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Travel Tip Tuesday | Customs Duty

What is A Customs Duty

When returning to the United States after an international guided tour there is a good chance that you have made a few purchases. There is always that moment on the plane when the steward or stewardess comes around with a U.S. Custom Declaration Form and, you sit in your seat wondering exactly what items you have to declare.  The short and easy answer is that you have to declare every item that you didn’t have when you left the United States.

Dutiable refers to articles on which Customs Duty may have to be paid. Each article has a specific duty rate, which is determined by a number of factors, including where you acquired the article, where it was made, and what it is made of. Also, anything you bring back that you did not have when you left the United States must be “declared.” For example, you would declare alterations made in a foreign country to a suit you already owned, and any gifts you acquired outside the United States. American Goods Returned (AGR) do not have to be declared, but you must be prepared to prove to U.S. Customs and Border Protection the articles are AGR or pay Customs duty.

Photo Courtesy of the CBP.

The Customs Duty Rate is a percentage. This percentage is determined by the total purchased value of the article(s) paid at a foreign country and not based on factors such as quality, size, or weight. The Harmonized Tariff System (HTS) provides duty rates for virtually every existing item. CBP uses the Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States Annotated (HTSUS), which is a reference manual that provides the applicable tariff rates and statistical categories for all merchandise imported into the U.S.

The flat duty rate will apply to articles that are dutiable but that cannot be included in your personal exemption, even if you have not exceeded the exemption. For example, alcoholic beverages. If you return from Europe with $200 worth of purchases, including two liters of liquor, one liter will be duty-free under your returning resident personal allowance/exemption. The other will be dutiable at 3 percent, plus any Internal Revenue Tax (IRT) that is due.

A joint declaration is a Customs declaration that can be made by family members who live in the same household and return to the United States together. These travelers can combine their purchases to take advantage of a combined flat duty rate, no matter which family member owns a given item. The combined value of merchandise subject to a flat duty rate for a family of four traveling together would be $4,000. Purchase totals must be rounded to the nearest dollar amount.


If you owe Customs duty, you must pay it before the conclusion of your CBP processing. You may pay it in any of the following ways:

  • U.S. currency only.
  • Personal check-in the exact amount, drawn on a U.S. bank, made payable to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. You must present identification, such as a passport or U.S. driver’s license. CBP does not accept checks bearing second-party endorsement.
  • Government check, money order, or traveler’s check if the amount does not exceed the duty owed by more than $50.

We hope that this information on what a customs duty is helps you navigate this process. If you have any questions they best place to begin is U.S. Customs and Border Protection.