Important information for Americans about tax on items purchased abroad

Since several of our affiliates are planning shopping trips to Europe over the next year, we thought it important to make sure you have the absolute best information about taxation on your purchases.

In most cases, an individual is allowed to bring back $800 worth of goods purchased outside of the country without paying any kind of tax to bring it into the United States. So first of all, be sure to keep your receipts and have them handy when you go through customs. You may not be asked for receipts. But if an item is questioned, it’s a good idea to have your receipt for the purchase handy.

But then remember there are a long line of “ifs” and “unlesses” and “excepts” in that $800.

You can bring only one liter of alcohol and 200 cigarettes and 100 cigars. The cost of those are included in your $800 limit. But you cannot have more than those amounts of alcohol, cigarettes, or cigar. Oh, and cigars from Cuba are simply not allowed. More on that in a moment.

Other items that are not allowed to come into the United States from abroad are fruits, vegetables, plants, seeds, meat products, firearms, drug paraphernalia, and items from embargoed countries (like Cuban cigars). 

(You can see the full list of items that are not allowed to come into the U.S. on the U.S. Customs & Border Protection site.)

On the other hand, items from some countries qualify as duty-free (meaning you pay no U.S. tax on them no matter the dollar amount you paid) by treaty between nations. Items from Mexico, Canada, Chile, Singapore, Israel, and Jordan typically can come into the states duty-free. Items from most Caribbean countries, Andean countries, and sub-Saharan Africa also come in duty-free.

And if you have been abroad for more than a year and have been using a household item for more than a year in your home, like furniture, carpets, paintings, linens, that sort of thing, they almost always come into the U.S. duty-free as well. At least as long as you declare, under penalty of perjury, that you don’t intend to sell the item or to give it away as a gift once you come back into the United States with it.

Different rules apply in most cases if you are bring an item or items into the country for re-sale.

In addition to checking the disallowed item list we linked to above, we strongly suggest you read this great article from USA Today Everything you need to know before you go through U.S. Customs. It gives you even more information about what kind of payment forms are accepted in customs, and what to expect when going through the customs line.

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