APIS - What's That?
If you don't break the law when you return from your Caribbean cruise by telling lies about the value of your purchases, then you won't be concerned about the introduction of APIS, the Advanced Passenger Information System, to U.S. cruiseports. APIS has already been in effect in U.S. airports in recent years, and is a computerized system of "flagging" likely culprits.
Naturally, the U.S. Customs Service is pretty tight-lipped on what information gets fed into the computer base, although they have let on that managers of gift shops on cruise ships must submit a "big spender" list to the Customs Service before the cruise ship returns to a U.S. port. Some cruisers have already found a polite note slipped under their cabin door on the last night, reminding them that they have exceeded their US duty free exemption in the onboard shops and, therefore, likely subject to US duties.
Another thing that will get on you on the computer list is a previous Customs violation, even if you weren't charged. The Customs Service says that the APIS system results in only about 0.02% of cruise passengers being subject to inspection, versus a much higher percentage when only random inspections were done.
Writing about US Customs requirements is a dangerous business because the rules are subject to change. Let me say right now that you should NOT rely on anything in this article but instead read for yourself any and all handouts that you receive on your cruise from the purser's desk about compliance with US Customs and the requirements of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The easiest way to check current regulations before you travel is to browse the the US Government websites. The main US Customs website is at http://www.customs.ustreas.gov and three useful articles found there are "US Customs Requirements In Brief", "Know Before You Go" and "Frequently Asked Questions". The USDA's site is at http://www.aphis.usda.gov where the "Travelers' Tips" section gives a comprehensive overview.
Is It Really "Duty Free"?
The U.S. Customs Service says that one of the biggest misunderstandings of some cruise passengers is that they believe that when they buy articles which are "duty-free" in a foreign country, no duty is payable by the passenger when he or she returns to the U.S. Not necessarily so. Items purchased in "duty free" stores, whether those stores are in a Caribbean country, Canada or even the US itself, are free of import taxes in the country where they are sold. This is a special concession by the government of the country concerned where, because the item is purchased by somebody who is leaving the country, it is not necessary to charge the import taxes ("duty") that otherwise would be payable by a local resident who purchased the item. When you return to your home country, the local Customs officials couldn't care less whether you purchased the item "duty free" or not in the country of purchase - all they are concerned about is whether or not your purchases are within your exemption limit - and to the extent that they're not - you'll pay duty at the prescribed rate as you return to your home country.
Duty Free Any Cheaper?
Some cruisers seem to think that anything purchased in a Duty Free store is cheaper than buying the same thing at home. Again, not necessarily so.
While an article may have no duty on it, the base price is arbitrarily set by the store selling the item, so, if you really want to get a good deal, you need to comparison shop - check the prices in your home town before you leave. Liquor and cigarette purchases are usually cheaper than at home, but cameras, electronic equipment and jewelry aren't always. (I speak from experience - years ago I bought a cassette player in Singapore, and when I got home I found I could have bought the same thing at my local drugstore for half the price (rueful grin). Tip: some Caribbean stores advertise themselves as "duty free" when they're not - those stores are simply relying on tourists assuming that anything sold "duty free" is bound to be a bargain.
Eat That Fruit On Board!
Customs officials also adminster the regulations of the USDA. That apple that you brought ashore for eating on the plane trip home could get you into a LOT of trouble. One example given by the USDA is that a tourist brought a wormy piece of fruit into California in 1979 resulting in an epidemic of Mediterranean fruit flies which took three years and $100 million to cure. A single link of sausage containing the virus that causes foot and mouth disease (which last struck the US in 1929) could cost farmers and consumers billions of dollars in lost production, higher food prices and lost export markets.
The best advice is not to bring home ANY food, especially fruits, vegetables and meat, or plants or even soil (except for less than one ounce of decorative beach sand!).
It seems a strange quirk of human nature that smuggling - the failure to declare the proper value of all items purchased outside the country or trying to bring home a prohibited item - is not considered a criminal activity by many travelers. It is! If caught, you could suffer one OR MORE of these penalties:
And, as well, every time you return home in the future, you'll likely be pulled over for a special "search".
Smarter Than The Average Customs Officer?
Keep these points in mind:
If you have the slightest doubt when returning home as to whether your exemptions are OK or whether any particular purchase is allowed to be brought home, declare it!
Registering Valuable Items In Advance
If you bought an expensive watch on your last cruise and declared it, you could still have trouble on your next cruise if you can't prove that. The answer is to keep on hand any papers that prove your prior possession of the article, such as a purchase receipt, bill of sale, insurance policy or jeweler's appraisal.
Major items which have a permanently-affixed serial number or marking may be registered at a Customs Office BEFORE your departure. You will need to keep the Certificate of Registration (CF4457) with you as long as you own the article.
Be happy that you don't have to declare what you ate and drank on your cruise!
Originally from Australia, Alan has for some time been permanently settled in Vancouver where he is a practicing Attorney. He has been a SeaLetter columnist, reviewer and our resident humorist for some time now.
To find all of Alan's SeaLetter columns, featured and humorous articles, and cruise and port reviews, visit our SeaLetter COLUMNISTS Index.
Alan loves email, and can be reached at: Alan@sealetter.com.
If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, please