I over dramatised the firing squad paragraph. That stuff only happens in certain Islamic nations and North Korea. In Europe the rules and penalties are much softer, but still there are rules and penalties which can bring on severe collateral consequences.
The Green Door
On entering Europe and again at some border crossings, not many any more, you will be asked if you have anything to declare. Sometimes the question is asked in person and sometimes the traveler has a choice of passing through a gate marked NOTHING TO DECLARE (Green) or one marked SOMETHING TO DECLARE (Red). The signs at these gates indicate what must be declared. Unless you're carrying something that your mother would not approve of don't bother stopping to read. Just walk through the green door.
Border crossing formalities within the European Union have vanished. The borders are open and everybody and everything can pass through without control. The European Union includes most of western Europe. See Prime Travel Data: Elementary Travel Information for Europe for more information.
Traveling into eastern Europe is another ball game. Customs police are just as likely to search you when leaving as when you are coming in. It seems that the rules are what the border guard wants them to be. A little gift for the guard has been the rule for decades.
Smokers and Drinkers
If you are flying in from the USA or another non-EU nation it is good to know what you are allowed to bring in duty free. In general, the only items of concern to European Customs (a.k.a. Douane, Zoll, Toll, etc.) agents are alcoholic beverages, tobacco products, and perfumes. And in general the limits are one liter of distilled spirits or two liters of wine, 200 smokes, and two ounces of perfume. Check the web site for the customs service of the nations you are visiting for the latest information. Countries may have different limits, but unless you're carrying around a six pack of Scotch whiskey, don't worry about it. The "smokes" refers to regular cigarettes. Other types can land you in the local jailhouse.
Even before the borders were opened I made maybe 300 crossings by car, train, plane, and even foot. I never declared anything, and only had half a dozen episodes with customs police. On going through the green door entering Ireland, I was questioned for a moment by the guard. On entering Spain, my suitcase and briefcase were searched. Spain has had a problem with terrorists associated with the Basque nationalist movement for decades. Another event was on leaving France, not entering. On leaving the Ukraine both times I had minor delays. Entering Romania and Turkey presented inconveniences, as did a return to Italy by boat from Greece. These folks are just doing their job so make it easy for them and they will reciprocate.
At one time the French prohibited anyone from taking more than 5,000 francs out of the country without permission. I was asked several questions on a train, but two men from the Middle East were subjected to luggage and wallet searches. Other countries which had strict enforcement of laws against currency export were Italy, Portugal, and Greece. This is history now that these nations are part of the European Union and they all use the euro. At least they use the euro as of February 2015. It seems that the currency has changed but the idiot free spending politicians have not. Some of these countries had a chance of being booted out of the Euro Zone due to socialist mismanagement of their economies. Greece is still teetering on getting the boot. Introduction of the euro and bank cash machines have been the two best improvements in Europe since WWII.
Currency controls may still be in effect in some of the eastern countries. I once smuggled a pack of nice crisp 25 ruble notes out of the Ukraine. I'm sure the customs agent saw them in my briefcase on his high powered x-ray machine because he opened the briefcase and began a slow search. I handed him a cigarette lighter, one of those that my company gives away as an advertising item, and that was the end of the search. I still have that Lenin-face paper.
On leaving Romania, even though it is against the law to take any lei out of the country, the official exchange office would not accept their own stuff back. I had to change it at a motel in Hungary at a deep discount.
I was stopped by the customs police while leaving Hungary with more than their limit of cash. I talked my way out of that one by explaining that I had intended to buy some food on the train, but there wasn't any food available. That was the truth. Getting food at the station in Zagreb almost turned into a nightmare, as discussed in chapter 17, Night Trains in Europe: Sleeping City to City. But some Russians on our train from Budapest to Zagreb never made it to their vacation destination. Because they did not have the required minimum of $200 in western hard currency with them the Yugoslav customs police removed them from the train and sent them back to Hungary. The Hungarian rail workers on the platform were beaming with delight at the fate of the Russians. The bloody 1956 Russian invasion of Hungary is still remembered. The beginning of the student demonstrations on October 23 is marked as a national holiday. Russia sent in tanks, bombers, and troops. The citizens of Budapest were throwing Molotov cocktails onto Soviet tanks below their apartment windows. Thousands were murdered by the Russian communist army and a quarter million were relocated or imprisoned.
The United States has a cash and negotiable instruments limit for travelers. See the section $10,000 below.
All European governments can impose minimum financial requirements on visitors. If you do not have a return air ticket and/or money to support yourself you can be denied entry to any country. The local citizens do not want another free loader milking their generous welfare system.
Out in the Wild Wild East
Another fun encounter with customs agents happened when I left the Ukraine the first time. Exporting any kind of art was a no-no in the former Soviet Union. I had bought a painting directly from the artist in a Kiev metro station. You could still smell the paint it was so fresh. The customs officer picked up my painting to impound it. Protests of my hosts and a cigarette lighter in his palm changed the agent's interpretation of the law. I was allowed to leave Kyiv (formerly spelled Kiev) with the painting. It is now hanging in my hallway.
A year later they gave the trunk of my car a good look as I was driving out of the Ukraine, but nothing was found to cause a delay or require a payoff. I recall buying a rather unique sword somewhere in the east. It was buried under all the other stuff in the trunk of the car and the officer didn't find it.
While Elizabeth and I waited six hours at the Bulgarian - Romanian border we had time to talk with a number of other travelers. One fellow from Moldova demonstrated the correct way of avoiding curious questions and expediting your passage through eastern borders. He mounts a bottle of cheap perfume on the steering column just below the speedometer. The guard would just reach in, help himself, and wave the fellow through. I heard that it was Kent cigarettes in the old days.
UNITED STATES CUSTOMS
There is a difference in the treatment given to Americans by United States and by European customs agents. Americans are presumed to be tourists over there, and tourists are usually given a hearty welcome. Border inspections are rare and not especially thorough.
Coming home though, be prepared for more. Returning to the United States will probably be the most traumatic experience in your travels, thanks to Uncle Sam's Customs Service and so-called Homeland Security organization. These folks are very curious, and non-compromising.
Before You Go
To ease the shock of re-entry the Customs Service has produced several guides for international travelers. The page America's Gateway has links to their publications detailing many of the laws and regulations enforced at our borders. Unfortunately the handy PDF file titled "Know Before You Go: Regulations for International Travel by U.S. Residents" appears to have been discontinued. You will have to search through a number of on-line pages to find whatever interests you. Also, the Federal Government changes their web site so often that it is not convenient to find anything. Have patience and perseverance.
It would be nice if the State Department would print the old "Know Before You Go" pamphlet and send a copy every time they mailed out a passport.
I'll briefly summarize some of the information from the governmment Know Before You Go web page in the balance of this chapter. However, there are many exceptions to this general summation and the information seems to change frequently. So go to the web page and read the whole story from the original source.
On returning to the USA you must fill out the "Customs Declaration" form while still in the air. On this card you declare the value of everything purchased or given to you while outside the country, including used items. Even the value of repairs made on personal items is dutiable. No joke. I wonder if they charge duty on surgery you have done overseas. Budapest is reported to be a center of high quality and low cost dental work.
After having passed Passport Control you surrender your filled out "Customs Declaration" form and passport to the Customs agent. You will then be asked where you have been, why, and for how long, all the while being given the most unwelcome look-over you've had since the day you forgot your lunch money in first grade. Do not lose your cool.
One of the questions on the "Customs Declaration" asks if you are carrying foods and plants with you. If you answer yes the customs inspector will write a big A on your declaration and direct you to a line for further questioning by Agriculture Department inspectors. I missed the questioning phase on a return to Detroit because the Dutch cheese I had was in the bag that the airline lost. They weren't interested in the cigars I declared.
The general rule is that goods with a total value of up to $800 enter duty free. This is your personal exemption. Everything above that is assessed at approximately 3%. But be aware that your duty free alcohol allowance is one liter. If you bring back more than that you are assessed 3% plus Federal alcohol tax. There are other exceptions to the general rule so if you have something special in mind check with Customs before you come home with it. The duty on certain items from some countries in Europe is equal to the price you paid, in effect a 100% duty.
There are many things which are not admitted to the United States, and many other things on which there are restrictions. These are long lists, and subject to change by the Treasury Department and other federal agencies whenever they feel like it. Before going overseas, request copies of the current regulations. Items with important information are:
You will be surprised at the lists of restricted and prohibited items. It's better to be surprised by reading these web pages before you go. If you come home and proudly show the Customs inspector a valuable tourist trophy which happens to be on the prohibited list you will make his day.
Things change now and then. For example, Executive Order 12959, stated that as of May 6, 1995 the United States prohibits U.S citizens from purchasing goods made in Iran. This order specifically mentions those beautiful carpets and the prohibition also applies to American citizens living outside the USA. I guess that former President Bill Clinton intended to have the FBI go into every bedroom of every American around the world looking for carpets and their certificates of origin? And don't forget, President Kennedy's prohibition on Cuban cigars is still in effect 50 years later. He and his buddies stocked up before he signed the order. Doesn't our government have anything better to do?
Anyway, when you're in Istanbul shopping in the Bazaar check the labels. Don't believe it when the seller tells you that a fake receipt will fool US Customs inspectors. Maybe not.
Customs will seize personal computers and software which violate United States trademark and copyright laws. CDs made in communist China containing tens of thousands of dollars worth of software are on sale in many places for less than $20 each. These CDs violate US and all international copyright laws. The CDs can be seized by any customs official.
Music CDs and DVDs can also be confiscated if they violate US copyright laws. Music CDs will apparently work in any CD player. However, DVDs sold in some countries can be played only on DVD players sold in that country or region. There are six DVD regions in the world. European DVDs will not work in American DVD players. See the discussion of this topic in the TV section of chapter 22 part 1, Moving to Europe: Things to Know Before You Go.
Avoiding Double Duty
Some of the things you packed and brought with you overseas were made outside the USA. For example, most cameras are made in Japan or another Asian country. If you do not present evidence that foreign-made items which you already own were purchased in the United States, or that duty has already been paid, you might be required to pay duty a second time when you come home.
Carry the original receipts for all foreign-made articles which you own. If you do not have the original receipt for a foreign item purchased in the United States, or for which you have previously paid duty, fill out a Customs declaration form before you leave the United States. The declaration can be made at the customs office in any international airport.
If you are planning tight connections before boarding for Europe, contact Customs beforehand to find out where this can be done near your home. Only items with serial numbers can be registered. Cameras, camera lenses, and most electronic items have serial numbers. If you can't find the s/n on the back, look inside the battery housing.
Go Directly To Jail
Attempting to bring contraband home is foolish. At the very least, the stuff will be confiscated when found. Depending on the item, possession may land you in the federal slammer, right now.
If you declare an item at less than you paid for it, be ready to be found out. Customs agents see thousands of items in a week. They know the prices as surely as your mother knows the price of lettuce. Some famous citizens have been caught making false declarations and have paid magnificent fines according to news reports. US Customs says that it seizes a million dollars in cash and two tons of drugs, every day. They confiscate plenty of other stuff also, and send a lot of people to jail. Do not be stupid.
Your Laptop Computer
As of January 2014 a Federal Court has approved continuing searches of personal computers coming into the United States. The Customs Service can take control of your machine for minutes or months and have their way with it. If the NSA hasn't already secured all your personal business in their fat computers they will have the opportunity now.
How do you deal with the possibility of being without your computer when it falls into the hands of a government agency? The answer is simple — backup. Have a backup of all your files on a flash drive. Bring it with you from the United States so you are not required to declare the flash drive when you return. I know a guy who carries a few of them on a neck chain under his shirt. You don't get a body frisk or scan when you return to the USA, at least not yet.
Even though United States Federal law allows wine, beer, and liquor to be imported, all states have their own laws on import of alcoholic beverages. Many of these laws are more restrictive than the Federal law which allows one liter of alcohol duty free, if you are at least 21 years of age. United States Customs enforces state alcohol laws. General information on these laws is presented in one of the United States Customs web pages linked above.
Also, call your state alcoholic beverage control board and get specifics before you go if you plan to purchase a case of wine. If your return flight lands in another state you must satisfy the law of that state when clearing Customs. Some states prohibit importation of all alcohol, without exceptions.
When entering and leaving the United States, there are other restrictions by various Federal agencies which are enforced by the Customs Service. Customs says that it enforces some 4,000 laws administered by 40 federal agencies.
One of the regulations is on money. If you are taking more than $10,000 in currency or negotiable instruments out of the country our Big Brother in Washington wants to know all about it. There are no limits on what you can bring (this can change) but you must file a report with the Treasury Department if you have more than ten grand in your pockets. You must also file a report if you are coming home with more than $10,000. If you are over the mark and do not declare it Customs will put it in their pocket. As noted above, the Customs service brags about how much money they confiscate every day.
This law was put into effect ostensibly to stop the flow of money attributed to illegal drug trafficking. Are they serious? Anybody who can smuggle drugs into the country can surely smuggle money out. Why don't they just let the grass be grown at home and help our balance of trade? This is a no-brainer. Colorado, Washington, and Alaska citizens have their mind straight on this issue, and business is booming. Not only do these states collect sales tax and income tax on profits and wages of legal grass growers, they also save on the costs of arresting, prosecuting, and jailing folks who want to have a friendly joint now and then. Is everybody else totally clueless? By the way, I don't toke and haven't even seen a joint in decades, except in Amsterdam. I am a wine guy.
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