US customs

Regulations for permanent & temporary residents

US customs

When you enter the US to take up permanent or temporary residence, you can usually import your personal belongings duty and tax free. Any duty or tax payable depends on where you arrived from, where you purchased the goods, how long you’ve owned them, and whether duty and tax has already been paid in another country.

Personal effects owned and used for at least one year before importation are usually exempt from import duty.

The duties levied on non-exempt items vary according to the classification of goods and their original value. All alcoholic beverages are subject to assessment of federal duty and internal revenue taxes (an additional tax is also payable in some states). If alcohol is included with unaccompanied shipments, customs may require the entire shipment to be thoroughly examined, which will incur delays and extra expense.

If you’re coming to live in the US and are sending your household goods unaccompanied, you must provide US customs with a detailed list of everything brought into the country and its value. The detail officially required is often absurd and you’re even expected to list such things as the titles of books, although in practice less detail is acceptable. A person immigrating to the US may bring professional equipment and tools of his trade with him. US embassies and consulates provide a free information package and sample inventory list.

You’re required to complete customs form 3299 Declaration for Free Entry of Unaccompanied Articles, for presentation to the examining customs officer when your belongings are cleared through customs. It’s not necessary to employ a broker or agent to clear your belongings, as you can do this yourself after you arrive in the US or you can authorise someone to represent you. If you’re using a removals company, they usually handle customs clearance for you. Your belongings must be cleared within five working days after their arrival; otherwise they’re sent to a warehouse for storage at your risk and expense until customs clearance can be made.

Your belongings may be imported up to six months before your arrival, but no more than one year after your arrival, after transferring your residence. They must not be sold, lent, rented or otherwise disposed of in the US within one year of their importation or of your arrival (whichever is later) without obtaining customs authorisation.


If you’re a visitor, you can bring your personal belongings to the US free of duty and tax without declaring them to customs provided that:

  •  They’re brought in with you and are for your personal use only;
  •  They’re kept in the US for no longer than six months in a 12-month period;
  •  You don’t sell, lend, rent or otherwise dispose of them in the US;
  •  They’re exported when you leave the US or before they’ve been in the US for more than six months, whichever occurs first.

Returning Residents

If you’re a US resident returning from abroad, you must declare all articles acquired abroad and in your possession at the time of your return, including:

  •  Articles you’ve purchased or inherited abroad;
  •  Gifts given to you while abroad, including wedding or birthday presents;
  •  Articles purchased in duty-free stores;
  •  Repairs or alterations made to any articles taken abroad and returned;
  •  Items you’re bringing into the US for another person;
  •  Goods you intend to sell or use in your business.

You must also declare any articles acquired in American Samoa, Guam or the US Virgin Islands that aren’t accompanying you at the time of your return. The price paid for each article must be stated on your declaration form in dollars or the equivalent in the country where it was purchased (if not purchased, an estimate of its fair retail price must be provided).

Returning residents may bring into the US personal belongings of US origin free of duty without proof, provided they’re clearly marked as made in the US. Foreign-made personal articles taken abroad are dutiable when they’re brought into the US, unless you’ve proof of prior possession, such as a receipt of purchase. Items such as watches, cameras, tape recorders, computers and other articles that can be readily identified by a serial number or permanent markings, can be registered with US customs before leaving the US.

Customs will register anything with a serial number, identifying marks, or documented by a sales receipt or insurance document. You can also register in advance by filling out Customs Form 4457 after which you receive a carnet, an official Customs document listing the serial numbers of your equipment, which you can show as proof of your ownership.

Household effects and tools of your trade or occupation taken out of the US are allowed in duty-free when you return, provided they’re properly declared and registered. All furniture, carpets, paintings, tableware, linens and similar household furnishings acquired abroad may be imported free of duty, provided they’ve been used abroad by you for not less than one year, or were available for use in a household where you were resident for one year. The year of use needn’t be continuous nor must it be the year immediately preceding the date of importation.

Items such as clothes, jewellery, photographic equipment, tape recorders, stereo components and vehicles are considered to be personal articles, and cannot be imported free of duty as household effects. The exemption doesn’t include articles placed in storage outside the home or articles imported for another person or for sale.

If you took a car, motorcycle, boat, aeroplane or other vehicle abroad for non-commercial use, it may be returned duty-free provided you can prove that you took it out of the US, e.g. with a customs certificate or a US registration obtained before departure. A vehicle purchased abroad can be imported into the US on payment of duty of 2.5 per cent, but must meet US emission and safety standards.

For residents who travel abroad more than three times a year, USCIS have introduced INPASS, a quick pass that works at ten major airports (it will eventually be used at 23 airports). You must have your palm scanned and then, whenever you pass through customs, you simply press your palm against a screen for identification. More information is available from USCIS field offices or on 1-800-755-0777.

General Information

General information about customs regulations for returning residents is contained in a leaflet, Know Before You Go, which is available via the internet ( ). The following leaflets are also available from customs offices or from the US Customs and Border Protection, Office of Public Information (1301 Constitution Avenue, NW, PO Box 7407, Washington, DC 20229, 202-566-8195, ): United States Customs Hints For Visitors,  Importing a Car, Pleasure Boats, Customs Guide for Private Flyers, Pets & Wildlife, and  Trademark Information for Travelers.

The US Customs Service also provides detailed information regarding the importation of special items, and the US Department of Agriculture publishes Travelers’ Tips, available online at  where you can find more information about importing duty-free alcohol and tobacco (etc.), cars, electrical apparatus, pets and animals.


The US doesn’t require the registration of foreign nationals (aliens) at a local police station, although a change of address must be registered with the USCIS within ten days and you must report your address annually irrespective of whether it has changed. All permanently resident foreigners over the age of 14 are finger-printed before they’re issued with their green card and those who attain the age of 14 while in the US should be finger-printed within 30 days of their 14th birthday.

Non-immigrants intending to remain in the US longer than one year who are citizens of countries that require US citizens to be finger-printed, are also finger-printed. Permanent residents over 18 are required to carry their green cards (or a copy) at all times.

This article is an extract from Living and Working in America. Click here to get a copy now.

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