Can TSA Check Your Phone & Electronic Devices? What About CBP? [2023]

Millions of travelers store extremely private information on their cell phones and laptops these days.

One worry when traveling through airports is the thought of other people getting access to that information.

Specifically, people worry about TSA agents and US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents checking their phones and computers when going through security and immigration/customs.

But what authority do these agencies really have when it comes to your personal phone, laptop, and other electronic devices?

In this article, I’ll break down whether or not TSA and CBP actually have authority to inspect and even detain your devices.

The results may surprise you a little bit but it definitely helps to be informed on this topic!

Can the TSA check your electronic devices?

TSA is not a law enforcement agency and therefore lacks certain types of search and seizure authority.

According to communications from the TSA, the agency, “does not search electronic devices for electronic content that may be contained on the device, and does not extract data from passenger electronic devices.”

Electronic devices would mean things like phones, laptops, cameras, tapes, external hard drives, etc.

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TSA’s stated purpose

TSA stands for “Transportation Security Administration” and the purpose is to “strengthen the security of the nation’s transportation systems while ensuring the freedom of movement for people and commerce.”

TSA is not looking for drugs like marijuana, trying to track down your arrest warrants, or engage in other types of law-enforcement duties.

Instead, they are focused on preventing people from bringing dangerous items like explosives on planes.

They also are not responsible for controlling our international borders, which means that they have not been granted special authority by the US government to engage in certain types of searches and seizures.

TSA screening and your electronic devices

Typically, whenever you head through TSA security you will place your phone in your carry-on/personal item or in one of the small bowls given to you at the x-ray conveyor belt.

If you don’t have TSA Pre-Check, you will take out your laptop and put it through the x-ray scanner separate from your luggage.

You’ll then head through a metal detector scanner or a full-body scanner with no electronic devices attached to your person.

While you are doing that, your electronic devices will go through the x-ray machine and be scanned by an agent.

At no time during this process should you be asked about the digital contents of your phone or other electronic devices.

In some cases, you could be asked to power on your electronic device to determine if it functions.

Your device also could be inspected to ensure that nothing is hidden inside of it such as contraband.

Also, you may need to show your device’s screen in order to show your boarding pass to a TSA agent.

But these type of interactions should be the furthest extent of any request related to your devices.

If they ask you to log-in to your device or unlock it, they are overstepping boundaries and you should feel okay with challenging their authority.

Basically, you should just ask for a TSA supervisor and tell them that you want 100% clarity as to their authority under the law for accessing the content on your electronic device.

Hint: They won’t be able to provide you with any.

Even if you are subject to SSSS, which is a heightened security screening that can be applied randomly, the contents of your phone and or laptop should still not be something that gets inspected.

The device might get swabbed for traces of explosives but a heightened security search should not involve you sharing the contents of your phone.

So if you are traveling domestically, that should give you a little bit of comfort knowing that the contents of your devices (e.g., files, photos, videos, etc.) cannot be searched by TSA.

But if you are traveling internationally, it is a much different story.

Related: TSA Approved Locks Guide (Worth It?)

CBP’s authority to inspect your devices

Unlike TSA, CBP has law-enforcement authority.

Not only that but they have authority to inspect the digital contents of your electronic devices when you are entering the United States as spelled out in their guidelines.

So CBP can definitely check your phone, camera, laptop, tablet, external hard drive, etc.

Where does this authority come from?

CBP is charged with “keeping terrorists and their weapons out of the U.S. while facilitating lawful international travel and trade.”

In order to carry out these duties, CBP must:

“determine the identity and citizenship of all persons seeking entry into the United States, determine the admissibility of foreign nationals, and deter the entry of possible terrorists, terrorist weapons, controlled substances, and a wide variety of other prohibited and restricted items.”

Various laws give CBP authority to enforce searches and detentions including: 8 U.S.C. § 1357 and 19 U.S.C. §§ 1499, 1581, 1582.

US Supreme Court cases also have previously held that routine searches that take place at the border do not require reasonable suspicion, probable cause, or even warrants.

That’s because according to the law, you have a reduced expectation of privacy at a border crossing, whether you are coming in or going out.

How effective are these laws at helping CBP carry out their duties when it comes to devices?

According to the CBP, these border searches for electronic devices have:

“resulted in evidence helpful in combating terrorist activity, child pornography, drug smuggling, human smuggling, bulk cash smuggling, human trafficking, export control violations, intellectual property rights violations and visa fraud.”

So CBP agents have a much higher level of search and seizure authority than TSA agents and they may also be actively looking for specific types of digital content located in electronic devices to further their mission.

The case law is still evolving on how exactly electronic devices should be handled at borders but it’s prudent to assume that CBP will err on the side of having access to your devices for now.

Related: How Much Cash Can You Travel With? (TSA & International Rules)

How often does CBP make these searches?

It’s actually pretty rare for CBP to inspect electronic devices.

Consider that in the fiscal year of 2019, CBP processed more than 414 million travelers at ports of entry and only conducted 40,913 searches of electronic devices.

That means that they only searched .01% of international travelers.

Here is a look at the month-by-month numbers of electronic device searches from 2017 to 2019.

Why do people get chosen for an inspection of their electronic devices?

Anybody leaving or entering the US is subject to inspection, search, and detention.

So anytime you’re traveling internationally you are fair game for an inspection.

However, there are quite a few specific reasons why you might be selected for an inspection and these include:

  • Incomplete travel documents
  • Improper visa
  • Prior violations of CBP enforced laws
  • Name matches name on government watch list
  • Selected for a random search

What type of searches are done?

When it comes to searching your devices, CBP agents will typically engage in either a “basic search” or an “advanced search.”

When engaging in a basic search, the agent does not need to have any suspicion.

That’s right, they can simply pick you out of a crowd and say, “Hey you, let me see your phone” with zero suspicion about what you’re doing.

And once you hand your phone over, they can start inspecting the contents of your phone, looking at things like social media apps, pictures, notes, etc.

An advanced search is a bit different.

This is when a CBP agent hooks up your phone to some type of external device with the intention to review, copy, or analyze contents.

Under most circumstances, these should take place only with the approval of a supervisor.

For these type of searches, there needs to be “reasonable suspicion” or some type of a national security concern.

What exactly creates a reasonable suspicion is a little unclear but it could be the presence of someone’s name on a watch list or other factors.

One thing is clear, probable cause is not needed nor is a warrant needed to inspect your phone.

Keep in mind, these searches can sometimes take hours. If you are flying back into the US and have a connecting flight, it’s possible that a search of your electronic device could force you to miss your connecting flight.

Cloud-based contents

The CBP search is not supposed to allow agents to access information that is only stored remotely.

That is a pretty important factor to know.

If the contents purely exist on the cloud the agent should not have the authority to force you to login and show them.

One way that they ensure this is to disable data connections on the phone (airplane mode) so that they can only access content stored locally on the device.

The search of your device should be conducted in your presence unless there is some type of national security or law-enforcement risk.

This doesn’t mean that you will be able to watch the screen as they search your device, it just means you will be nearby as they explore your contents.

Worth noting, there are special rules in place to protect things like attorney-client privilege communications, medical information, and other sensitive content.

Password protected devices

A major question that people have is what happens whenever you have a laptop or phone password-protected?

Can they force you to give them your password?

The answer looks like no, they cannot force you but they can certainly make it very difficult (and futile) for you if you refuse to provide your password.

First, the guidelines say “travelers are obligated to present electronic devices and the information contained therein in a condition that allows inspection of the device and its contents.”

It says that if an officer is presented with a password-protected device, an officer “may request” your assistance in presenting the information in a condition that allows inspection of the device.

How exactly that request would play out in practice is something I’m very curious about.

The CBP agents I’ve encountered have been very friendly over the years in the vast majority of cases.

But if they are on the hunt for information they believe is relevant to national security, I’m sure they would have a different demeanor.

Their request for your assistance and giving them your password may come off as more of a demand but that’s just my speculation.

CBP agents are not limited to just requesting the password to unlock your device either.

They can also request/demand passwords to access information on the device that is accessible through apps.

I interpret this to mean that they could get you to log in to communication apps like WhatsApp to see who you have been messaging if that information is available off-line.

It’s reported that your password will be deleted or destroyed when there is no longer a need for the search.

What if you don’t give them your password?

The guidelines state that an officer can detain electronic devices for a reasonable period of time to perform a thorough border search and the search can take place off-site.

So basically, if you refuse to give them access to your phone or electronic device they can simply confiscate it and figure out a way to get in on their own.

Typically, the detention of your device should not exceed five days.

You should be given a form that notifies you about the devices approved for detention and that gives you a point of contact.

Once the inspection is complete you will be able to pick up your device at the location it was taken or you can pay to have it shipped to you.

However, if they find probable cause they can retain your device.

For example, if they find evidence of you engaged in crime you most likely will not be getting your phone back as it will be subject to seizure under federal law.

Thoughts and concerns

The guidelines do offer a decent amount of clarity on how this process works.

I appreciate that they are straightforward with telling you that they do not need any suspicion to check your phone and that probable cause is not needed as well.

The biggest concern I would have is that it seems like if you don’t provide the agent with the passwords they are requesting, there’s potential for you to go through a pretty big mess with getting your device back.

It will likely be retained for several days and in some cases even a couple of weeks.

If you are US citizen you should still be able to enter the country but if you are a foreign citizen you may be denied entry.

Final word

When traveling domestically, you don’t need to worry about TSA searching the contents of your electronic devices such as your phone or your laptop.

However, when traveling internationally CBP has a lot of authority to inspect the contents of all of your electronic devices, even if they are password-protected.

Is Customs the Same as TSA? (Key Differences) [2022]

Lots of travelers don’t quite realize the difference between Customs and TSA.

While you can successfully navigate through an airport without knowing the differences between Customs and TSA it really does help to understand how different these agencies are.

That’s because you’ll be better equipped to handle certain situations that may arise during your travels.

In this article, I’ll explain all of the key differences between Customs and TSA.

Is Customs the same as TSA?

No, Customs is different from TSA. While both are agencies of the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS), they are tasked with very different duties to carry out related to travel and commerce.

Keep reading below to learn more about these two agencies and the key differences between them.

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What is Customs?

Customs is another name for United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which is the largest federal law enforcement agency of the United States Department of Homeland Security.

They are charged with “keeping terrorists and their weapons out of the U.S. while facilitating lawful international travel and trade.

They have around 60,000 employees and an annual budget of about $16.3 billion.

Customs has basically been around since the formation of the country in the 1700s when it was known as the “United States Customs Service.”

But since then it has bounced around between different government departments.

After the Civil War, this service was incorporated under the United States Department of the Treasury and then later in the early 1900s it became part of the Department of Commerce and Labor.

That lasted for a few decades and then FDR moved Customs to the the Department of Justice in 1940.

It wasn’t until 2003 that Customs fell under the Department of Homeland Security and was given the current CBP name which came as part of a larger re-organization

Typically, you only interact with Customs when coming back in the country at an airport or when traveling near international borders.

CBP carries out duties related to both Immigration and Customs.

For example, when you first arrive at an airport you need to get through Immigration and then after that you will be going to Customs. Both settings will involve CBP officers.

Immigration is mostly concerned about who you are, where you were coming from, and what you are up to.

Meanwhile, Customs is more concerned about what you are bringing with you (i.e., the contents of your luggage).

They want to make sure you are not bringing in harmful plants, banned foods, illegal drugs, and they also want to keep a close eye on how much money you are bringing with you.

Another big role of Customs is to make sure that you are paying any duty you might be owing when you arrive to the country.

Some airports combine Customs and Immigration so that you visit them at the same time. Others have different types of custom experiences with some allowing you to avoid interacting with an officer altogether.

What is TSA?

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is an agency of the DHS with a mission to “protect the nation’s transportation systems to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce.”

TSA was created as a response to the 9/11 attacks under the administration of President George W. Bush with the goal of improving airport security procedures and centralizing air travel security under one agency.

The agency also develops policies to help protect the U.S. highways, railroads, buses, mass transit systems, ports, and pipelines but the primary focus of TSA is definitely on air travel.

Initially an agency under the DOT, TSA was transferred to the DHS in 2003.

Not every airport utilizes TSA agents because they are allowed to privatize their security as long as they abide by TSA procedures. One of the most well-known airports that has private security is SFO in San Francisco, California.

TSA is roughly the same size as the CBP with around 54,000 employees. However, their budget is about half the size coming in at around $7.78 billion.

Most of the TSA employees are Transportation Security Officers (TSOs).

These are the officers that usher you through security checkpoints and check your baggage to make sure you do not have any prohibited items.

Worth noting, TSO’s do not carry weapons, are not allowed to use force, and they also lack the authority to arrest individuals.

There is a subset of TSA employees who do have the power to arrest and they are the Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS).

Not only do they have the power to arrest, but they have specialized training to make them excellent marksmen and proficient at hand to hand combat in tight quarters — vital skills needed on a plane when things go south.

It’s estimated that there are about 3,000 to 4,000 Federal Air Marshals today, a number that has grown significantly since the attacks of 9/11 when they were only 33.

Air Marshals had been around since the Kennedy administration of the 1960s (in some form) but it was not until 2005 that they were transferred from U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) to TSA.

3 Key differences between Customs and TSA

Where you have encounters with them

In most cases, when you’re departing, one of your first interactions at an airport will be with TSA.

That is because they (usually) run the airport security checkpoints located in different airport terminals.

Usually, you will head directly to these checkpoints right after you check in or check your baggage.

You could also have an interaction with TSA when waiting in line to check in or when waiting to pick up your baggage at the baggage carousel.

In those instances, it will probably be with an agent patrolling with a bomb sniffing dog.

Customs and Immigration is usually encountered when you come back into the country.

You’ll usually go through Immigration before you head to baggage claim and then go through Customs after you retrieve your luggage.

It’s worth pointing out that some airports have pre-clearance which means that you take care of your Customs and Immigration visit while on foreign soil.

Pre-Check & Global Entry

Both TSA and Customs and Immigration have special programs that you can enroll in to make your experience with them more expedited and smoother.

TSA has TSA Pre-Check which is a program that costs $85 to join and allows approved passengers to go through a separate security screening process that is less demanding than the security screening open to the public.

There are quite a few benefits to the program that allow for more convenient travel through airports.

First, you often only have to pass through a traditional metal detector (as opposed to the invasive full-body scanners) and you also get to enjoy the following benefits:

  • Shoes can stay on
  • Belt can stay on
  • Light jackets can stay on
  • Laptops allowed to stay in bag
  • Liquids (3-1-1 Rule) can stay in bag

Global Entry is a U.S. Customs and Border Protection service that allows pre-approved, low-risk travelers expedited entry at select airports when passing through immigration and customs checkpoints.

This can help you avoid those super long lines at immigration and save you a lot of time and frustration when arriving back into the US. It costs $100 to apply.

If you get approved for Global Entry then you automatically get enrolled in TSA Pre-Check so that is the route that I recommend most people to go.

That is especially true because many credit cards offer Global Entry credits so you can get enrolled in both of these programs for free as long as you can pass the background checks and interview.

Search authority

Customs and Immigration has significantly more authority than TSA when searching and seizing.

For TSA, the TSOs are authorized to scan you and your belongings to try to detect dangerous items such as weapons and explosives.

Typically, they will put you through a metal detector or full body scanner and if something is triggered they will then ask to search you or for you to hand something over.

You could also be subject to SSSS, which is an enhanced screening method that can sometimes be issued to you randomly.

Worth noting, TSA is not there to find drugs in your luggage.

In fact, in many cases if they were to come across something like marijuana they may just throw it out or not bother with it at all.

If TSA were to find something that did not look right or that was illegal (and dangerous), they would likely contact law-enforcement to get them to come in and take care of the matter since they don’t have authority to arrest and do not carry weapons to subdue travelers.

Things are very different with CBP.

First of all, they do have authority to arrest you since they are federal law enforcement officers.

So if they found out that you had an outstanding arrest warrant, or they caught you bringing drugs back into the country, they could absolutely arrest you on the spot.

More importantly, because they work at international ports/borders or their equivalent, they have more authority granted to them by the government to search your belongings and seize them.

This could have profound consequences for your travels.

For example, did you know that a CBP agent could simply search your phone when you arrive back in the US even if they don’t have any suspicion that you have done anything wrong.

And not just that, even if you had a device that was password-protected, the officer could get you to input your password and detain the item if you choose to not provide the password.

That is a dramatic difference from TSA who would never have authority to inspect the digital contents of your phone.

Going through Customs and Immigration is sort of like the Wild West when it comes to your constitutional rights to avoid searches — there is no need for probable cause or reasonable suspicion.

There are lawsuits always popping up that are challenging the authority of customers to make certain types of searches so these things are always evolving on some level.

Final word

TSA and Customs are two very different agencies that carry out very different responsibilities.

TSA mostly wants to make sure that you are not bringing dangerous items or explosives on to a plane and the TSO officers ushering you through security do not have law-enforcement powers.

On the other hand, Customs and Immigration wants to make sure that you are entering the country legally and that anything you are bringing with you or taking out with you is legally permitted.

CBP officers also have full law-enforcement powers and even authority to go further than a typical law enforcement officer does when it comes to searches and seizures.

US Customs at the Airport: What You Need to Know [2022]

When flying back into the US, you’ll have to make your way through Customs which is something some people get a little nervous or stressed about even when they are not strapping kilos of a certain powdery substance to their torso….

But is there any legitimate reason for you to be nervous when making your way through customs?

Well, the honest answer is kind of.

These things can be high consequence.

But if you know what you’re doing you can avoid a lot of that stress and worry.

In this article, I’ll provide some clarity on how to handle US Customs and give you some tips so that you can relax the next time you arrive at the airport from a trip abroad.

Immigration vs Customs

A lot of people get immigration and customs mixed up which is understandable because they are both : 1) under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and 2) a little bit scary.

However, they are ran (at the highest level) by separate but related agencies.

Immigration is administered by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), while customs is administered by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

The enforcement of immigration laws remains under CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which is why you see badged CBP officers running airport immigration lines.

Immigration is concerned with the status of your citizenship, where you were coming from, and what you plan on doing in the US.

Customs is more concerned with the value and nature of goods flowing in and out of the US.

One simplistic way to think about it is immigration is worried about you while customs is worried about your luggage.

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U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) rug

When do you deal with Customs?

Due to technology advances, the immigration and customs experience at US airports is rapidly changing.

I’ll give an overview of the general experience you can expect but just note that each airport may have a unique way of doing things, especially if they are testing out new methods.

Immigration lines and kiosks

Unless you’re arriving from an airport with Preclearance, you’ll be dealing with Immigration when you first arrive.

This is where you show your passport, scan your fingerprints, and say a little prayer so that you get back into the country without any problems.

If you have Global Entry, Mobile Passport, or some other type of membership you will head to the appropriate kiosks for those programs.

But even if you don’t have a membership with those programs you might still head to a kiosk.

Many airports are now moving to Automated Passport Control (APC) which are self-service kiosks where you can scan your passport and make declarations without filling out the traditional blue form.

After you get through Immigration, you will typically make your way through Customs which is in a separate area just beyond baggage claim.

But note that some airports combine passport control with baggage check.

So be ready for things to work a little bit differently at some airports.

Declaring or not declaring

Once you are off to baggage claim, you may see a line for people with items to declare and a separate line for people with no items to declare.

At that point, you will choose the appropriate line and if you still have your form you will hand it over to an agent at Customs.

If you have items to declare the agent may let you pass without inspection or he or she may choose to put you through an inspection.

A lot of times the agent may ask you what you have and if you simply tell them something simple like “candy and chocolate,” they will let you go on through.

If you have nothing to declare chances are you can get through without any delay but you could always be subject to a random secondary screening.

Unstaffed checkpoints

Sometimes there’s no CBP agents present at a specific checkpoint and you basically just walk on through and exit the airport unless you’re questioned or targeted for more screening.

Tip: If you have Global Entry you can get expedited entry through immigration and some airports also give you expedited access through Customs.

Not all US airports handle immigration and customs the same.

How to deal with US customs forms

With the way things are changing, you may not even have to fill out one of those infamous blue customs forms anymore. Instead, you might be able to handle everything electronically at a kiosk.

Even if you go the electronic route, you should still check out the information below because it will be helpful in letting you know what items need to be declared.

If you still have to fill out the paper forms, the average US traveler arriving at a US airport will only need to focus on the elements found on CBP Declaration Form 6059B.

The first 10 items on the form consist of basic contact information and are easy to fill out but the remaining items are a little bit more tricky.

Specifically, items 11 through 15 are the items you don’t want to mess up on.

I’ll go through the main items in detail below.

But something to keep in mind is that you can fill out this form online by typing in your responses and then print it out so that you are not stressing out over your lost pen or filling out the form via a kiosk.

Item 11 (food and agriculture items)

Item 11 is where you will declare certain types of plants and wildlife products if you are bringing them into the country.

This section has four different subsections a, b, c, and d.

  • Fruits, vegetables, plants, seeds, food, insects
  • Meat, animals, animal/wildlife products
  • Disease agents, cell cultures, snails
  • Soil or recent exposure to farms, ranches, pastures

These are all pretty obvious and self-explanatory.

When in doubt about declaring an item, you should always assume they will be defined liberally.


Well, for starters failure to declare food products can result in up to $10,000 in fines and penalties!

If you declare something and it is not allowed you will not get penalized at all.

Where things gets confusing is knowing what exactly will be allowed through Customs after you declare the item and it gets inspected.

That’s because the regulations can get super specific with some food items and be dependent on the countries they come from.

To help you out, I’ve rounded up some of the key details related to popular items you might declare.

If you have any of these items you will need to take a deeper dive to make sure you are in compliance but I will show you where to go to get that information below.

All food items

Something that is not terribly clear from the customs form is that “[y]ou must declare all food products.” The word “food” is found on 11(a) but a lot of people seem to miss it.

That’s probably because they skip over it after reading the first few items that don’t apply to them like fruits, vegetables, plants, and seeds.

I do think food should be featured more prominently but it’s definitely right there in the form.

This means that you need to declare things like:

  • Bread
  • Cookies, crackers, cakes
  • Granola bars, cereal and other baked and processed products
  • Candy and chocolate
  • Cheese 
  • Nuts

Don’t forget, you have to declare items even if you purchased them from duty-free stores.

With that out-of-the-way, here are some key things to keep in mind when bringing in different items.

Fruits and vegetables

  • Almost all fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables (whole or cut) are prohibited.
  • Most dried fruits and vegetables are not allowed.
  • Commercially canned fruits and vegetables are okay but not home-canned products.


  • Some plants are allowed to be brought in but others will require advance permission.
  • It can take up to 30 business days to process permits so this is something you need to plan well in advance.
  • Make sure that your seeds or plants are not affected by any restrictions like the Endangered Species Act.
  • You may nee to obtain a phytosanitary certificate.

Meats and poultry

  • You can bring in some meats and poultry but you have to make sure they are not coming from countries affected with certain diseases (aka most countries).
  • You will need to prove the origin of where you got the meat from which you can do with things like the packaging or your passport/boarding pass.
  • Cured hams (prosciutto, Serrano ham, Iberian ham) and salami from areas within France, Germany, Italy and Spain are not allowed.
  • Bringing more than 50 pounds would be considered a commercial shipment and must meet additional requirements.


  • Soil from all other countries (and from Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and all U.S. territories) is prohibited from entering the United States without a permit.

Tea & Coffee

  • You can bring any quantity of products composed solely of tea leaves
  • You can bring unlimited quantities of roasted coffee 
  • You can usually bring in comb honey, royal jelly, bee bread, or propolis if intended for personal consumption


  • Nuts are allowed entry if they have been boiled, cooked, ground, oven dried, pureed, roasted, or steamed.

Milk and dairy

  • Most milk and dairy items from countries with foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) are not allowed
  • Solid hard or soft cheeses are allowed (as long as the cheese does not contain meat or pour like a liquid i.e. ricotta or cottage cheese)

Exposure to farms, ranches, pastures

If you’ve had exposure to farms or pastures you should proceed with the following:

  1. Launder all clothing worn at the farm or while in contact with animals,
  2. Remove any dirt or debris from shoes, equipment, or other articles before packing them,
  3. Shower or bathe, wash hair, clean finger nails, and clear nasal passages (blow nose), and
  4. Answer “yes” to question 11 on the Customs Declaration Form (Form 6059B). 

To get more details on the rules for bringing in items, check out don’t pack a pest.

Image via Wiki.

Item 12 (close proximity of livestock)

Item 12 is concerned if you have been in close proximity of livestock.

This could mean that you were touching or recently handling some type of cattle for example.

This is not legal advice but livestock usually includes: “cattle, sheep, horses, goats, and other domestic animals ordinarily raised or used on the farm.”

Item 13 (currency or monetary instruments)

We have a detailed article on traveling with cash which you should definitely check out.

You may be surprised to find out that you can bring into or take out of the country as much money as you would like.

When you coming back into the country your concern needs to be declaring your money if it is valued at $10,000 or more.

With Customs you need to be concerned about cash but also other things that can be considered currency or “monetary instruments.”

Monetary instruments include: “coin, currency, travelers checks and bearer instruments such as personal or cashiers checks and stocks and bonds”

If the total value of these is more than $10,000 you will have to report on FinCEN 105.

Keep in mind this amount applies to everyone on the joint declaration form if you have multiple family members.

Failure to file the required report or failure to report the total amount that you are carrying may lead to the seizure of all the currency or monetary instruments.

So if you were coming into the country with $15,000 cash money and you do not declare that it could be seized and you may never get it back.

You could also get hit with civil penalties and/or criminal prosecution.

You just don’t want to play with US Customs.

Item 14 (commercial merchandise)

Item 14 is concerned about the commercial merchandise you are bringing in that are not considered personal effects.

This could be things like articles for sale, samples to use for soliciting orders, etc.

So for example if you purchased a large number of shirts in retail packaging that is something that would be considered commercial merchandise.

Item 15 (total value of goods)

Item 15 is different depending on if you are a resident or visitor.

If you are a resident then you need to total up the total value of all goods that you have purchased or acquired abroad.

This includes things like souvenirs and gifts for other people but not items that you have mailed it to the US.

Basically, anything you bring back that you did not have when you left the United States must be “declared.”

Keep in mind that the total is based on the total amount that you and anyone else traveling with you is bringing if you are doing a joint declaration.

So if you are filling out this form for you, your spouse, and your child, you need to consider the total for all of you.

Paying the duty

You may have to pay the duty fee if the total value of the merchandise you are bringing back is above a certain threshold.

Each individual is usually granted an $800 personal exemption which means that if all of the goods you bring back for personal or household use are under that amount you don’t have to pay anything.

However, the amount of your exemption can vary based on the countries that you have visited and there are special limits on things like alcohol and tobacco.

A joint declaration can be made by family members who live in the same household and return to the United States together.

These travelers can combine their purchases to take advantage of a combined flat duty rate.

Final word

US Customs is concerned with controlling the flow of goods that come into the country and is specifically concerned with things like food, agricultural products, and money.

Considering how you can have these items seized or be penalized in a civil manner or criminal manner, you definitely want to err on the side of declaring.