Over Your Duty Free Limit! What Happens Next?

For spirits wonks, one of the great joys of travel is seeking out new and exotic bottled treasures and returning home with them in tow. It’s the thrill of the hunt – what will you find? Maybe it’s a bottle you never knew existed, or perhaps it’s one you’ve been stalking for years. Here in the U.S., the three-tier system makes it royal pain sometimes to find what you’d like at your local stores. So hunting for liquor while you travel, both domestically and internationally, can be highly rewarding.

When it comes to bringing liquor back into the U.S. from international travel, the biggest source of fear and confusion is “duty,” aka the duty free exemption. Generally speaking, U.S. residents can return to the U.S. with one liter of spirits, duty free. The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) site says this:

Generally, one liter of alcohol per person may be entered into the U.S. duty-free by travelers who are 21 or older, although travelers coming from the U.S. Virgin Islands or other Caribbean countries are entitled to more.

Sounds simple, right? Yet you’d be amazed at how many people think this mean you can only bring in one liter of alcohol, or worse, just one bottle. Not true!

The CBP site addresses this scenario without actually telling you exactly what you’re in for if you show up at their desk with a dozen bottles in hand:

Additional quantities may be entered, although they will be subject to duty and Federal excise taxes, which will be assessed and collected at the port of entry.

There is no federal limit on the amount of alcohol a traveler may import into the U.S. for personal use… A general rule of thumb is that 1 case of alcohol is a personal use quantity

What this realistically means is that for international travel, you’re probably safe bringing back as much liquor as you can fit in your suitcase(s). Mrs. Wonk and I have put this to the test on numerous occasions, and at this point, it’s a personal failure if we don’t arrive home with at least sixteen bottles in our two carry-on sized checked suitcases. We’ve always filled out the forms truthfully (so as to not put our Global Entry status at risk), and so far, we’ve never paid a single penny in U.S. import duty.

Until this past weekend’s trip to Vancouver, BC. They got us. We paid import duty.

If you’ve read this far, you’re probably very interested in what comes next. What went down? Is it on our permanent record?  Are we labeled as international booze hounds?

Let’s set the stage a bit here: Normally our international travels are via air, but this trip I drove from Vancouver, B.C., back to Seattle, crossing the border at Peace Arch, near Blaine, Washington. Packed in our bags were six bottles of liquor, including three Cuban rums. We stopped at the duty-free shop just before the border crossing (so convenient for all your booze and perfume needs!) and found some bargains, bringing our trip total to nine bottles.

We are, of course, well aware of the one liter per person duty-free limit for bringing spirits into the U.S. after you’ve been away for 48 hours or longer, and we’d at least tripled that tally. This was a calculated risk. Maybe they wouldn’t ask if we were bringing liquor back, like most of our returns home via airport.  Maybe they would—as the CBP agent did following last year’s arrival home from Scotland—chuckle at our total of 13 liters and say, “Sounds like a good time.  Welcome home!” before waving us past the desk.

Arriving at the Peace Arch checkpoint, there are at least six cars ahead of us in each lane. The CBP agents have the drug-sniffing dogs out in force, checking out each car, so I have plenty of time to ponder what I’ll say if the CBP officer asks me questions. Finally I pull up to the booth, and after the standard “Where are you coming from?” and “Where are you going?” enquiries, the agent asks “Are you bringing any alcohol into the country?” Fibbing isn’t an option in my case, as Mrs. Wonk and I treasure our Global Entry status, and we for sure don’t want to risk losing that by giving false information to a federal officer. So, as always, I don’t volunteer information, but I tell the truth if asked.

“About five liters of spirits,” I say. A reasonable guess, as I’d not done a complete inventory and accounting. Based on prior experience and what others have said, that five liters is small enough potatoes to not make it worth their time.

“So you may know, the duty-free limit after 48 hours is one liter per person. And you’re three liters over,” the agent says.  “Turn on your flashers. I’m going to have you pull into that lane and go into the building for an additional inspection.”  With that, he takes an orange card, scrawls “IRT x 3” across it, and sticks it on our windshield. Oh no! The orange placard of shame! (I subsequently learned that IRT is “Internal Revenue Tax”; I assume the “x 3” meant “3 liters.”)

After parking our car in the parking lot of border limbo, we enter the two-story CBP building. The first floor resembles a DMV office: A long row of booths, at which sit six or so agents, looking all official and uniformed and sufficiently intimidating if you are actually doing something wrong.  At one end is an agent at a booth signed “Cashier.” Ahead of us in line are a handful of people who appear to be there for various immigration and documentation issues. Within minutes, any hope of quickly paying the duty on three excess liters of spirit vanish in the bureaucratic haze. The agents seem to be in no hurry, and everybody ahead of us in line is sent to go sit and wait. And wait…

The Hall of Interminable Waits. Peace Arch border crossing.

After about 30 minutes, it’s finally our turn with an agent. I briefly entertain the idea that he’ll see the “IRT x 3” on our card and quickly direct us to the cashier. Ha! Not happening. “When did you leave the country?” he asks. “Uh… about 4 PM on Friday,” I reply. Why does that matter? After more questions, he asks for my car keys—yikes!–and tells us to go have a seat.

We can’t see the car from where we’re seated. I know we have a few shopping bags in the back seat, and three tote bags in the trunk, filled with clothes and liquor bottles, carefully wrapped. How long can it take to look through that and ascertain that I don’t have a couple of 55 gallon drums of whiskey in the trunk? Or importing blood diamonds?  Or stowing away a trunk full of ivory? The answer: A very long time. Another half hour or so. What on earth is he doing out there?

Finally, back at his desk, he summons us up. “Well, you have 6.25 liters of liquor in your car,” he begins. “I should actually increase that, because one of the bottles is 51 percent ABV rather than the usual 40 percent ABV.”  At that point, it’s very clear he’s gone through every bag thoroughly, found every bottle, and noted down its size and ABV. Well, at least we know why it took so long.

“Did you know it’s legal to bring Cuban rum into the country?” he asks. “Oh, yes,” I reply, maybe a little too excited about the recent turn of policy. He continues, “The Cuban bottles were exceptionally well wrapped, and at the very bottom of the bag.  I wondered if you were trying to hide them.”  “I write about spirits,” I reply, “so I was very much aware it’s now legal. I just like to protect my bottles.”

Wrapping up the tedious government paperwork pokey, he told us that we hadn’t actually been out of the country for 48 hours, but since we’d spent two nights away, he’d count it as 48 hours. You’ll recall, the one liter/person limit is after 48 hours, so that was nice of him. Furthermore, it seems that a lot of people buy two 750ml bottles (likely up the street under the blazing duty-free sign), and while they’re technically on the hook for duty on half a liter, it’s simply not worth the time to collect it. So the effective duty-free limit (at least at Peace Arch) is around two liters per person. Obviously not an official U.S. Government policy, but it works out in your favor, so no complaints there.

When all was said and done, we had 6.25 liters of alcohol, of which the agents counted four liters as duty free. Thus, we owed duty on 2.25 liters of alcohol. The agent jotted that down on our orange card and sent us down to the cashier.

So here’s the punch line:

It’s damn near impossible to find the actual, effective duty rate in U.S. government schedules. I’ve found the documents and parsed them carefully, spending several hours hunting for a simple, easy to understand number. Technically, the duty rate is based on a “proof liter” which is 50 percent ABV. However, many spirits are closer to 40 percent ABV, so less duty is owed on them for the same quantity.

As best I can decipher is (and remember, I’m not a lawyer), the general rule of thumb, is to assume $2.85 per liter of 40 proof alcohol. On a 750ml bottle, that’s approximately $2.13. Or in the case of our 2.25 liters of alcohol, we owed…wait for it…

$6.40.

Yes, that’s all we owed. After waiting around for an hour, and having our car (carefully) rifled through, the U.S. government claimed an additional $6.40 from us, and we were happy to pay. And yes, they take credit cards.

The moral of the story is this: If you bring lots of liquor back into the country, you may have to pay duty. More often than not you won’t, but be prepared for the possibility that you’ll be inspected. Even then, you may not have to pay, such as last spring’s return from Jamaica with six liters of rum in a single carry-on. I was flagged for inspection, but my bag was never opened. I simply told the inspecting agent that I write about rum and had six liters in my bag. He laughed a little and waved me through.

Even if you do end up paying, the amount of duty owed on a healthy haul (say, twelve to twenty-four bottles) should be less than $30. And if you’re bringing back that much liquor, it’s hopefully the expensive, good stuff and not a case of $10 per bottle vodka. So the $30 or so is a negligible fraction of what you actually spent on your bounty.

Also, it’s important to be aware that some states have stricter requirements on what you’re allowed to bring in. Flying into those states and getting flagged for inspection may just cost you even more, or they may disallow over a certain limit. For instance, Texas currently disallows over one gallon of distilled spirits. You may luck out, but be prepared if you’re not so lucky.

The bigger cost here to consider is your time. If you get flagged for inspection, how long will you wait? Is the potential for an hour (or more) wait worth the bottles you’re bringing back? Hopefully so! So either bring back under the duty-free limit, or go big. If CBP is going to give you an extra dose of attention, make sure your haul is worth it.

A final disclaimer: I’ve been focused on the duty owed per liter, which is based on quantity of alcohol, regardless of purchase price. You’re also subject to the personal exemption value limits; typically, $800 per person, or $1,600 for a couple. If you by chance bring back a $22,000 bottle of exceedingly rare cognac, your duty will obviously be higher.  But for reasonably priced bottles in the $50 to $100 range on average, it would be a challenge to bring back more than $1,600 worth of liquor in a couple of suitcases.

So there you have it! The duty free exemption is confusing and frankly scary if you’re never dealt with it. But having gone through the inspection process and paid the duty, it’s not particularly onerous once you know how the process works. So with that, get out there and travel, fellow wonks! And bring home the good stuff!

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3 thoughts on “Over Your Duty Free Limit! What Happens Next?”

  1. I think it varies by what state you re-enter the country from. When we were coming back from Mexico on a group trip, those going through Arizona were at risk of losing their excess as opposed to us going through Texas were at risk of getting taxed. Going through Dallas, I was honest, and they told me that they could give me a hard time, but said that it was close enough (I think I was around 2 liters).

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