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Duty Free & US Customs

APIS & You

by Alan Walker

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:

  • Confiscation of the smuggled item
  • An on-the-spot fine
  • Criminal prosecution (resulting in a fine and/or imprisonment) A criminal record

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:

  • Baggage unloaded from a cruise ship is often "sniffed" by beagle dogs for food and by other trained dogs for drugs. Baggage is also sometimes X-rayed by low-level radiation machines which can locate plants or food.

  • Customs officials are well-versed in prices of articles bought offshore, and the "faked" receipt for a lower price given to you by a cooperative Caribbean vendor is unlikely to work.

  • One of the oldest tricks - wearing home something you bought or putting the "worn" item into your laundry bag - is just that: an old trick.

  • Thinking about sewing a fake label into a piece of clothing bought offshore? Customs officials even take courses in label sewing!

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.


  • Gifts that you received abroad must be declared at their market value even though they didn't cost you anything.

  • If you carry an item home for somebody else, it is considered yours for Customs' purposes.

  • As almost all cruise ships are "foreign vessels", everything that you buy on board and take home - including T-shirts and other souvenir items - must be included in your declaration.

  • Cuban cigars are still a "no-no" when entering the US.

  • There are always limitations on how many cigarettes and how much liquor you can bring back.

  • Exemptions from duty for returning US residents can vary from $200 to $1200, depending on how long you're out of the country, when you used your exemption last, and which countries you purchased the articles in.

  • There used to be larger exemptions for purchases from certain undeveloped Caribbean countries under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), but according to the US Customs' website, these exemptions are not currently in force.

  • Diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds are duty free.

  • The duty rate on goods in excess of $1,200 purchased in the U.S. Virgin Islands is only 5%.

  • No duty is payable on goods of any amount purchased in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

  • There is no duty on U.S. made products, but items such as U.S. cigarettes and U.S. liquor are subject to IRS excise taxes.

  • Many products made in Mexico are duty-free, while others are subject to only a 5% duty (dropping lower in subsequent years).

  • Works of fine art, such as oil paintings, are not subject to duty (but the picture frame itself could be).

Be happy that you don't have to declare what you ate and drank on your cruise!


Alan WalkerOriginally 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.

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