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Customs at the US Border - Know Before you Go What you can and cannot bring back from Baja

Duty-Free Shops

The term "duty-free" shops confuses many travelers. Travelers often think that what they buy in duty-free shops will not be dutiable when they return home and clear customs. But this is not true. Articles sold in a duty-free shop are free of duty and taxes only for Mexico. So if your purchases exceed your personal exemption, items you bought in a duty-free shop, whether in the United States or abroad, will be subject to duty. If you buy liquor in a duty-free shop in San Ysidro before entering Mexico and then bring it back into the United States, it may be subject to duty and Internal Revenue Service tax.

Paying Duty Versus Duty-Free

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect in 1994. If you are returning from Mexico, ALL your goods are eligible for free or reduced duty rates if they were grown, manufactured, or produced in Mexico.

Duty-Free Exemption

The duty-free exemption is the total value of merchandise you may bring back to the United States without having to pay duty. You may bring back more than your exemption, but you will have to pay duty on it. The personal exemption is $800 when staying at least 48 hours away from the US.

If you have not been out of the country for at least 48 hours and the item is not exempt under NAFTA, you may still bring back $200 worth of items free of duty and tax. For instance, you were out of the country for 36 hours and came back with a $300 piece of pottery. You could not deduct $200 from its value and pay duty on $100. The pottery would be dutiable for the full value of $300. The exemption is for every member of your group, so if you had two or more people the pottery would be duty free.

Alcoholic Beverages

One liter (33.8 fl. oz.) of alcoholic beverages may be included in your exemption if you are 21 years old. Federal regulations allow you to bring back more than one liter of alcoholic beverage for personal use, but, as with extra tobacco, you will have to pay duty and Internal Revenue Service tax.

Paying Duty

If you owe duty, you must pay it when you arrive in the United States. You can pay it in any of the following ways:

  • U.S. currency.
  • Personal or traveler's check in the exact amount, drawn on a U.S. bank, made payable to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
  • In some locations, you may pay duty with credit cards, either MasterCard or VISA.

Prohibited And Restricted Items

Prohibited means the item is forbidden by law to enter the United States. Examples of prohibited items are dangerous toys, cars that don't protect their occupants in a crash, bush meat, or illegal substances like absinthe and Rohypnol. Restricted means that special licenses or permits are required from a federal agency before the item is allowed to enter the United States. Examples of restricted items include firearms, certain fruits and vegetables, animal products, animal by products, and some animals.

Fruits and Vegetables

Bringing fruits and vegetables depends on a number of factors. NOTE: The civil penalty for failing to declare agricultural items at U.S. ports of entry will cost first time offenders $300. To avoid receiving a penalty present all agricultural items to Customs and Border Protection for inspection so that an agriculture specialist can determine if it is admissible. Generally, here are the fresh items prohibited from Mexico: Apple, Avocado, Apricot, Black Cherry, Cherimoya, Plum, Peach, Pomegranate, Passion Fruit, Mango, Guava, Fig, Kiwi, Limes, Oranges, Quince, Pear, Persimmon, Pitahaya, Sapote, Tangerine, Sweet Potato, Potato and Okra.

Meats, Livestock and Poultry

The regulations governing meat and meat products are stringent. You may not import fresh, dried or canned meats or meat products from Mexico into the United States. Prohibited items include: Raw beef, Raw eggs, Raw poultry, All pork products (raw or cooked) to include lard, sausages, pork rinds and pork tacos.


Rule of thumb: When you go to Mexico, take the medicines you will need, no more, no less. Carry such substances in their original containers. Please note that only medications that can be legally prescribed in the United States may be imported for personal use. As a general rule, the FDA does not allow the importation of prescription drugs that were purchased outside the United States. Although some drugs may be legal elsewhere, they may not legally enter the country and will be confiscated, even if they were obtained under a foreign physician's prescription.

Plants and seeds

Chrysanthemums, Gladiolas, Bamboo, Live Plants and seeds for planting are prohibited. Every single plant or plant product including handicraft items made with straw, must be declared to the CBP officer and must be presented for CBP inspection, no matter how free of pests it appears to be verified.

Ceramic Tableware

Although ceramic tableware is not prohibited or restricted, you should know that such tableware made in foreign countries may contain dangerous levels of lead in the glaze, which can seep into foods and beverages. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends that if you buy ceramic tableware in Mexico -you have it tested for lead release when you return, or use it for decorative purposes only.

Drug Paraphernalia

It is illegal to bring drug paraphernalia into the United States unless prescribed for authentic medical conditions such as diabetes. CBP will seize any illegal drug paraphernalia. Law prohibits the importation, exportation, manufacture, sale or transportation of drug paraphernalia.


The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) regulates and restricts firearms and ammunition and approves all import transactions involving weapons and ammunition. If you want to import or export weapons or ammunition, you must do so through a licensed importer, dealer or manufacturer. You do not need an ATF permit if you can demonstrate that you are returning with the same firearms or ammunition that you took out of the United States. To prevent problems when returning, you should register your firearms and related equipment by taking them to any CBP office before you leave the United States. The CBP officer will register them on the same CBP Form-4457 used to register cameras or computers. Mexico will not allow you to enter with a firearm or ammunition without a permit for Mexico.

Fish and Wildlife

Certain fish and wildlife, and products made from them, are subject to import and export restrictions, prohibitions, permits or certificates, as well as requirements. If you plan to buy such things as tortoiseshell jewelry, or articles made from whalebone, ivory, skins or fur, contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.