Maybe, like me, you’ve traveled to, France or Italy or New Zealand or Australia and wanted to bring back a case or two of the local wine. But you didn’t because you thought you’d have to pay U.S. Customs a stiff fee for carrying more than two bottles of alcohol into the country. Well, don’t deprive yourself any longer.
For years I never brought back more than a couple of bottles of wine because I didn’t want to pay duty. But during a trip to Italy approximately ten years ago, I decided I couldn’t resist putting together a case of great Italian wines I knew I’d never find the States. The wines were fairly expensive, around $60 per bottle, and I dreaded having to pay customs. But I kept my receipt and flew home, checking the case as baggage, and figured I’d grin and bear it when I declared my booty.
“What’s in the case?” the customs official at Washington’s Dulles airport asked me.
“Twelve bottles of wine,” I answered.
“Step over to the payment window,” he said.
Uh-oh, I thought.
When I told the cashier I had 12 bottles of wine, she told me I owed Uncle Sam exactly one dollar in duty—ten cents for the ten bottles above the two-bottle limit.
“The price of the wine doesn’t matter?” I asked.
“Nope,” said the cashier.
Now, I wish the law was that clear.
On the federal government’s U.S. Customs Website, a question-and-answer page states, “Duty [on alcohol] is generally three percent of value, and the IRS excise tax is generally between 21 and 31 cents per 750 ml bottle of wine, 67 cents for Champagne, and $2.14 for hard liquor.”
The site goes on to say there’s no federal limit on the amount of alcohol you can bring into the States for personal use, though an unusually large shipment might be viewed as being for commercial resale, in which case a whole different set of regulations kick in. However, each state’s alcohol and beverage control board may have regulations stipulating how much booze of any description you may bring into that state from abroad. But U.S. Customs doesn’t regulate state laws, so I wouldn’t worry about that.
But, wait, it gets more confusing. On the Chowhound Website, a contributor who calls himself “The Man” and claims he’s a U.S. Customs agricultural specialist, answered questions in great detail for a year or so about bringing in items as varied as ginseng, Heinz canned beans and franks from England, and wine.
“You can bring back as much wine as you are willing to carry or pay for per the airline,” The Man wrote in December of 2006. “U.S. Customs doesn't charge for wine, as long as it is for personal use and not for sale. Just declare it and make sure it is in your checked baggage because TSA has a no liquid rule. I've seen many a seized bottle of fine wine on the table of TSA on my way to get lunch through the TSA lines.”
Is “The Man” right?
Here is what I can tell you from my experience.
In the last four years, I’ve routinely brought home a case or two of wine as checked luggage from Europe, South America and New Zealand. I always declare the wine. And not once has a Customs official asked to see the wine or receipt for my purchases. And I’ve never been asked to pay even a dime a bottle.
I always pack bottles in Sytrofoam canisters in a well-wrapped cardboard box, and I’ve never experienced any breakage. However, changing planes in Bogota, Colombia, while flying from Buenos Aires to Maimi, the local authorities took my case of wine from baggage handlers. Two police officers met me on the jet way and—as I watched—took the bottles out of my carefully wrapped case, shook each one vigorously, and examined them in the light for any evidence of—I presume—cocaine inside. When none was found, the officers meticulously re-wrapped my wine and returned it to the cargo hold.
Can I promise you’ll never pay any duty should you bring 24 bottles of wine or Champagne into the U.S. when you next travel? I can’t. But it appears the odds are heavily in your—and your wine’s—favor.