What to Expect At U.S. Customs


Going through U.S. Customs can be intimidating due to uniformed officers with serious faces, confused travelers and line after line after line. As your overseas travel draws to an end and you begin your travels home, you have to begin to prepare for United States Customs and Border Patrol (CBP). If you plan ahead properly, you can help make the customs process flow smoothly.

When you return from a trip abroad, you must complete a CBP Declaration Form 6059B itemizing all of your purchased merchandise and agricultural products. The options for satisfying this requirement are:


  1. Complete a paper form that may be obtained at the port of entry, or on the flight or cruise. 
  2. Complete the online form at a Global Entry Kiosk. (Only pre-approved Global Entry Members are allowed to use these kiosks) 
  3. Use the Mobile Passport Control (MPC) application on your smartphone.

Keeping all your purchase receipts handy in an envelope or ziplock bag in your carry-on bag will make this process much easier!

The U.S. Customs & Border Patrol has launched a smartphone application called Mobile Passport Control (MPC) that allows you to bypass the standard lines by creating a profile on the app. When you land, you complete the “New Trip” section by selecting your arrival airport and airline, then you take a selfie, answer the standard customs declaration questions and submit all the information, all right on the app. You will then be issued a QR code that lasts 4 hours, which allows you to go straight to expedited lanes at many airports. You bring your passport and mobile device with your QR code to a CBP officer to finalize your entry into the U.S. This app streamlines the traveler inspection process and enables CBP officers to focus more on the inspection of the traveler, and less on administrative functions. It can be downloaded from the Google Play Store and the Apple App Store. What’s even better is the app is free!

PRO TIP: You can create up to 12 profiles on one device and the app allows for a single household to submit one MPC transaction. Currently, MPC is available to U.S. citizens and Canadian visitors at 24 U.S. international airports, for a full list of those airports visit here.

Depending on which method you choose to complete the Declaration Form, you will need to complete it either on the plane or at the airport upon arrival. The required information will include your passport number, flight information, countries visited and any items that you purchased while traveling that you’re bringing back with you to the U.S.

If you’re bringing back more than $800 in souvenirs, one liter of alcohol, 200 cigarettes or 100 cigars, customs regulations requires you to declare these items on the form and pay tax on them at the airport. You must also declare any food items you have (even those snacks from the plane), and you may run into trouble if that includes fresh produce, meats or plants.

Based on your purchases overseas, you may have to pay duties. Each traveler is allotted $800 in personal exemptions from these taxes that have to be documented on the declaration form. The duty-free exemptions apply if:


  1. The items are for your personal or household use or intended to be given as a gift. 
  2. The merchandise is in your possession when you return to the United States. Items to be sent later may not be included in your duty-free exemption. 
  3. Merchandise is declared to CBP. If you don’t declare something that should have been declared, you risk forfeiting the item. When in doubt, declare it.
  4. You are returning from an overseas stay of at least 48 hours. 
  5. You have not used all your exemption allowance, or used any part of it, in the past 30 days. 
  6. The items aren’t prohibited or restricted in the section on Prohibited & Restricted Items.  

If you are caught with prohibited or restricted items, you will have to relinquish the items. When goods are seized, you not only lose your souvenirs, but they also risk paying a fine. The first offense is $300, the second $500, and the third $1,000. Do it again and the State Department may curb your travel privileges.

To keep the United States borders secure and safe, CBP must inspect everyone who arrives at a U.S. port of entry. The CBP officers are authorized to ask you questions about your trip and personal background, including:


  1. Your citizenship 
  2. The nature of your trip 
  3. Anything you are bringing back to the U.S. that you didn’t have when you left

When you are
shopping abroad, it’s important to keep in mind what you are able to claim on your declaration form. Whether it’s gifts for others or trinkets for yourself, there are certain guidelines for what you are able to bring back into the U.S.



  • Any items you receive as gifts while abroad and items you buy to give as gifts must be declared. 
  • Gifts may be included in the value of your duty-free personal exemption. 
  • Gifts for business or commercial purposes may not be included in your duty-free personal exemption. 
  • Gifts worth more than $5 that contain alcohol, tobacco products or perfume containing alcohol may not be included as gifts in your duty-free personal exemption.

Do not gift wrap any items you carry or send into the United States; they may need to be unwrapped during inspection.

Sending versus. carrying gifts and other items:


  • Gifts worth up to $10 may be sent – free of duty and tax – to U.S. friends if one person does not receive more than $100 worth of gifts in one day. 
  • Alcohol and tobacco products may not be sent as gifts. 
  • Gifts sent home do not have to be declared on CBP Declaration Form 6059B or to the CBP officer when returning to the United States.

If sending boxes home, mark the outside packaging of the gifts with:


  • “Unsolicited Gift”; if sending gifts for more than one person in the package, add “Consolidated Gift Package”. 
  • The total value of the consolidated package recipients’ names. 
  • To be duty free, each item may not exceed a value of $100. The traveler must list the nature and value of gifts mailed.

If you’re sending new items for your own personal use, similarly mark the package with the nature and values of the items addressed to yourself. Duty will be waived if the value is $200 or less. If more, duty may be assessed by the parcel carrier.

When you get off the plane, you’ll follow the signage for international arrivals, immigration and customs. Your first stop will be Passport Control, where you’ll get in line for either U.S. Citizens or Foreign Citizens. When you reach the front of the line, you’ll hand over your passport and customs form to the officer. They will then stamp your form and return it with your passport. Then you will head over to baggage claim. You will need to retrieve your luggage even if you have a connecting flight.

PRO TIP: Keep your smartphone in your pocket during customs. Photography and cell phone usage is not allowed in this high-security area.

As you approach customs, you’ll see green lanes labeled “Nothing to Declare” and red lanes labeled “Goods to Declare”. Choose the appropriate lane and get in line. It’s important to note, that at any point in this process, you may be pulled aside for a bag search. Don’t freak out. Instead, think of it as a merit badge on your growing list of travel experiences!

After you complete this last phase of U.S. Customs, you can either exit the terminal and depart into the world or head for your connecting flight. Either way, you can breathe easy that the customs process is complete!

Other tips for a smooth customs experience:


  • Don’t make jokes to the officials, it only makes you look like you are trying to hide something. 
  • Keep your packing list of what you had when you left so you know what won’t have to be documented later. 
  • Don’t put any fruit in your bag during your vacation. You may have carried around some applies a week ago, but the persistent aroma will have the fruit dog all over it and you’ll be delayed in Agriculture. 
  • Avoid farms and agricultural stations while traveling. 
  • If possible, pack all the items you purchased on your trip in one place so you can easily find them if an officer asks to see them. 
  • Don’t take leftovers from the plane. 
  • Clean your shoes before returning home because if your shoes are covered in dirt from another country the Agricultural Department will hold you up in customs and require you to clean them before reaching American soil. 
  • Be cautious when purchasing animal-skin accessories and attire, such as belts, wallets and jewelry. 
  • Pack pens with you in your carry on for completing paper forms.

Are you a seasoned international traveler? What are your tips for a smooth customs experience? Share them in the comments below!


By: Rebecca Clausen

Sources: U.S. Customs & Border Patrol, Tripcase, Smarter Travel
Photo: Torstar News Service 


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