There was good news recently for travelers who like to shop: U.S. Customs has raised the dollar limit on duty-free goods that travelers can bring back to the United States from most countries in the Caribbean, as well as parts of Central and South America.
The new duty-free limit when returning from U.S. possessions such as the U.S. Virgin Islands in the Caribbean is $1,200, up from $800, and applies to travelers who left the United States on or after Sept. 4, 1990. For most other Caribbean islands, most countries in Central America and one South American country (Guiana), the limit has risen to $600 from $400.
However, since the $400 limit still applies for travelers returning from other foreign countries, there can be some confusion. The duty-free limit on goods you bring home depends on which country was your last stop before landing in the United States.
Besides the U.S. Virgin Islands, other destinations affected by the new $1,200 limits are Guam and American Samoa in the Pacific. There is no duty paid on items purchased in Puerto Rico, since it is an American commonwealth treated almost like another state.
The new $600 allowance for Caribbean-basin destinations includes Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Barbados, Dominica, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Haiti, Jamaica, Montserrat, the Netherlands Antilles (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao), St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, and the British Virgin Islands.
In Central America, the new limit applies to Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
Here's an example of what happens when your itinerary includes countries from different parts of the world: If you went to Great Britain and then the Bahamas, you could get the $600 duty-free exemption, as allowed for the Bahamas, as long as not more than $400 of your items were acquired in Great Britain. In this scenario, you would have to return to the United States directly from the Bahamas to claim the higher exemption.
If this scenario were reversed and you returned to the United States from Great Britain, you would then be eligible only for the $400 exemption.
In other words, to receive the $600 exemption from a Caribbean-basin destination, you must return directly from that country to the United States. In the case of U.S. possessions, you can receive the new $1,200 exemption even if you return to the United States via another country.
If your itinerary embraces, say, St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Mexico, you're entitled to the $1,200 exemption as long as not more than $400 of your items were obtained in Mexico and at least $600 were acquired from St. Thomas.
There are also new U.S. Customs allowances for bringing in liquor from the Caribbean-basin destinations. Travelers can now bring back two liters of alcoholic beverages without paying duty or taxes as long as at least one liter is the product of one or more of the destinations covered. Previously, the duty-free limit was one liter.
And if you're coming back from a U.S. possession, you can bring back up to five liters of alcohol as long as one of the liters was made in the country you visited.
However, the new liquor allowance rules are moot for visitors returning directly to California since Customs also enforces the liquor laws of the state in which travelers return, which might be stricter than the federal rules. California allows travelers to bring back only one liter of alcohol; any more will be confiscated.
But if a traveler returned to Los Angeles via New York or Houston, "We would follow the liquor laws of New York and Texas, which would be the first points of entry in the United States," said U.S. Customs spokesman Tom Nanasy.
The United States also helps more than 70 developing countries around the world by permitting some of their products to be brought in duty-free as part of the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program. Such items must be purchased in the nation that made them.
"These items wouldn't count toward any exemption," Nanasy explained.
If you are planning any extensive shopping abroad, two free brochures are helpful: "GSP & the Traveler" and "Know Before You Go." Both are available from U.S. Customs, 1301 Constitution Ave. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20229. Or call Customs direct, locally, at (213) 215-2414.
If you happen to go over the duty-free allowance, there is a flat rate of 10% duty on the first $1,000, with the rate then going up based on the specific article.
If you believe that you've been charged duty in error, your recourse is to talk to the appropriate supervisor on hand. Documentation is vital. Keep receipts handy. If you can't resolve the dispute, fill out a written petition for a review to determine whether you should get a refund.
And if your goods are damaged while being inspected by Customs, you can always file a claim, using Form SP95, against the U.S. government.