By Rick Steves
Customs regulations vary depending on whether you are bringing items home on the plane with you, or mailing them to a US address. It's smart to check US customs rules and duty rates before you hop on the plane home.
Bringing Things Home in Your Luggage
You are allowed to take home $800 worth of items per person duty-free in your luggage, once every 30 days (family members can combine their individual $800 exemptions on a joint declaration). The next $1,000 is taxed at a flat 3 percent. After that, you pay the individual item's duty rate. You can also bring in duty-free a liter of alcohol (slightly more than a standard-size bottle of wine; you must be at least 21), 200 cigarettes, and up to 100 non-Cuban cigars. Household effects intended for personal use, such as tableware and linens, are also duty-free.
Because food items can carry devastating diseases or pests, they are strictly regulated. You may take home vacuum-packed cheeses; dried herbs, spices, or mushrooms; and canned fruits or vegetables, including jams and vegetable spreads. Baked goods, candy, chocolate, oil, vinegar, mustard, and honey are OK. Fresh fruits and vegetables (even that banana from your airplane breakfast) are not permitted. Meats are generally not allowed; however, canned meat is allowed if it doesn't contain any beef, veal, lamb, or mutton. Just because a duty-free shop in an airport sells a food product, it doesn't mean it will automatically pass US customs. Be prepared to lose your investment.
Of course, you'll need to carefully pack any bottles of wine, jam, honey, oil, and other liquid-containing items in your checked luggage, thanks to limits on liquids in carry-ons (though there's an exception for some foods and wine purchased at a duty-free shop).
Shipping Things Home
While it's fun to shop in Europe, it's not fun to have more things to carry. Consider shipping your shopping bounty back home so you don't have to lug your purchases around while you're traveling.
Customs regulations for items you ship amount to 10 or 15 frustrating minutes of filling out forms with the normally unhelpful postal clerk's semi-assistance. Be realistic in your service expectations. European postal clerks are every bit as friendly, speedy, and multilingual as American postal clerks.
From Europe, you can mail one package per day to yourself in the US, worth up to $200 duty-free (mark it "personal purchases"). If you mail an item home valued at $250, you pay duty on the full $250, not $50. When you fill out the customs form, keep it simple and include the item's value (contents: clothing, books, souvenirs, poster, value $100). For alcohol, perfume containing alcohol, and tobacco valued at more than $5, you will pay a duty. You can also mail home all the "American Goods Returned" you like (e.g., clothes you packed but no longer need) with no customs concerns — but note that these goods really must be American (not Bohemian crystal or a German cuckoo clock), or you'll be charged a duty. If it's a gift for someone else, they are liable for customs fees if it's worth more than $100 (mark it "unsolicited gift").
It's fairly painless to use regular postal services; it can be expensive but convenient. You can usually buy boxes and tape at the post office. A box the size of a small fruit crate costs about $40 by slow boat.
Post offices in some countries have limits on how big or heavy your packages can be. In Germany and Great Britain, any surface-mail package for overseas delivery is limited to 2 kilograms, or about 4.5 pounds (but for books only, Great Britain allows up to 5 kilograms, or 11 pounds). For heavier packages, you must use their postal services' affiliated package services. From France, you can ship surface packages up to 30 kilograms (about 66 pounds). The fastest way to get a package home from Italy is to use the Vatican post office — or take it home in your suitcase. Every box I've ever mailed from Europe has arrived — bruised and battered but all there — within six weeks. To send precious things home fast, I use DHL; they have offices in any big city.