How Much Duty Free Wine Can I Bring Back From My Trip to Europe? (Please visit me in jail!)

By David Currier -

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Chateau-Neuf-du-Pape Tasting Cave

Just what happens if I exceed the duty free wine allowance?

Like most tourists or business travelers, when I arrive back to the United States, I start shaking and sweating as I lightheartedly fill out my U. S. Customs form. You know, the one where you promise you are not carrying more than $10,000 in cash, you don’t have a woolly mammoth in your checked luggage, and no illegal herbs and spices (so to speak).

My focus is not the $10,000.00 that I wish I had in my vest pocket. Sweating bullets, and at an altitude of 60,000 feet I’m already closer to the almighties,  I pray to every god in the universe that the Customs agent doesn’t open my suitcases to see my stash of souvenir wines.

These are from the 10 countries I toured (and drank my way through) in Europe – at least a bottle from each country, with a meager value of $300.00 at most. After all, that dreaded Form 60595 that the airline agent gave me to complete prior to arrival says that each adult in my party is limited to one litre bottle of booze duty free wine. I’m toast!

How many years in prison will I get for having twelve 750 ml bottles of everyday wines that I hoped to share with my wine aficionado friends around around a dinner table at home, and hopefully not through the bars of a federal jail?

First of all, from the U.S. Customs booklet Know Before You Go:

The term “duty-free shops” confuses many travelers. Travelers often think that what they buy in duty-free shops will not be dutiable when they return home and clear customs. But this is not true. Articles sold in a duty-free shop are free of duty and taxes only for the country in which that shop is located. So if your duty free wine purchases exceed your personal exemption, items you bought in a duty-free shop, whether in the United States or abroad, will be subject to duty. Articles purchased in American duty-free shops are also subject to U. S. duty if you bring them into the United States. Therefore, if you buy liquor in a duty-free shop in New York before entering Canada and then bring it back into the United States, it may be subject to duty and Internal Revenue Service tax.

Because I love good, even great wines and spirits, my intent is to provide my wine-loving friends with some useful information which is not readily available in a quick Google search or that aforementioned booklet. That is, when you return to the United States from a vacation or business trip, aside from what you can bring home free, what might the U. S. Customs agents charge you for exceeding that pitiful limit.

Well, for the 18 year old youngsters in my audience, let me crush your grapes now! Even though you may have just spent three hedonistic months touring Europe, and being served wine with every croissant, schnitzel or slice of pizza, it is not legal for travelers under the age of 21 to import alcohol into the United States – even as a gift. So you can dispense with that “it’s just a gift” lie now. (But if you’ve made friends with that dude or hot chick crammed into the seat next to you, and he or she looks trustworthy and at least 21 years old, perhaps they will do your dirty work for you! Our country is so un-fun sometimes. Didn’t the Puritans all burn at the stake in Salem?)

But if your purchases are brought into this country legally, then the “mathemagicians” at your port of entry stand ready to pick your pockets of that last Bosnian marka to pay your U. S. taxes. (I wonder if the Pilgrims had to pay duty; but I digress.)

Duty is generally 3% of value and the IRS excise tax is generally between 21-31cents per 750ml bottle of wine, 75 cents for Champagne, and $2.75 hard liquor.

(Note that few European wineries sell the wine packing boxes that prevent shattering when your box is checked in. If possible, I recommend you acquire one of those and check the empty box in on your way to Europe.)

After an intensive internet-search for those figures, researching other writers’ sites and even the pages of the U. S. Customs’ postings, I became exasperated! To exacerbate that exasperation, I called the U.S. Customs customer help desk! After being told by their wizard computer that I was number 77 in the queue waiting for help, I turned on my desk-phone speaker and went back to work. Sixty-three minutes later Katelyn was at my service – with about as much useful information as I already had.

I ended my call with Katelyn convinced that the U. S. Customs is sadistic; they enjoy the thought of us travelers fidgeting during our return flight, not knowing what to expect when we have exceeded that previously mentioned “pitiful limit”.

This is what I learned from Katelyn – all she knew, she said: “The duty on wine will be between $1 and $2 per bottle.” But that matched information I found elsewhere on the internet that said the duty rate for wine is 3% of value and the IRS tax is around thirty cents per 750 ml bottle of wine. So I was more confident. Rates increase for Champagne, higher alcohol spirits (like French eau de vie) and for what we Americans call hard liquor – particularly for high-end brands. But, for the most part you won’t get hit with much more than a couple bucks per bottle.

The amusing part of “your government at work” on this call, was that (professional, courteous and friendly as she was) Katelyn’s solution to answering my more precise questions was: “We do not have the information on exact United States duty rates. To get those rates, you need to call a professional wine importer in your area. They will provide you with the rates they pay.” (Please keep me from climbing on my soapbox!)

Whew! I’ve got a few extra bucks left in my wallet. If I don’t buy one of those outrageously priced inflight cocktails for which airlines charge upwards of $10.00, I can afford to treat myself and my friends to some unusual (rare?) wines and still be able to pay the taxi driver to take me home from the airport.

But here’s the catch – so read between my lines… This is from the U. S. Party Poopers’ official documentation:

The total amount of alcohol [that includes duty free wine] you may enter the country with is primarily determined by the laws of the state where you will arrive back into the U.S. Each state’s ABC [Alcohol Beverage Control] board, or equivalent, sets the amount of alcohol a person may bring into the state without a license or permit from that state. Travelers must check with the appropriate state ABC board, as the amounts vary from state to state. We regret that we are unable to provide this information, but CBP [Customs Border Protection] staff is not able to maintain information about each of the 50 State’s various requirements.

Now, the otherwise almost-useless U. S. Customs booklet Know Before You Go does provide you a useful hint. If you are planning a trip abroad, and  you anticipate that you will be bringing some extra bottles of alcoholic beverages home with you, confirm the route of your air travel and buy your ticket accordingly. The state where your plane first lands in the U. S. (where you clear Immigration and Customs) has laws that may be enforced by an overly zealous U. S. Customs agent. You may want to consider arriving at Seattle instead of Los Angeles, or Cincinnati instead of Dallas-Ft. Worth.  (Note: Those are examples. I have not verified the liquor importation laws of the states of Washington, California , Ohio or Texas. How much involvement a U. S. Customs agent wants to get involved with enforcing individual state laws is another mystery. That may depend if he or she survived the Salem burnings. Perhaps the fact that the booklet says that they are not able to “maintain information about each of the 50 State’s various requirements” indicates that they look the other way. )

Again, quoting from Know Before you Go:

There is no federal limit on the amount of alcohol a traveler may import into the U.S. for personal use, however, large quantities might raise the suspicion that the importation is for commercial purposes, and a CBP officer could require the importer to obtain an TTB [Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau] import license (which is required for all commercial importations) before releasing it. If you do intend to travel with a large quantity of alcohol, we suggest you contact the entry branch of the port you will be entering the country through to discuss your situation in advance.

Duty rates on alcoholic beverages can be obtained in Chapter 22, “Beverages, Spirits and Vinegar,” in the Harmonized Tariff Schedule. What I saw there would require me to hire an accountant to decipher. I’m just a common tourist.

As an addendum, and since cheeses are so often paired with wine, I did ask Katelyn another question. Since the dreaded Form 60595 asks about visiting a farm and recounts many food items which you may not bring in with you (even if you bought that apple at the Amsterdam airport), I asked about cheese. The answer was refreshing and frankly made me smile: Unless the cheese is liquid so that it would “form a puddle” (Katelyn’s pseudo legal explanation) when placed on a table, you may bring it with you.

Back to our friend Google, because Katelyn’s reply to my question both surprised and pleased me,  I checked the CBP Info Center for “Travelers bringing food into the U. S. for personal use“. That section has some useful information. For cheeses, I quote:

Cheeses- Solid cheese (hard or semi-soft, that does not contain meat), butter, butter oil, and cultured milk products such as yogurt and sour cream are not restricted.  Feta cheese, Brie, Camembert, cheese in brine, Mozzarella and Buffalo Mozzarella are permissable [sic] (USDA Animal Product Manual, Tabel [sic] 3-14-6). Cheese in liquid (such as cottage cheese or ricotta cheese) and cheese that pours like heavy cream are not admissible from countries affected by foot-and-mouth diesease (FMD). Cheese containing meat is not admissible depending on the country of origin.

In closing, back to quoting from Know Before You Go:

In brief, for both alcohol and tobacco, the quantities discussed in this booklet as being eligible for duty-free treatment may be included in your $800 or $1,600 exemption, just as any other purchase would be. But unlike other kinds of merchandise, amounts beyond those discussed here as being duty-free are taxed, even if you have not exceeded, or even met, your personal exemption. For example, if your exemption is $800 and you bring back three liters of wine and nothing else, two of those liters will be dutiable. Federal law also prohibits shipping alcoholic beverages by [U.S.] mail within the United States.” The link to “$800 or $1,600 exemption” provides further explanation of this process.

And thus, after nine trans-oceanic-hours of severe agida, with one bottle in your case of 12 as your U. S. duty free, $25.00 is not a lot to pay for 11 bottles of delicious memories.

Photographs by David Currier.

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