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Customs Regulations for U.S. Residents

Frequently Asked Questions FAQ / before you leave / when you return

Frequently Asked Questions FAQ

1. Q: What documents do I need to travel to another country or be readmitted into the United States?
A: You must check with your designation country's embassy or consulate to find out which documents are required to enter their country.

To reenter the United States you generally must have a passport or proof of residency. Please contact the Immigration and Naturalization Service for specific information.

2. Q: How do I apply for a passport?
A: Passports are issued by the Bureau of Consular Affairs, U.S. Department of State.

3. Q: I am here on a Visa. Can I leave and come back into the United States?
A: There are many types of visas issued to visitors to the United States. Each visa has certain restrictions placed on it. The Office of Consular Affairs has general information about travel restrictions associated with each visa. The Immigration and Naturalization Service is the agency that enforces those restrictions. If you believe you have a situation that is not covered by the general guidelines, you should contact them for more information.

4. Q: What can I take into France, China, etc.?
A: Each country's laws are different. Check with the nearest consulate office for information on a particular country that you will be visiting. The airlines that fly to the country you are interested in may also be of assistance.

5. Q: How can I get my VAT refunded?
A: As a general rule, you must obtain your VAT (value added tax) refund as you are leaving the country where you paid VAT as part of the purchase price of an item. Most countries will not refund the tax after you have departed their country. In some cases, embassies in the United States will assist you in applying for a refund from the country they represent, although they will require proof that the item you purchased in their country was exported to the United States. If you want a VAT refund, you should plan on extra time at the airport or land border departure point to have the refund paperwork processed.

The United States does not have a VAT or other federal tax on goods and services. Many travelers to the United States mistake state taxes for VAT, and wrongly assume they can be refunded. There is no refund for taxes on goods and services purchased in the United States.

Many countries have a sales tax which they term Value Added Tax (VAT). Visitors to these countries can obtain refunds by mail for the VAT they pay in the stores if they have the proper form stamped by Customs at the airport. Many American tourists understand this requirement to mean that U.S. Customs Service is the validating agency. This is not true. The only agency that can validate a VAT form is an agency of the country where the purchase was made. The visitor must allow extra time before departing to have their form stamped. Some countries have kiosks in the airport for this purpose. In others, the visitor must seek out the Customs office.

If a traveler has returned to the U.S. without having their form stamped, some countries, like Ireland, have a procedure to assist them in obtaining a refund. Others, such as Italy, have no alternative but to return to their country within a specific time frame with both the form and the purchase. Travelers with additional questions should contact the tourism office of the country they visited. These offices can be found by contacting the appropriate embassy in Washington, or the consular office that some countries have in major cities.

6. Q: Why Was I Charged Duty on My Duty-free Purchases?
A: Many travelers are confused by the term "duty-free" as it relates to merchandise they buy in duty-free shops.

Buying an item in a duty-free shop does not mean that you will not have to pay duty on the item when you take it into your destination country. It only means that the item you are buying does not reflect the cost of duty or taxes that would have been added to the item if it had been formally imported into the country where the duty-free shop is located.

Duty-free shops are shops where taxes on commercial goods are neither collected by a government, nor paid by an importer. An English-made wool sweater purchased in a clothing store in Germany may cost you $250.00, a price that includes the duty and taxes that the importer paid to import it. The same sweater purchased in a duty-free shop may only cost $225.00. That's because as long as the sweater stays in the duty-free shop, or exits the country with the purchaser, it has not been formally imported into the country. There has been no duty charged on the sweater, and the duty-free shop owner has been able to pass that savings on to you. Its price is free of duty, or "duty-free".

Now, when you bring that same sweater back home with you to the U.S., you may have to pay duty on the sweater if you exceed your personal exemption.

7. Q: Why Did U.S. Customs Take My Food?
A: Because Customs inspectors are stationed at ports of entry and along our land and sea borders, they are often called upon to enforce laws and requirements of other Government agencies. This is done to protect community health, preserve domestic plant and animal life, etc.

Most fruits and vegetables are either prohibited from entering the United States or require an import permit. Every fruit or vegetable must be declared to the Customs officer and must be presented for inspection, no matter how free of pests it appears to be. Failure to declare all food products can result in civil penalties. Meats, livestock, poultry, and their by-products are either prohibited or restricted from entering the United States, depending on the animal disease condition in the country of origin. Fresh meat is generally prohibited from most countries. Canned, cured, or dried meat is severely restricted from most countries. Bakery items and all cured cheeses are generally admissible. You should contact the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Animal Plant Health Inspection Services for more detailed information.

8. Q: How Can I Prove I Didn't Buy My Watch/Camera During My Trip Outside the United States?
A: Foreign-made personal articles taken abroad are subject to duty each time they are brought back into the United States unless you have acceptable proof of prior possession. Documents which fully describe the article, such as a bill of sale, insurance policy, jeweler's appraisal, or receipt for purchase, may be considered reasonable proof of prior possession.

Items such as watches, cameras, compact disc players, or other articles which may be readily identified by a permanently affixed serial number or marking, may be taken to the Customs office nearest you and registered before your departure. The Certificate of Registration (CF 4457) that you will be given will expedite the free entry of these items when you return. Keep the certificate as it is valid for as long as you own the article(s).