10 Tips for Bringing Alcohol Into the U.S.

Refer to this guide before your next trip abroad.

We’ve all been there: It’s the end of an amazing trip abroad, and along the way you pick up a few (or many more than a few) bottles of alcohol. Will you be allowed to bring all of them home? Will you have to pay tax? And what exactly does duty free mean?

We’ve done the hard work of finding the answers for you, so all you have to worry about is making sure your precious cargo arrives home in one piece.

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How Much Alcohol Can I Bring Back Into the U.S.?

It depends, since numerous agencies hold jurisdiction. Technically there is no federal limit on how much alcohol can be brought in for personal use, but U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will likely flag you if you’re carrying more than a case (e.g. 12 bottles of wine) in your luggage. Anything beyond that might fall under suspected commercial use and require an Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) import license form.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) limits the amount of unopened alcohol that can be brought onto a plane to five liters per person if the alcohol content falls between 24 and 70 percent (up to 140 proof.) If it’s less than 24 percent you can bring more than five liters, but it would be taxed by Customs. Anything greater than 70 percent isn’t allowed since it’s considered a hazardous material.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) limits carry-on liquids to 3.4 ounces (100 ml), unless you purchased alcohol at a duty-free shop at the airport after clearing security. However, if you have a connecting flight within the U.S. and go through security again, then that bottle of alcohol you were initially allowed to carry on would have to be checked. To avoid this conundrum, wait until the last leg of a flight to buy duty-free alcohol.

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What Types of Alcohol Can You Bring Back Into the U.S.?

To make matters more complicated, each state has its own guidelines on how much alcohol can be brought in, and some states allow less than a case. However, the CBP says that these rules only apply to residents of that state. To be on the safe side, check with the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) regarding limitations.

Oh, and think twice before buying that bottle of absinthe. It’s regulated by both the FDA and the TTB, and possesses a host of requirements: It must be thujone-free (thujone is the ingredient commonly associated with absinthe’s mind-altering effects), and can’t have the word absinthe in the brand name or as a stand-alone name on the label. Any artwork or graphics with hallucinogenic depictions will also get your bottle confiscated at Customs.

(Despite all the restrictions, it’s worth noting that homemade wine is allowed. Besides following general rules for alcohol, it just has to be labeled.)

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What is Duty-Free Alcohol?

Essentially, duty-free means there’s no local sales tax (commonly called Value Added Tax, or VAT, outside the U.S.) on goods. Stores can offer this wherever governments don’t impose a tax on items leaving the country; the reason behind it is that customers can’t use or consume a purchase until they return home. Therefore, travelers 21 and older can bring one liter (the equivalent of one bottle) per person into the U.S. without paying additional taxes on it.

For a full guideline, Duty Free Americas (DFA) answers the most commonly asked questions. There’s some debate over whether or not duty free is a deal, but DFA notes that duty-free alcohol can potentially save travelers anywhere from 25-50 percent in taxes.

Just be advised that the U.S. requires travelers to leave the country for at least 48 hours to prevent people from taking advantage of duty-free shopping. Individuals are also limited to $800 worth of duty-free goods per month (including alcohol) and $1,600 for a family.

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How Much Are Duty Taxes?

This varies. A CBP spokesperson says it depends on the cost of the additional liter or case of alcohol and the alcohol content percentage.

Parts of the Caribbean are a notable exception to the one-liter rule (although the Caymen Islands, Anguilla and Turks and Caicos are among the islands that aren’t).

The CBP says you can bring back two liters of alcohol duty free from islands that compose the Caribbean Basin Initiative, which include St. Lucia, the Bahamas and Aruba, as long as one bottle was locally produced. Even better, travelers are allowed to bring back five liters duty free from the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI). The catch is that at least one of the bottles must be locally produced, and the rest purchased within the USVI. More than that would be taxed at a 1.5 percent flat duty rate, plus IRS taxes.

Another exception for the USVI is the monthly limit allowance: Whereas CBP typically limits individuals to $800 worth of duty-free goods per month, individuals can haul home $1,600 worth of items from the USVI.

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What Countries Sell Duty-Free Alcohol?

According to DFA, travelers can find duty-free alcohol anywhere in the world with a tourism industry. This includes airports, ship ports and border towns, but don’t expect to find it in some Muslim countries where alcohol is illegal, such as Sudan and Libya. You can also find duty-free stores in some major cities; for example, Tokyo offers tax-free shopping to foreign tourists who are in the country for six months or less.

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Which Airports Sell Duty-Free Alcohol?

Most international airports sell it. Joe Bates, liquor and wines editor at Duty Free News International, says duty-free alcohol is even sold at airports in Middle Eastern countries that are otherwise dry. “One notable exception is Saudi Arabia, where duty-free liquor is certainly not for sale at any of the country’s airports as you might expect,” he says. On the other hand, even though Dubai has strict laws governing alcohol, Bates says that Dubai International Airport is one of the top-selling sales locations for Jack Daniel’s.

Some airlines also sell alcohol as part of on-board duty-free shopping, including United and KLM. Be mindful that if you bring your own carry-on bottle on the flight, the cabin crew must serve it to you.

Again, make sure the quantity and alcohol content adhere to TSA, FAA and CBP rules.

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Which Cruise Lines Sell Duty-Free Alcohol?

This depends. Sherry Kennedy, the editor and publisher of CruiseMaven.com, notes that while most major lines offer duty-free shopping, not all sell alcohol, such as river cruises and some boutique lines.

It’s also common to find alcohol in ports, especially the Caribbean, and Kennedy says the prices are competitive to ship stores. However, due to alcohol policies, most lines will confiscate your bottles and keep them until the end of the cruise. On the other hand, most port stores deliver alcohol to the ship for you, meaning less for you to carry.

Whether or not you buy alcohol on the ship or in a port, keep in mind that the same Customs’ rules generally apply. As already mentioned, the Caribbean is among the exceptions. When cruising, the five-liter allowance from the USVI includes the onboard duty-free shop, as long as one bottle was produced in the USVI.

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What are the Best Duty-free Alcohol Deals?

Due to competition from online retailers and big box stores, duty free isn’t the deal it used to be, but bargains can sometimes be found.

Eric Arnold, a member of the League of Extraordinary Drinkers and author of “Drink Like A Grown-Up,” says duty-free alcohol can be a good deal when stores are clearing out their inventory, and on more expensive brands, such as Champagne. He also points out that duty-free bottles tend to be a little larger, so customers get about 25 percent more volume for the money. However, he says some of the best deals are on locally made spirits, since duty-free stores heavily promote them. Among his picks is rum from Fiji, scotch from Scotland, Bundaberg rum from Australia and tequila and mescal from Mexico. Arnold says he’s also found good deals on scotch in Paris.

Bates takes the opposing side on deals. “In my view some of the best prices tend to be on well-known international brands,” he says, such as Baileys, Smirnoff, Absolut, Bacardi and Johnnie Walker. “If you are out to find a bargain, only buy when there’s a clear saving on what you’d pay back home,” says Bates. “Domestic liquor prices in the U.S. are quite low by international standards, so it’s unlikely you’ll find huge savings, but it’s worth checking. Now everyone has a smartphone in their pocket; that’s not hard to do.”

Kennedy says cruise lines often have deals toward the end of the cruise, such as two-for-one bottles.

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Flavio Vallenari

Where are the Best Places to Buy Duty-Free Alcohol?

Thanks to trade agreements, some of the best deals are found in the Caribbean. “In general, alcohol is absurdly cheap in the Virgin Islands,” says Arnold. For example, he says Bulleit Bourbon costs about $40 in Midtown Manhattan, but sells for around $17 in the USVI. He notes Cruzan sells for about $8 a bottle.

Kennedy also recommends buying Bacardi from Puerto Rico. She notes that cruisers are unlikely to find deals in Europe, where duty free means you get the local VAT reimbursed when you leave the country. However, Kennedy says that she’s yet to find a port in Europe with a designated agent to handle VAT receipts.

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When Does it Make Sense to Buy Duty-Free Alcohol?

The experts agree that it’s not just about the savings. Bates notes that it’s possible to find rare and collectible wines and spirits at Singapore Changi and London Heathrow airports.

As for Arnold, “I personally like to buy things when I know I’m not going to be able to find them at home,” he says. “Johnnie Walker Green, for whatever reason, has appeared and disappeared from the market multiple times, but I always have a relatively easy time finding it in duty free.”

Finally, there’s another benefit of shopping locally. “It’s the way to find and enjoy more things you wouldn’t have discovered otherwise,” says Arnold.

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