Figuring out what you can and can't bring back to the U.S. from abroad can be vexing. The rules are complicated, and punishment for violations can be stiff.
Whom do you turn to? That too can be confusing. Since last spring, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has been responsible for customs. Previously three federal departments — Justice, Treasury and Agriculture — shared responsibility for immigration and customs. Consolidating staffs and revising procedures is ongoing.
The new U.S. Customs and Border Protection division of Homeland Security helps sort through the thicket of regulations at http://www.cbp.gov . Go to "quicklinks" on the right side of the page and select "Know Before You Go! — Online Brochure" for guidelines and "travel alerts and restricted/prohibited goods" for updates.
Some rules of thumb:
Food and plants: This is probably the most troublesome area for travelers. That's because the restrictions, aimed at protecting American agriculture from pests and diseases, cover a lot of ground and are ever-changing in response to the latest outbreaks.
Generally, people entering the U.S. must declare any meats, fruits, vegetables, plants, animals, and plant and animal products they may be carrying in checked or carry-on baggage.
"If it's something you're going to put in your mouth or plant in the ground, declare it," says Janice Mosher, who manages the customer service center for Customs and Border Protection.
Declaring an item doesn't mean that it will be seized or that you will be fined, officials say. It just means that an inspector will evaluate it. Bakery goods, candies, roasted nuts and canned fruits and vegetables usually pass muster. Even some fresh produce, depending on the country, may be allowed through customs.
For detailed guidance on food items, visit http://www.aphis.usda.gov/travel/usdatips.html , which is maintained by the USDA Animal and Plant Heath Inspection Service.
Paying duty. If you haven't been out of the country in a couple of years, you may be surprised at how much you can bring back to the U.S. without declaring it, thanks to higher limits that took effect in late 2002.
In general, you can bring back up to $800 worth of goods for personal use from most places. Exceptions include the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa and Guam, from which you can bring back up to $1,200 in goods without paying duty. For those returning from Caribbean countries, the limit is $600.
Watch out for this pitfall: Buying something at a duty-free shop doesn't exempt you from customs assessments. In this case, "duty-free" means that these stores sell products that were brought without an import tax, or duty, into the country where they are being sold. The items you buy there may (or may not) be cheaper than items bought at other retail outlets, but they are still subject to U.S. duties.
Penalties: Fines for violating customs law have increased in the last few years. They used to be $50 to $250; now they can be as much as $1,000.
Inspectors have wide discretion in imposing fines. If you're a casual, infrequent traveler who forgot to declare something on your customs form or were unclear about the rules, you may escape a fine if you get caught.
But if you try to conceal banned goods or clearly lie about them, you may face a stiff penalty.
Inspectors, aided by X-rays, trained dogs and other tactics they don't divulge, may find and seize items, and that can cost you plenty. So it pays to take a short online tutorial before going abroad.