Clearing Customs on the Way Home from Europe

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 Items Home in Your Luggage

You can take home $800 worth of items per person duty-free in your luggage, once every 31 days (family members can combine their individual $800 exemptions on a joint declaration). Above that amount, you can expect to pay extra. You can also bring in duty-free a liter of alcohol (slightly more than a standard-size bottle of wine; must be 21 or over), 200 cigarettes, and up to 100 cigars. Household effects intended for personal use, such as tableware and linens, are also duty-free.

Because food items can carry diseases or pests, they are strictly regulated. Many processed and packaged foods are allowed, including vacuum-packed cheeses, dried herbs, jams, baked goods, candy, chocolate, oil, vinegar, condiments, and honey. Fresh fruits and vegetables and most meats are not allowed, with exceptions for some canned items. 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

If you buy more than you can comfortably carry, consider shipping your shopping bounty back home.

Customs regulations for items you ship amount to 10 or 15 frustrating minutes of filling out forms at a shipping office or post office. 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, it's subject to customs fees if valued at more than $100 (mark it "unsolicited gift").

It's fairly painless to use regular postal services, but it can be expensive. You can usually buy boxes and tape at the post office. Post offices in some countries, such as Great Britain, France, and Germany, have limits on how big or heavy your packages can be. For heavier packages, you must use their postal services' affiliated package services. 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, with offices in every big city. But if you're carrying around clothing or books you no longer need, consider donating them to a charity shop in Europe to save yourself the time and trouble of shipping.