Everyone entering the U.S. has to go through U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and that includes filling out a Customs Declaration form. The form — which is either distributed to passengers en route (such as by flight attendants) or available once you arrive — isn’t extensive, but it can be confusing. And when you’re coming off a long flight and just want to get home, you may be tempted to rush through it and include minimal information about what you might be bringing into the States in hope of getting out of the airport as quickly as possible. But that form serves an important purpose: “to collect customs duties if someone exceeds their personal allowance which is typically $800, and to watch for items that may be contraband — knives, for instance — or dangerous, such as foreign food or wood items that might be infected with dangerous plant pests,” said John M. Peterson, an international trade and Customs lawyer with Neville Peterson LLP. Completing the customs form incorrectly can lead to serious consequences. Here’s what you should know to avoid them:
You have to declare all food — even if it was purchased in the airport or on the airplane
The Customs Declaration form asks if you’re bringing any “fruits, vegetables, plants, seeds, food, [or] insects” into the country in order to prevent plant pests or insect infestation, Peterson noted. And the rules state that you really do need to declare everything — even if it’s an apple you bought on the airplane. “While the chances that something you buy in the airport or on a plane is not infested are high, Customs and APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) prefer not to take chances,” Peterson said. “If even a few pests get introduced into an agricultural area and multiple, they could cause millions of dollars worth of damage.”
He mentioned you’ll probably get to hang onto any pre-packaged snacks or food items, but fruits and vegetables are likely to get confiscated. “This is because many foreign locations may be vulnerable to dangerous plant pests that the government wants to keep out of the U.S.” And lest you think it’s worth the risk to breeze through without declaring your one piece of fruit, keep in mind that according to CNN, in 2018, a U.S. CBP agent in Colorado fined a woman $500 for failing to declare an apple she brought into the country. And per the CBP website, the fines and penalties for not declaring food products can be up to $10,000.
You have to declare all items purchased abroad, whether you’re carrying it home or shipping it to the U.S.
While each traveler has an aforementioned duty exemption, you still are required to declare anything you bought while abroad — whether it’s stationery, artwork, gifts, or even clothes you brought from home and had altered in a foreign country. “If you exceed your personal [duty] limit, there is usually a flat 10% duty rate...on the excess,” Peterson said. “It’s typically a revenue collection matter.”
The Customs Declaration form includes a prompt to list the items you purchased abroad, as well as their monetary value. Peterson said it’s a good idea to keep receipts, especially for expensive items, but if you don’t have them or don’t remember the exact cost of something, you can estimate it. “Customs doesn’t terribly mind if you buy a few dollars more in souvenirs than your personal allowance would cover,” he said. “The electronic declaration kiosks in use at most airports just ask whether you’re over your limit, and don’t ask you to list your purchases.”
Items you bought in a duty-free shop have to be declared, too.
Just because you bought something in the duty-free shop at the airport before hopping on your flight doesn’t mean it can go unmentioned on your declaration form — nor does it mean you won’t have to pay a tax on them. “These goods may be duty- and tax-free in the country where you purchased them, but they’re not necessarily duty free when they enter the United States,” Peterson said.
As noted on the CBP website, if the value of the items you bought in a duty-free shop exceeds your personal exemption, they’ll be subject to a fee.
You may need to talk to customs officers about what you’re bringing in
When you do bring food and other items into the U.S. from abroad, you may need to take a few additional steps before you can leave the airport. “Customs inspectors will ask followup questions,” Peterson said. “If you are importing commercial merchandise or exceed your allowable exemption, you may be shown to a cashier so that you can file a declaration and pay duties. Prohibited merchandise, such as fruits, vegetables and seeds, are likely to be taken away.”
But while these steps may take a bit of additional time, it doesn’t mean you’ll be held at the airport for hours on end. “Unless you’re carrying expensive or commercial goods, declaring ‘yes’ won’t materially delay your clearance,” Peterson said. “If your personal limit is $200 and you declare $250 in goods, my experience is that the Customs officer will usually just wave you through.” (Of course, you should be prepared to take those additional steps and pay the required fees.)
Being untruthful can lead to expensive penalties
While you may have to pay a fee for items you declare that exceed your personal exemption, that fee could be far greater if you get caught lying or omitting items (such as during a standard bag search). In addition to potentially being required to forfeit the items, Peterson noted you could be forced to pay extensive fines — like the $500 the aforementioned woman paid for her apple up to the potential $10,000 fine listed on the CBP website. Beyond that, your membership in a trusted traveler program like Global Entry could be at risk. “These programs require you to be absolutely truthful and correct in your declarations,” Peterson said. “Even small violations will get your enrollment in these programs revoked.” Indeed, the woman fined for the apple also lost her Global Entry status.
If something you failed to declare does get seized, Peterson said you have a right to petition for its return (by filing a claim and “defend[ing] a forfeiture action in court”), but your best bet is to just be honest from the start. “Don’t try to fool Customs; they’ve seen it all before,” Peterson said. “Above all, answer Customs’ questions honestly. If a Customs officer asks if you purchased an expensive ring abroad, and you falsely say ‘no,’ you’re not only likely to lose the ring, but you’ve just committed a false statement felony. ...Law enforcement officers may be understanding if you’re confused about your Customs obligations, but they absolutely hate being lied to.”