DUTY FREE LIMITS
In late 2002 the US government increased the value in the amount of goods you can bring back into the country from Mexico. Before the increase the value was only a couple of hundred dollars. Now each person traveling can bring back up to $800 worth of goods if the items purchased are for personal use or consumtion.
It is important to understand how the duty free limit fits in with any items you may have purchased at a "Duty Free" shop in Mexico. These items are not exempted from the duty limit when you cross back into the United States. They were just exempt from duty when they were bought by the store that is selling the items. The value of these items must be included in your total value of $800 per person.
People who are big shoppers often like to travel with others who are not big shoppers so they can split up the declaration of the total purchases to keep the individual limits under $800 per person. It's a common practice that usually doesn't raise too many eyebrows with the Customs folks. They've usuallt got bigger fish to fry, unless you are really pushing the envelope.
WHAT TO DECLARE
If you are bringing more than $800 worth of goods back into the country you are supposed to declare that information to the customs official on the US Customs Form that your air carrier gives you. You will probably be taxed on the amount over $800.
If you are bringing back cash in excess of $10,000 the good folks at the Customs department what to know about it. It is not illegal to bring more than $10,000 into the US, but it is illegal not to declare it.
Important items to declare, regardless of value, include food and plants. If you are bringing meats, fruits, vegetables, plants, animals or plant and animal products they want to know about it. Declaring these items does not necessarily mean that they will be confiscated by the US Customs department or that you will be fined. Many items are allowed into the US but the Customs official just want to be in the loop.
For more information on bringing food items into the US visit the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspections Service web site.
Along with many other changes that have taken place since 9/11 the US government has upped the fines for Customs violations. Fines can run from several hundred dollars for minor violations to over a thousand dollars for some larger violations.
Individual Customs inspectors have a fair amount of discretion when it comes to setting fines for various violations. Country bumpkins who unintentionally forget to declare small items may be let go, while people who appear to be intentially avoiding necessary declarations or concealing items may receive stiff fines.
Enforcement tools used by the US Customs service include X-Ray machines, trained dogs, and the trained eyes of the customs officials. There are probably other tools that we don't even know about. Your best bet is to stay legal and keep it safe.
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