Customs Regulations for Foreign Travelers

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If you plan on traveling outside the U.S., and eventually returning after an extended stay abroad, chances are very good that you will want to bring some souvenirs and other items back with you.

It’s also very likely that subjects as exciting as American customs regulations are not the first thing on your mind. However, the United States has extensive laws and regulations concerning what can be brought into the country, whether the person bringing the items is a citizen or not.

Violation of customs regulations, such as bringing in contraband, or failing to make the required declarations for items you bring in, can lead to severe penalties, including six-figure fines, and prison terms of several years.

There are many types of items whose importation into the United States is prohibited, or strictly limited. And to be guilty of “importing” an illegal item, you don’t have to be in the importing business. Simply buying an item at a flea market (or anywhere else) overseas, and bringing it into the U.S. constitutes “importation” of the item, as far as the law is concerned.

Here are a few types of items that cannot be brought into the U.S.

Counterfeit Goods

Under U.S. trademark law, it’s illegal to import counterfeit goods, and Customs agents have a right to seize any counterfeit items that anyone attempts to bring into the U.S. Considering that inexpensive pirated movies, knockoffs of brand-name merchandise (like watches, clothing, handbags, and just about every other luxury consumer item you can think of) are often sold openly in many countries (usually poorer countries, largely in Asia and Eastern Europe), many American tourists are tempted to take advantage of the low prices offered for these items, knowing full well that they aren’t the genuine article.

Most people probably assume that the purchase of these items is just “technically” illegal, or falls into some type of legal gray area, and that, in any case, it couldn’t get them into legal trouble. This assumption is incorrect and dangerous, since bringing these items into the U.S. will, at the very least, result in their seizure, and could easily result in criminal charges, as well.

Non-Native Plants and Animals

The agricultural industry in the United States is one of the most productive in the world, and makes up a major chunk of America’s economy. So, for economic and environmental reasons, the U.S. government has a very strong interest in restricting the importation of live animals or plants, plant seeds, or pathogens, which might disrupt the ecosystem.

Invasive species in the United States cost private industry and the government nearly $140 billion per year. Much of this economic harm is in the form of reduced agricultural yields. As you can imagine, the government works very hard to reduce the chances of additional invasive organisms being introduced and causing even more damage.

Strong laws, enforced by fines and prison time, against the importation of such organisms are the main line of defense.

Items Bought in Cuba

Since the early 1960s, the United States has had a trade embargo against Cuba. This makes it very difficult for American citizens to travel to that country legally, and virtually impossible to legally purchase Cuban-made products. Even if you have traveled to Cuba legally, such as for religious, humanitarian, or educational purposes, you generally cannot bring any item bought in that country back to the U.S., including Cuban cigars.

Firearms, Drugs, and Other Contraband

Generally, anything that would be illegal to possess in the U.S. is also illegal to import. So, all illegal drugs are banned from being imported into the United States, and doing so can be punished by many years in prison. Also, it’s illegal to import most firearms for everyone except federally-licensed importers and dealers, even if these guns are legal to own in the U.S.

This article presents just a small example of the regulations you could run into when you return to the U.S. from your visit abroad. It is far from comprehensive, and if you bring a prohibited item into the U.S., ignorance of the law will be no excuse.

John Richards is a writer for and the Law Blog. The above article is for general informational purposes only, and should not be construed in any way as legal advice relevant to your particular situation. The only person qualified to give you legal advice is an attorney licensed to practice in your jurisdiction, who has been apprised of all the relevant facts of your situation.

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