U.S. Duty Free Policy (Update)

How much can I bring back to the U.S. duty-free?

There is a lot of confusion about bringing back purchases from foreign countries duty free, especially liquor and tobacco, how much and from where. The following is from the web site of U.S. Customs:

Duty-Free Exemption

The duty-free exemption, also called the personal exemption, is the total value of merchandise you may bring back to the United States without having to pay duty. You may bring back more than your exemption, but you will have to pay duty on it. In most cases, the personal exemption is $800 ($1,600 from U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, or Guam). There are limits on the amount of alcoholic beverages, cigarettes, cigars, and other tobacco products you may include in your duty-free personal exemption. The differences are explained in the section below regarding alcohol.

The duty-free exemption (Generally $800) applies if:

– The items are for your personal or household use or intended to be given as gifts.

-They are in your possession, that is, they accompany you when you return to the United States. Items to be sent later may not be included in your $800 duty-free exemption. (Exceptions apply for goods sent from Guam or the U.S. Virgin Islands.)

– They are declared to Customs and Boarder Patrol CBP. If you do not declare something that should have been declared, you risk forfeiting it. If in doubt, declare it.

– You are returning from an overseas stay of at least 48 hours. For example, if you leave the United States at 1:30 p.m. on June 1, you would complete the 48-hour period at 1:30 p.m. on June 3. This time limit does not apply if you are returning from Mexico or from the U.S. Virgin Islands.

– You have not used all of your exemption allowance, or used any part of it, in the past 30 days. For example, if you go to England and bring back $150 worth of items, you must wait another 30 days before you are allowed another $800 exemption.

How much alcohol can I bring back?

How much alcohol can I bring back from a U.S. insular possession (U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, or Guam) duty-free?

As long as the amount does not exceed what that state considers a personal quantity*, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will allow you to enter the U.S. with up to five liters of alcohol duty-free as part of you exemption – as long as at least four liters were purchased in the insular possession (U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa or Guam), and at least one of them is a product of that insular possession. Additional bottles will be subject to a flat duty rate of 1.5% and subject to Internal Revenue Service taxes.

Please note, only one liter of alcohol purchased in a cruise ship’s duty-free shop is eligible for a duty-free exemption. If at least one bottle purchased on board is the product of an eligible Caribbean Basin country**, then you will be allowed two liters duty free. If you buy five liters of alcohol in – say – the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI), and one of them is the product of the USVI, then you would have reached your duty-free limit. Any additional purchases made on board in a duty-free shop would be subject to CBP duty and an IRS tax.

If you buy four bottles in the USVI, one of which is a product of the USVI, then you could purchase one additional bottle from the onboard duty-free, and it would be eligible for duty-free entry.

If you have not exceeded your duty free exemption, you are no longer required to complete a customs declaration. As you pass through immigration you will be questioned about your purchases. If they include alcohol, be sure to have your purchase receipts readily available. The Officer may want to see them as proof of where the purchases were made. Place of purchase as well as quantity determine whether duty and taxes will be charged.

* Most States restrictions on the amount of alcohol that can be brought into that State apply only to residents of that State. Usually people transiting a state are not subject to those restrictions, but sometimes regulations change, and if this is a matter of utmost importance to you, you can check with the state Alcohol Beverage Control Board where you will be arriving to find out what their policies are.

** Most Caribbean Basin countries are considered beneficiary countries for purposes of this exemption. (Anguilla, Caymen Islands, Guadeloupe, Martininque and Turks and Caicos are not eligible)

Tobacco products allowance

In accordance with 26 U.S.C. § 5702(c), “tobacco products” means cigars, cigarettes, smokeless tobacco (snuff or chewing tobacco), pipe tobacco, and roll-your-own tobacco.

Returning resident travelers may import tobacco products only in quantities not exceeding the amounts specified in the personal exemptions for which the traveler qualifies (not more than 200 cigarettes and 100 cigars if arriving from other than a beneficiary country and insular possession).

Once every 31 days, a resident returning from travel from American Samoa, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), or the Virgin Islands of the United States may import 1,000 cigarettes (5 cartons), not more than 200 of which acquired elsewhere than in such locations, within the returning resident’s $1,600 exemption from duty and taxes.

 

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St. Thomas USVI, An American Paradise

St. Thomas was the very first Caribbean island I ever visited and that was over fifty years ago. Over the next couple of years I had reason to go back often and even today I get back to St. Thomas every couple of years. I also frequently return to those times on St. Thomas in my daydreams.

Frenchman’s reef

Back in those days a fifth of Cruzan or Brugal rum sold for 85¢ and it seemed like duty free was really almost free. The waterfront was packed with small island freighters advertising for cargo to places like Antigua, St. Lucia, Barts, Montserrat and other exotic islands. The beach at Megan’s Bay was so beautiful and often almost empty and it seemed to cast a spell over locals and tourists alike. Even so my favorite spot was a sandy cove east of Charlotte Amalie around a point of land. The beach was Morning Star with a great patio bar, changing rooms with lockers and a half dozen rooms right on the sand. The reef itself was a moderate swim from the shore and I spent hours floating over its coral heads – it was my first encounter with snorkeling a coral reef and I have been enchanted by them ever since.

Alley running up from the waterfront

Back in the sixties Charlotte Amalie was a vibrant town with a good nightlife and included a great club called Lion In The Sun. There were a number of talented musicians that played there including The Mamas and Papas before they became famous. On the waterfront was a cafe bar called The Green House where John Updike wrote a short story for The New Yorker titled In A Bar In Charlotte Amalie and it was a popular spot to sit and have a drink or two and watch people and boat traffic glide by. For a special evening we would end up at The Caribbean Hilton sitting high above town. I remember sitting out on the pool deck with a drink in hand and looking at the million lights of St. Thomas defining the shape of the island below. Off in the distance the few lights of St. John and the British Virgin Islands seemed to blend in the stars lighting up the night sky. Way off in the distance was the glow from the lights of Puerto Rico.

Morningstar beach

Much has changed since those days but a lot remains the same. Megans Bay is still one of the world’s best beaches. The Green House is still there but maybe a bit more refined. A massive complex has taken over Morning Star called Frenchman’s Reef Resort but the original beach and reef are still there. Blackbeard’s Castle Resort has become the new destination with its nearness to town with a cablecar riding up the hill from Havensight. No longer do island boats pick up freight on the waterfront and the duty free liquor and shopping aren’t exactly a steal anymore but they are still worthwhile. There is still much to recommend this island.

St. Croix is actually the largest Virgin island but it’s St. Thomas that attracts the crowds to the beach resorts, shopping and nightlife. In fact it is the central port for most eastern Caribbean cruise itineraries. The cruise ships visit and tie up at either Crown Bay east of Charlotte Amalie or The West Indian Company Dock next to Havensight just to the west of town. Getting into town from the Crown Bay, which used to be referred to as the Sub Base area, will require a taxi or one of the tourist buses unique to St. Thomas (currently $4 per person each way from either dock). There is a great walking trail along the water from the docks near Havensight, which goes thru the shops of Yacht Haven and into town. Yacht Haven is an upscale marina with a number of designer shops along with cafes, bars and a good grocery store. It’s also from Havensight where you catch the cablecar up to Blackbeard’s Castle Resort for a drink and to take in the views.

Megan’s Bay

In Charlotte Amalie the main downtown stretches about ten blocks east from the fort along the waterfront. The waterfront road is Veterens Highway and one block up is Kronprindsens Gade with dozens of alleys and streerts connecting the two. When in town take a walk down Creque’s Alley immortalized by the Mamas and Papas in their song by the same name. Stroll down the ten blocks of Kronprindsens Gade for some good duty free shopping or visit the shops, cafes and galleries in the many alleys with names like Drakes Passage. Because of treaties from the time the United States purchased the Virgin Islands, St. Thomas and St. Croix still feature some of the best “duty free” shopping in the islands. The best duty free buys are European goods like Lladro, Rosenthal, Rolex, Dior, L’Occitane as well as duty free liquor where each person can bring back 5 liters duty free to the U.S. (see customs information here).

Frenchman’s Reef Resort

Take some time to get over to the far side of the island to visit Megan’s Bay, which is consistently named one of the world’s ten best beaches. My old favorite, Frenchman’s Reef beach is still a good choice and the reef is still there. The Frenchman’s Reef resort is also an excellent selection as a place to stay. We would also recommend a visit to the sea life park, Coral World, especially if you have younger children with you.

Docks near Havensight

You can also take a ferry  over to St. Johns for the day. St. Johns is the other US Virgin Island and is mostly preserved as a National Park. If you go, don’t forget your beach gear, mask and snorkel as St. John is famous for Trunk Bay with its beach and its laid out snorkeling trails. The shortest route is between Red Hook on St.Thomas and Cruz Bay on StJohn. That trip costs only $6.00 each way, takes approximately 20 minutes and runs hourly between 6:00 am and Midnight. A longer ferry route runs from downtown Charlotte Amalie to Cruz Bay on StJohn.



Hurricane Update: We stopped in St. Thomas just this January and while on the surface the island seems to be ready for business and is enjoying the return of the cruise liners there is still much that needs to be done. Unfortunately if you are planning on traveling there for a visit you need to be cautious. Many of the hotels are still closed and many that are open are booked by people from FEMA and construction companies. Attractions like Coral World and some water excursions will also need more time to be ready for visitors. While there are plenty of jewelry stores and duty free shops offering special deals just to bring shoppers back, there are a number of shortages that become quickly apparent. St. Thomas has always been famous for its duty free liqueur prices and its extra duty free allowance from U.S. Custom, but as of January, a number of famous outlets are not yet open and prices may not offer any real advantage over stateside prices.

Duty Free Exemptions

How much can I bring back to the U.S. duty-free? NEW UPDATE

There is a lot of confusion about bringing back purchases from foreign countries duty free, especially liquor and tobacco, how much and from where. The following is from the web site of U.S. Customs:

Duty-Free Exemption

The duty-free exemption, also called the personal exemption, is the total value of merchandise you may bring back to the United States without having to pay duty. You may bring back more than your exemption, but you will have to pay duty on it. In most cases, the personal exemption is $800 ($1,600 from U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, or Guam). There are limits on the amount of alcoholic beverages, cigarettes, cigars, and other tobacco products you may include in your duty-free personal exemption. The differences are explained in the section below regarding alcohol.

The duty-free exemption (Generally $800) applies if:

– The items are for your personal or household use or intended to be given as gifts.

-They are in your possession, that is, they accompany you when you return to the United States. Items to be sent later may not be included in your $800 duty-free exemption. (Exceptions apply for goods sent from Guam or the U.S. Virgin Islands.)

– They are declared to Customs and Boarder Patrol CBP. If you do not declare something that should have been declared, you risk forfeiting it. If in doubt, declare it.

– You are returning from an overseas stay of at least 48 hours. For example, if you leave the United States at 1:30 p.m. on June 1, you would complete the 48-hour period at 1:30 p.m. on June 3. This time limit does not apply if you are returning from Mexico or from the U.S. Virgin Islands.

– You have not used all of your exemption allowance, or used any part of it, in the past 30 days. For example, if you go to England and bring back $150 worth of items, you must wait another 30 days before you are allowed another $800 exemption.

How much alcohol can I bring back?

How much alcohol can I bring back from a U.S. insular possession (U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, or Guam) duty-free?

As long as the amount does not exceed what that state considers a personal quantity*, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will allow you to enter the U.S. with up to five liters of alcohol duty-free as part of your $1,600 exemption – as long as at least four liters were purchased in the insular possession, and at least one of them is a product of that insular possession. Additional bottles will be subject to a flat duty rate of 1.5% and subject to Internal Revenue Service taxes.

Please note, only one liter of alcohol purchased in a cruise ship’s duty-free shop is eligible for a duty-free exemption, although if at least one bottle purchased on board is the product of an eligible Caribbean Basin country**, then you will be allowed two liters duty free. If you buy five liters of alcohol in – say – the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI), and one of them is the product of the USVI, then you would have reached your duty-free limit. Any additional purchases made on board in a duty-free shop would be subject to CBP duty and IRS tax.

If you buy four bottles in the USVI, one of which is a product of the USVI, then you could purchase one additional bottle from the onboard duty-free, and it would be eligible for duty-free entry.

* Most States restrictions on the amount of alcohol that can be brought into that State apply only to residents of that State. Usually people transiting a state are not subject to those restrictions, but sometimes regulations change, and if this is a matter of utmost importance to you, you can check with the state Alcohol Beverage Control Board where you will be arriving to find out what their policies are.

** Most Caribbean Basin countries are considered beneficiary countries for purposes of this exemption. (Anguilla, Caymen Islands, Guadeloupe, Martininque and Turks and Caicos are not eligible)

Tobacco products allowance

In accordance with 26 U.S.C. § 5702(c), “tobacco products” means cigars, cigarettes, smokeless tobacco (snuff or chewing tobacco), pipe tobacco, and roll-your-own tobacco.

Returning resident travelers may import tobacco products only in quantities not exceeding the amounts specified in the personal exemptions for which the traveler qualifies (not more than 200 cigarettes and 100 cigars if arriving from other than a beneficiary country and insular possession).

Once every 31 days, a resident returning from travel from American Samoa, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), or the Virgin Islands of the United States may import 1,000 cigarettes (5 cartons), not more than 200 of which acquired elsewhere than in such locations, within the returning resident’s $1,600 exemption from duty and taxes.