So you have a load of cash and you want to transport it across the country or perhaps even internationally. But exactly how much cash are you allowed to travel with?
In this article, I will break down everything you need to know about traveling with cash including important rules and limitations when flying. I’ll also cover a number of key considerations you will want to think about before taking your cash with you when going through TSA or even traveling internationally.
How much cash can you travel with?
There are no limits on the amount of cash you can travel with but there are some major considerations you need to think about when doing so. If you are traveling domestically, your primary concern is avoiding forfeiture of your cash. If you are traveling internationally, forfeiture is a concern but you should also be focused on remembering to declare the value of your currency and monetary instruments totaling above $10,000. Keep reading to find out more.
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Traveling domestically with cash
TSA is concerned about dangerous threats such as explosives and not with enforcing laws and penal codes. (This is why they do not check for arrest warrants.)
Your cash money does not present a dangerous threat and so there should be no legitimate concern about it harming other passengers on the plane.
However, in the past there have been reports of TSA agents seizing cash from passengers under the suspicion that it is money gained from an illegal activity or money that is intended to be used on illegal activity. Think drugs, weapons, and organized crime activities.
The seizing of cash can be accomplished via 21 U.S. Code § 881(a)(6) which governs forfeitures.
It states that you have no property right for:
(6) All moneys, negotiable instruments, securities, or other things of value furnished or intended to be furnished by any person in exchange for a controlled substance or listed chemical in violation of this subchapter, all proceeds traceable to such an exchange, and all moneys, negotiable instruments, and securities used or intended to be used to facilitate any violation of this subchapter.
It’s possible that if a TSA agent spots a lot of cash on you or in your bag (especially a lot of smaller bills like $20 bills) they could refer you to authorities (i.e., DEA) for some type of questioning. The authorities may check to see if you are on some type of watchlist but even if you are not they may still deem that your cash is subject of forfeiture, which means that it will all be taken from you.
This can happen even if you have not been convicted of any crime.
Some dogs that patrol airports have a nose for cash and a lot of cash has come into contact with illegal narcotics. In fact, a study by Yuegang Zuo of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth in 2009 found that about 90 percent of banknotes contain traces of cocaine. Traces of other drugs have also been found on cash like codeine, amphetamines and methamphetamines.
That means means that “false positives” could be triggered, which could potentially be used as further evidence about your illegal activity (reportedly dogs don’t usually sniff out these faint traces).
If your money is seized you should have the opportunity to petition the process and to retrieve your funds. It’s an odd legal proceeding where your cash is literally the defendant: “United States of America v. $50,000 in United States currency.”
That’s important because it means that the legal burden of proof is at the civil level which only requires it to be more likely than not that you were up to no good.
This petition process may not be very fun, could last a long time, and could be very costly. For example, you will likely need to hire an attorney which might cost you as much money as you have at stake.
Your success rate could also be very low. In March 2017, the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General reported that over the course of 10 years, the DEA only returned money in 8% of cases.
And if you do get your money back, if you owe taxes or judgments, those will likely have to be paid out first.
For these reasons, I would try to limit the cash I take through TSA security to maybe just a couple of thousand dollars (If that). Personally, the most cash I ever carry on me is a couple of hundred bucks.
This may be problematic for people who want to gamble at their destination or who are looking to do things like purchase a car with cash but you should make alternative arrangements to receive your cash at your destination if possible.
So if you are thinking about traveling through TSA with cash my advice would be the following:
Keep the amount as small as possible
First, avoid bringing more than $2,000 in cash if possible. That should be well below the level considered to be suspicious, as the lowest amount I saw subject to forfeiture was $6,000.
Also, try to avoid $20 bills since those are customarily used in drug deals.
Notify a TSA agent
If you do bring cash consider notifying a TSA agent when you enter the line and see if you can get some type of private or secondary screening. If you have TSA Pre-Check, an agent might consider you to be less likely to be engaged in criminal activity but that is not a guarantee.
But note that cash has been seized in cases where people notified a TSA agent themselves so this is not a full proof method.
And it goes without saying but do not attempt to conceal the cash on your body such as strapping it to your chest because the full body scanners will find this quite easily.
Avoid checked baggage
You might be thinking about putting the cash in your checked baggage but that is not a good idea.
For one, if the cash was detected you will not be there to explain the situation and you may be caught off guard later when you are brought in for questioning by the DEA.
Second, if your cash is detected it’s possible that an unethical TSA agent could simply decide to take your cash.
And finally, if your luggage is lost you will not be able to retrieve that cash and cash is almost always an exception to baggage insurance policies.
If you are traveling with a lot of cash because you want to purchase a vehicle or take care of some other transaction make sure that you have all of the supporting documentation already with you in case you are brought in for questioning.
Presenting anything less than an airtight explanation for transporting cash can mean instant forfeiture.
Avoid transporting suspicious items
It is a good idea to avoid transporting other items such as marijuana along with your cash since that will only reinforce the image that you are up to some type of criminal drug activity. This is even the case if the state you are flying out of has legalized marijuana.
Consider your criminal history
And finally, if you have any type of criminal history — especially cases related to drug infractions — the odds of you encountering an issue with forfeiture go up. So you should really reconsider bringing a lot of cash if that applies to you.
International cash limit of $10,000
US Customs and Border Protection is clear that you can transport “any amount of currency or other monetary instruments into or out of the United States.”
The caveat is that if the amount of currency exceeds $10,000 or it’s for an equivalent then you will need to file a FinCEN Form 105 (“Report of International Transportation of Currency or Monetary Instruments”) with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
This is a pretty simple form to fill out and basically just requires you to input the following information:
- Contact information including passport number
- Export/import information
- Shipping information if applicable
- Details of the currency or monetary instrument
You can file this form electronically at FinCEN Form 105 CMIR, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (dhs.gov) but you can also file it in paper form.
In addition, if you are entering the United States you must clear if you are carrying currency or any other monetary instruments if they total over $10,000. You can make this declaration on your Customs Declaration Form (CBP Form 6059B) and then file a FinCEN Form 105.
Do not blow off this requirement because failing to declare could mean forfeiture of your money and some pretty serious criminal penalties.
And remember each country has its own policy regarding traveling with cash so you have to make sure you are in compliance with the country you are headed to.
Unless you went to law school for three years you might be wondering what a “monetary instrument” is. US Customs and Border Protection defines it as:
- Traveler’s checks in any form
- All negotiable instruments (including personal checks, business checks, official bank checks, cashier’s checks, third-party checks, promissory notes, and money orders) that are either, in bearer form, endorsed without restriction, made out to a fictitious payee, or otherwise in such form that title passes upon delivery
- Incomplete instruments (including personal checks, business checks, official bank checks, cashiers’ checks, third-party checks, promissory notes, and money orders) signed but with the payee’s name omitted
- securities or stock in bearer form or otherwise, in such form that title passes thereto upon delivery.
In this article we are mostly focused on cash which would most definitely fall under “currency.”
Specifically, 19 CFR § 1010.100(m) defines “currency” as the coin and paper money of the United States or of any other country that:
- (1) is designated as legal tender, (2) circulates, and (3) is customarily used and accepted as a medium of exchange in the country of issuance.
- Currency includes U.S. silver certificates, U.S. notes, and Federal Reserve notes.
- Currency also includes official foreign bank notes that are customarily used and accepted as a medium of exchange in a foreign country.
The big take away here is that this restriction applies to cash of the US and also other countries. The cash of pretty much every developed country is going to meet the requirements for currency listed above so it doesn’t matter if you are transporting Great Britain Pounds, Euros, etc.
Keep in mind that each form of currency and monetary instrument counts separately, as well. So if you have $6,000 in cash and a $5,000 traveler’s check, you are above the limit.
And members of a family residing in one household entering the United States that submit a joint or family declaration must declare if the members are collectively above the $10,000 limit. So if a husband has $4,000 and the wife has $7,000, that family must declare because they are collectively above the limit.
Items that don’t count as currency
Some items related to currency do not officially count as currency but you still may have to declare them as “merchandise.” For example, coins of precious metals, including silver and gold, do not fall into the definition of “monetary instrument” or “currency.”
However, coins of precious metals must be declared as merchandise if they are acquired abroad.
Other articles of precious metals (including gold bullion, gold bars, and gold jewelry) also do not fall into the definition of “monetary instrument” or “currency.” However, these articles must also be declared as merchandise if they are acquired abroad.
They also have a list of excluded items which includes:
- Warehouse receipts and bills of lading
- Monetary instruments that are made payable to a named person, but are not endorsed or which bear restrictive endorsements
- Credit cards and prepaid cards
- Virtual currencies including Bitcoin
So if you are traveling around with credit limits above $50,000 or a nice stash of cryptocurrency you don’t have to worry about declaring those items.
Factors to consider when traveling with cash
When you are traveling chances are you are going to want to spend some money on various expenses like dining and excursions. It is highly recommended to use a good travel rewards credit card for these expenses for a few reasons.
Getting through security
If you have a bag full of cash money, that bag is going to have to get through security at some point. This may be at the airport, a train station, etc. As explained in detail above, if a screening agent notices that you have wads of cash in a bag this could potentially raise a red flag and a worst-case scenario of you losing your cash and never getting it back.
The theft risk
Traveling with cash is risky whether you keep that cash on you or you stored in your hotel room.
If you are walking around with cash on you there is always that chance that you could run into a thief. This could be someone who could pick pocket your wallet or cash right out of your clothes or bag. Or in a more serious case, this could be someone who holds you up with some type of weapon and forces you to handover your cash.
If you are going to travel with cash on your person it’s recommended to have some type of hidden wallet and a dummy wallet in your pocket. Your dummy wallet will have a small amount of cash, perhaps a duplicate credit card and even a duplicate ID to make it look as realistic as possible.
The idea is that if someone were to take that dummy wallet they would only get away with a minimal amount of your valuables. You could then have your real stash of cash hidden beneath your clothing.
If you choose to store your cash in your hotel room you also need to be careful. Putting your cash into a hotel safe is not quite as secure as you might think. In some cases you may actually want to just hide your cash somewhere in the room where a thief would not think to look.
Either way you go, carrying a lot of cash on you is a risk that you need to weigh very carefully.
You can get travel insurance by paying for your excursions and travels with a good travel credit card.
So if for some reason you purchase a nonrefundable hotel or tour and then you have to cancel because you get sick or for some other covered reason, you can get fully reimbursed for your purchase. In some cases this could put thousands of dollars back in your pocket.
But if you paid for something like your hotel with cash there is a good chance that you will simply be out of luck and get hit with the loss. Also, you might struggle to even be able to pay cash for certain travel expenses like rental cars.
Foreign conversion fees
When you convert your cash into a foreign currency you will be paying some type of conversion fee and in some cases those can be very high. Certain types of ATM cards will allow you to withdraw cash in the local currency with minimal fees but the best way to make purchases abroad is to simply have a credit card with no foreign transaction fees.
Travel credit cards are great about offering rewards on purchases made abroad. You don’t have to look very far to find a credit card that will earn you extra bonus points on flights, hotels, and even your tours and events. Earning extra points on dining, even when dining abroad, is also easy with cards like the Amex Gold Card.
By paying with cash you are missing out on all of these valuable rewards.
Traveling with a lot of cash can be problematic because that is often how actors travel who are engaged in criminal activities. Your best bet is to avoid bringing a lot of cash but if you must, try to bring as much supporting documentation as possible and be prepared for questioning and the possibility of you having to fight against the government to retrieve your money.
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and creator of the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned full-time credit card rewards/travel expert and has earned and redeemed millions of miles to travel the globe. Since 2014, his content has been featured in major publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, Forbes, CNBC, US News, and Business Insider. Find his full bio here.