In November 2002 cruise passengers who love to shop received some good news--the duty-free exemption was raised from the standard $400 per person to $800 per person. However, for some Caribbean countries the duty-free exemption is now $600, and for others it is $1,200. No wonder many of us find these regulations confusing! What does this all mean?
When you reenter the United States via cruise ship, airplane, or vehicle, you will be asked to complete a form declaring (listing) all items you are bringing back into the U.S. that you did not have when you left. Any purchases above the duty-free exemption, whether it is $600, $800, or $1,200, are subject to a duty, which is simply a tax on imported goods. Shops that advertise as duty-free only mean that you do not pay the tax at the shop--you will still have to include your purchases in your declaration.
For example, you purchase a gold ring in Italy for $1,500. If this is your only purchase, you will have to pay duty tax on $700 ($1,500-$800). The approximate duty on the ring will be $21 (3 percent of $700). These rules get more complex depending on where you have made your purchases and what items you have bought. The best rule is to keep a running total of what you have purchased and where you bought it. Be sure to keep all receipts in your carry-on bags so that you can provide them to the Customs inspectors if requested.
The Customs inspection process is held after you retrieve your checked baggage at an airport. Although the Customs inspectors come on board a cruise ship before disembarkation to meet with all passengers who have exceeded their exemption limit or have something to declare, sometimes the inspectors will also select persons in the cruise ship terminal and inspect their baggage there. Usually the process is easier at a cruise terminal than at an airport, only because you often have to retrieve your checked luggage and then recheck it if you entering the U.S. at other than your home airport.
The Customs regulations for liquor, tobacco and certain other goods complicate the process. The best thing to do is check out the information for travelers on the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Website at "Know Before You Go".
The fourth type of U.S. government inspection is the easiest if you just DON'T bring home any fresh fruits and vegetables or meat products. If you plan to bring back home any type of food products, check with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Inspection Service(USDA), which lists what you can and cannot bring. This inspection is very important, and the USDA can list many examples of travelers who inadvertently brought diseases such as the Mediterranean fruit fly or hoof and mouth disease into the U.S.
I'm embarrassed to say that this is the one inspection that I "failed". A few years ago I was returning from Paris, and my first port of entry was the Detroit Airport. I was randomly selected for the "special agricultural inspection". I had listed on my declaration form that I was not bringing any fruits or vegetables into the U.S. However, when the inspector opened my carry-on bag, he quickly pulled out a BANANA that had been given to us on the airplane with our snack! Unthinkingly, I had put the offending fruit in my bag and promptly forgot it. Fortunately for me the inspector just laughed and threw the fruit into a large garbage can full of similar items. I wasn't the only offender that day, but knowing that did not make me feel much better.
Traveling outside of the United States is interesting and worthwhile. I find it makes me appreciate world history, geography, and anthropology much more than when I studied it in school. Don't let the government red tape scare you off from cruise travel. Just be patient and informed about the various inspections and regulations. Study before you go, enjoy spending your duty exemption, and don't bring home any forbidden food products!
Let's look at some tips for travelers from the U.S. Customs. Service.
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