Every seasoned traveler knows better than to try to smuggle those illegal Kinder Eggs or Italian salamis back through US Customs. After all, you risk having your souvenirs confiscated, fines levied, or even the unthinkable happening– having your Global Entry status revoked. Imagine coming home after a long flight, and being doomed to suffer those long immigration lines with the rest of the hoi-polloi for all of eternity. It’s enough to scare any traveler into leaving that perfectly legal wheel of cheese behind– just in case.
Because of all the confusion around what’s allowed and what’s not, I decided to do my own research. And by research, I meant google other articles to see if I could find a tidy summary of the regulations. Unfortunately, most of what’s written up is vague or just plain wrong, so with a heavy sigh, I went to the US Customs website and read the actual regulations myself.
Reading and deciphering the US Customs regulations is kind of like diving head first into a never-ending rabbit hole. I would think I’d found the answer (eureka!) but then be disappointed as I noticed a reference leading to an appendix with a long list of exceptions. Then there is the matter of keeping straight a dozen or so acronyms for god awful diseases (BSE= mad cow), which may scare you off from ever eating meat again.
In my very non-scientific examination of the US Customs regulations, though, I did come across some souvenirs that I was surprised were legal, and I thought would be fun to share with you.
Disclaimer: this post does not constitute legal advice! Check the actual US Customs regulations for the most up-to-date information.
1. Switchblades– Legal, if you are a One-Armed Man
While switchblades are generally a big no-no, there is a notable exception– it’s perfectly fine to bring a switchblade home if you are a one-armed man (or woman).
2. Knives, Daggers and Swords, all Legal
If you are disappointed that you can’t bring home a switchblade, fear not, there are plenty of other sharp and pointy objects that you can pile in your suitcase. Have your eye on a pretty dagger? No problem, pop it into your shopping bag. Find a big sale on knives? Time to stock up. Does that samurai sword call out to you? Pull out your credit card, as long as you can figure out how to get it home, US Customs will allow it.
3. Souvenirs from North Korea are Legal
North Korea is becoming downright trendy these days, but what’s the point of going if you can’t brag it up? But instead of outright bragging, try the more subtle (yet still effective) tactic of encouraging others to ask about your travels. The best way to accomplish this is to bring home some North Korean souvenirs and display them prominently, where everyone will see them (I suggest the coffee table). If your visitors don’t at first seem to notice your hard-won booty, it’s perfectly acceptable to “absentmindedly” pick it up, and play with it a bit, until they are all but forced to enquire.
When recounting your harrowing travel tales, you can mention that Americans are allowed to bring home $100 worth of North Korean goods through US Customs (who knew?).
I didn’t visit North Korea proper, but I did visit the Joint Security Area in the demilitarized zone (DMZ). And while we weren’t sure whether our guides were messing with us when they told us to ” be ready to run in case of kidnapping” the stare downs we had with the North Korean soldiers were real. To celebrate, I picked up some North Korean blueberry wine and cognac. I can confirm that both tasted rancid and should be purchased for novelty purposes only.
4. Cuban Cigars, Legal (Up to $100)
Rejoice, there is no need to slip off the Cuban labels anymore (not that you would do that anyway). As of early last year, changes to US federal regulations mean that US citizens visiting Cuba are now allowed to bring up to $100 worth of Cuban goods, including Cuban cigars, home with them.
5. Wild Bison from Canada, Legal (if you Hunted and Killed it Yourself)
No, you can’t just walk into a Canadian supermarket, pick up a wild bison, and drive it home over the US border. But, if you personally hunted and killed said wild bison, it’s perfectly legal, so toss that carcass in the trunk. Just remember to keep your hunting permit handy in case anyone asks.
6. One Fake Designer Handbag or other Counterfeit Good of your Choice, Legal
While obvious labels are considered gauche these days, some classics never go out of style. But if you can’t afford the classic, you can get a halfway decent knock off if you know where to look (pro tip: ask for “best quality” to be led to a secret stash).
Interestingly, US Customs allows you to bring back these clearly infringing goods if i) you bring back only one souvenir of each type, and (ii) the souvenir is for personal use and (iii) you haven’t brought back any knockoffs in the last 30 days. That means along with your faux Chanel bag, you can also bring home a pair of “Gucci” socks, one package of “Burberry” wrapping paper, and a Louis Vuitton t-shirt. Score!
7. Bargain Viagra, Legal for Personal Use
Hoarding your pricey supply of Viagra? Why not save a few bucks by picking some up while on vacation in Mexico. US Customs will let you bring most prescription medication through as long as i) it’s available in the US ii) it’s for personal use and iii) it’s within the allowed supply limits (definitely check the FDA site for specifics as there are lots of parameters and exceptions to this confusing rule).
8. Cute Beach Dog? Probably Legal
Fall in love with one of those stray mutts roaming the beaches of your vacation destination? While it’s not going to be quick, easy or cheap, it is possible to bring your beloved stray home with you– that is, after multiple vet visits, getting the right documents together and arranging transportation. Check local laws and the Humane Society’s site for more information.
7. Cheese that’s Runny, but Not too Runny, Legal
I’m not sure why, but most travelers seem to think you can’t bring home a “runny” cheese like Brie or Camembert. “Runniness” might be a factor to consider for what constitutes a liquids in your carry on (be careful with your mustards and jams too). But for US Customs purposes, regular “runny” cheese passes muster. Customs only bans cheeses that are suspended in liquid– but only from countries impacted by foot and mouth disease. I haven’t quite figured out the logic of this one yet.
On another note, unaged raw milk cheese is still banned by US Customs. Famous chefs and cheese shops have been known to flout this rule, assuming that customs won’t be able to make out (or understand) the tiny Italian/French writing on the labels.
9. Fresh (or not so Fresh) Fish, Legal
In theory, you can take a row boat out to the middle an Austrian lake in the morning, catch a fish, get it through US Customs later that same day and cook it for dinner back home that evening. But while fresh fish is allowed, it might just be easier to bring home some dried, frozen, smoked or canned fish (all also allowed).
10. Kangaroo Jerky and Canned Beef Bulgogi MAYBE Legal
After reviewing all the Customs regulations outlining all horrific diseases potentially impacting animals in almost every country, you may lose your appetite or even consider going vegetarian. But if you are determined to bring something unusual back and you happen to be visiting one of the few non-disease ridden countries, there are a couple of meat-based souvenirs to consider– including kangaroo jerky from Australia and canned beef bulgogi from Korea. Just make sure to bring your supermarket receipt with you as proof of purchase in that country. Since these regulations are updated all the time, it’s especially important to check the latest requirements before you leave.
There is a difference between a souvenir being banned by US Customs and a souvenir that is allowed but limited (and possibly subject to tax). For example, many people think you can’t bring back more than two bottles of wine. Not true at all, you can bring back a case or more if you pay a small tax.
Many confuse the US Customs rules with other rules from other authorities that may also apply (for example, TSA rules or luggage and carry on restrictions of each individual airline).
Keep in mind that even if a souvenir is allowed through US Customs, it still might need to be declared.
In researching this post, I contacted the US Customs office for clarification and fact-checking, but did not receive a reply.
Have you brought hope a souvenir that you were surprised was allowed through US Customs? Share in the comments!