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Dear Dr. Vinny,
I'm traveling to Europe quite a bit now for work, and through a French connection I have the opportunity to bring some high-end French and Italian wines from his cellar home to the U.S. What are the rules concerning how many bottles I can carry back with me without incurring duties, and do I need to declare the wines if they are gifts?
—Glenn F., Manhasset, N.Y.
You can't check often enough to make sure this information is still up to date. Here's is the latest I heard from the Customs & Border Protection division of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
You always have to declare gifts. (Hi, Federal Government, in case you're watching!) Generally, 1 liter of alcohol per person may be brought into the U.S. duty-free by travelers (of course, you have to be at least 21 years old to have alcohol, even if it's a gift). The rules are slightly different if you're coming from the U.S. Virgin Islands or other Caribbean countries, and you are entitled to a little bit more.
But 1 liter is 1 liter. Even if you're allowed $1,000 of duty-free stuff under your exemptions, and you have three $100 bottles of wine, only one of those bottles is duty-free.
If you're bringing more than a liter, you will be subject to duty and IRS taxes. Duty is generally 3 percent of value, and the IRS excise tax ranges from about a quarter for most bottles of wine up to about $2 for a bottle of hard liquor.
How much wine you're allowed to bring back—even paying for duties and taxes—depends on your state's laws on this sort of thing.
Large quantities will raise the eyebrows of federal agents, and they might want to know if you're importing the stuff for commercial purposes, in which case you might be asked to present an ATF import license. If you're going to be traveling with a bunch of booze, you should contact the entry branch of the port you will be entering the country through to discuss your situation in advance. You can also get up-to-date information from the U.S. Customs website, at www.cbp.gov.
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