Returning from south of the border with more than memories

Travelers returning from Mexico usually tote an abundance of new photos, improved suntans and a more relaxed approach to life. But the material mementos you are carrying might be restricted. And for those thinking of filling a suitcase with tequila, you'll have to declare it, so it's important to know the consequences. Here are the answers to your most pressing questions on these issues.

Q: What can I bring back from Mexico?

A: When the Mexican vacation (or business trip) is over and it's time to head home, review a list of items you can bring back into the U.S. and compare it to the contents of your suitcase. You will have to declare everything you bought in Mexico at the border, and your purchases must fit within these perimeters: anything that isn't prohibited with total value capped at $800 for yourself or as gifts. This can include only one liter of alcohol per person over the age of 21 and one carton of cigarettes per person over the age of 18. If you exceed these amounts, you won't be arrested (assuming you declare it), but you may have to pay customs duty.

Q: What exactly is customs duty?

A: Customs Duty is a type of tax the U.S. government imposes on goods that are transported across international borders. An article is called "dutiable" if you might have to pay duty on it. The customs duty rate is a percentage of the total amount you paid for the articles in Mexico. You'll pay 3 percent of the total value of your dutiable articles for the first $1,000 above the $800 limit. After that, the duty charge is item-by-item.

Q: What about liquor or other items purchased in a duty-free shop?

A: The term "duty free" may lead you to believe that your purchases will automatically be excluded from the $800 cap on purchases that you can bring back into the U.S. without paying duty. No such luck. All purchases, including those from duty-free shops, are calculated. Duty-free purchases are free of duty only for the country in which that shop is located. Any articles acquired in a duty-free shop in Mexico are counted into your personal exemption/allowance when you return to the U.S.

Q: Can you bring alcohol back every day if you cross the border every day?

A: No. Adults can bring back only one liter every 30 days. And you'll have to be at least 21 years old to even be allowed one liter. Yes, the drinking age in Mexico is 18 years old, but the drinking age of the states is what counts.

Q: What items are prohibited?

A: It won't surprise anyone to learn that illegal drugs cannot be legally carried across the border. Breaching this obvious rule can result in big fines and the seizure of your vehicle, as well as federal charges and imprisonment.

But drugs are not the only items you can't bring back into the United States from Mexico. Other prohibited items include:

  • most fruits, like apples and oranges, including any you carried with you to Mexico from the U.S.
  • most meats and many vegetables
  • Cuban cigars
  • switchblade knives
  • articles made from or of endangered species, including products made from sea turtles, ivory, rhinoceros horn and horn products, spotted cat furs, furs and/or ivory from marine mammals, wild bird products,  crocodile and caiman leather products, coral in jewelry or chunks

Q: Is there any way around these laws?

A: You don't want to try to sneak anything across the border. It's not just a criminal offense, it's a bad idea. But you can lighten the custom duty you owe with a little loophole. You do not have to declare items mailed home for your personal use or as gifts, within restrictions. You can mail up to $200 worth of items from Mexico to yourself (for your personal use) every day. You can also mail up to $100 to another person every day as long as it is an unsolicited gift.