Clearing Customs Doesn't Have to Hurt—If You Play by the Rules

UPDATED 08/05/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 08/05/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT

Even with the dollar losing some of its muscle, more than six million Americans are expected to travel overseas this summer. For many of them, getting there may be half the fun, but coming home through Customs probably won't be. To ease the strain of reentry, Sidney Reyes, U.S. Customs District Director for the Washington, D.C. area, offers some useful tips about what you can bring back with you—and how much duty you will be expected to pay on those items. You can come home again, Reyes assures nervous travelers, and Customs won't hurt a bit if you play by the rules. Reyes, 52, an ex-Marine from Harlem, has three grown children and lives with his second wife, Brit, a passenger representative for Scandinavian Airlines, just five minutes from Dulles International Airport. He spoke with reporter Dolly Langdon.

Why are travelers with nothing to hide uneasy about going through Customs?

It's traumatic to have someone search your bag. People aren't used to that in this country, so it's natural to feel uneasy. It's not unlike being stopped by a police officer, even if he only wants to tell you the tires on your car need some air.

In 1981 Customs regulations governing the duties Americans must pay on purchases made outside the country were changed. What are the rules now?

Returning U.S. citizens can buy up to $400 worth of souvenirs without paying any additional tax. A bigger spender can declare another $1,000 worth and pay only a flat 10 percent duty on that. So the most he would have to pay on $1,400 in purchases would be $100. Once you go beyond that $1,400-per-person limit, what you buy outside the U.S. is dutiable at a specific rate, up to 40 percent, depending on the item.

Apart from drugs, what are some of the items travelers aren't allowed to bring into the country?

Most fruits, vegetables and plants are prohibited because they might carry disease or pests. We also don't allow hard-core pornography or dangerous weapons like switchblade knives. We try to look out for seditious books or journals that advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government. Liquor-filled candy is limited to five pounds, and foreign lottery tickets are banned because the statute classifies them as "immoral material."

Cigars, liquor and perfume are usually high on tourist shopping lists. What are the rules concerning these?

Anyone over 21 can bring home one liter of liquor duty free. But liquor is one item that cannot be mailed into the U.S. Also, if you're interested in bringing home a case or two of wine, it's a good idea to check with your state's liquor authorities before you leave home. Some states don't permit you to import more than one liter even if you're willing to pay extra duties and taxes. You are allowed to bring 100 cigars into the U.S., but Cuban cigars may be brought in only directly from Cuba. There are no restrictions on perfume other than the usual duty applied to anything else.

What items are exempt from all duties?

Antiques, but you must have written proof from the seller that they are more than 100 years old. Artwork, if the country that it comes from doesn't prohibit its export. Coffee, because it's not produced anywhere in the U.S. Books and sound recordings, if they don't violate U.S. copyright laws. Unset diamonds and natural pearls, because they don't compete with U.S. products.

What should a traveler know about buying a car overseas?

There's no problem about bringing an automobile into the U.S.—except that it must conform to federal pollution-control and safety standards. Even if the vehicle isn't properly equipped, you can usually bring it in if you put up a bond [equal to the value of the car plus the duty] and make sure the car complies within 90 days. Bringing it into compliance can be expensive, though, so you should find out what the cost will be before you buy. You can apply your $400 exemption to a car if you bring it into the country with you. The remaining value of the car would be subject to a 2.6 percent duty.

What if a traveler already owns a Swiss watch or a Japanese camera that he plans to take on a trip? Would he have to pay duty on it when he returns?

He might if he didn't have proof of prior purchase with him. Anything that has a serial number, like a watch or a camera, can be registered at your nearest Customs office before you leave. Otherwise we suggest you take with you a bill of sale or some other proof of previous ownership.

What if you take prescription drugs?

Be sure to take along the bottle with the prescription on it. If you don't you might run into problems with inspectors who are watching out for narcotics.

What are the penalties for not declaring something you should?

Depending on the circumstances we can charge up to six times the normal duty. If you're a sophisticated traveler who's been in and out of the country many times—and we can usually tell from your passport—we won't buy the story "I didn't know." We would seize the item and decide how much extra duty you should pay. If you don't pay, you forfeit what you bought, and it eventually winds up in one of the auction sales each Customs district holds every year.

Last year 290 million people entered the U.S. through 281 ports of entry. How do you even begin to detect smugglers among so many travelers?

It's not easy. But you can learn to tell a lot from people's body language and the answers that they give to our questions. We tell our inspectors to use their street smarts and look for the unusual. What travelers going through Customs don't realize is that an inspector's simple questions are often very pointed and could give us a lead.

For example?

Surprisingly a smuggler who may have been clever enough to hide cocaine in a false-bottomed suitcase may not have thought through the details of his cover story. If you say, "What do you do?" he might say that he's a dental technician. But then when you ask him where he received his training, he might not be able to come up with the name of a school. Or, if he does, the institution he mentions might not have a dental program. What most people don't realize is that the inspector is playing Columbo. If he thinks that you're smuggling, he's going to try to wear you down with question after question.

What kind of special training do Customs inspectors receive?

Our service academy in Glynco, Ga. briefs them on Customs laws and puts them through practice scenarios that make them alert to potential smugglers. They learn a lot of details about how foreign garments are made, for example. So if a woman tells you she bought an expensive-looking dress in Chicago, we can sometimes tell right away it was really made in France or Hong Kong and not previously imported into the U.S.

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