Question re: bringing wine back from Europe

Every time I ask this question, I get a different answer. How much wine can you legally bring back to the U.S. from Europe? Some say two bottles. Some say you can bring back all you want, but you must pay a fee if your total wine value is over $500. I give up! Now we just cram all we can carry into our luggage, which amounts to between 12 and 24 bottles, and hope to come up with a good answer if they search us and ask questions. Does anybody have the answer?

One gallon, free of duty. As much as you want if you want to pay tax. I would imagine Customs’ website would have the details.

[Aside]It’s rather ridiculous that it’s one gallon of alcoholic beverages, regardless of the strength (if I’m correct). Obviously, there’s a difference between spirits, wine, and beer. Then again, the whole sin tax idea is outrageous anyway. [/Aside]

I’m going to Europe soon, and I’m under 21. Anyone aware of the legality of me bringing back, say, two or three litres of Finnish vodka?

you people are lazy. It’s all online: and others

Yep, as sailor’s web link says, it’s one liter.
From personal experience, I’ve never been hassled by customs by bringing in more. I live abroad and I visit the States 1-2 times a year. Each time I bring back about 3 or 4 bottles of wine and some hard liquor as gifts for the folks. I even freely admitted to one agent that I had a few bottles of wine and he didn’t seem to care. But I’ve also never had my luggage searched in the States in the dozen or so flights I’ve made there. None of my friends and acquaintances have had problems, either.
Now, this is not to say that you won’t get hassled, nor that what I’ve done is not technically illegal. I’m sure that my anecdotal evidence can be matched by someone who’s had the opposite experience. I’m just saying, chances are fairly good that you won’t have a problem. Take this as you will.

Ah, I meant to say one liter (and yes, I’m lazy, but it wasn’t my question with an easy answer on the web).

Should have known it’s one liter, because that’s yet another factor in the whole thing that’s quite annoying. An awful lot of liquor (and wine too, I suppose) is sold in 750 ml bottles, unless you’re buying it in the airport, where there are often one liter bottles. But not of everything. Not of the 25 year-old Springbank, the nice little red from the small vineyard in Bordeaux, etc. So what do you do? Go through the hassle of figuring duty on half a liter? I just bring back one bottle–and ask friends to bring one every time they come over.

For U.S. citizens and green card holders returning to the U.S. after a trip outside the U.S.: you must “declare” any and all items acquired while outside the country. This means they give you a little form on which you list every item and the price you paid (or an approximate value if it was a gift.) You may be charged “duty” (tax) on such items.

You are entitled to an exempt amount (that is, a cash amount, normally $400 per person); if the sum of all the items you’ve acquired are under that amount, you do not owe any tax, with some exceptions. The exceptions include alcohol, tobacco, firearms, etc.

It is safest always to declare exactly what you’ve got. Sometimes they don’t care. Sometimes they charge you a minor duty. I’ve always summarized on the form (“Souveniers – mugs, tshirts, etc, total value $100”) and never been hassled about it, and I make five or six international trips a year.)

Customs folks are looking for certain categories of major offenders. For example, alcohol and tobacco sales in the U.S. (as elsewhere) are subject to tax; so customs inspectors are on the lookout for someone bringing in a case of wine to sell privately without paying that tax.
They are also looking for 'way over the limit expenditures – someone buying a fur coat or $10,000 worth of jewelry, for instance.

If you’re bringing back half a dozen bottles of wine, they may or may not charge you a duty on the extra, depends on their mood. Depends on whether they think you do this every two weeks to sell the wine on the side.

And, of course, there are some things that you simply cannot bring into the country legally. These include fresh fruits, vegetables, plants, etc and illegal substances. (When that little old lady in line behind you asks you to hold her ziplog back full of Nutrasweet for her, don’t do it.) They ask about food, and I always check the box and write “chocolates.” They don’t care about chocolates. They care about food that could have insects or parasites on 'em.

That’s the overview. If in doubt, check the website listed or any of many other sources – or ask the customs folks. I find that honest and open works best.

Bottom line: they’re watching out for big-time smugglers, illegal importers, money-laundering, drugs, or risks (like insects on food.) They don’t really care that you’ve got three bottles of scotch instead of one. If they think you’re one of those honest but stupid tourists who picked up two extra bottles of scotch and declared it, they’ll likely shrug their shoulders. If they think you’re trying to scam them, they get suspicious of potentially serious violations and can hassel you but good. It ain’t worth the risk.

Thanks for everybody’s replies.

C K Dexter Haven: Yes, I always declare exactly what we are carrying, and so far they have not been one bit interested in our wine cargo. However, on this last trip, we bought a lovely (and ripe-smelling) Pont Leveque cheese at the Charles De Gaulle Airport shop and duly declared it on the form. Customs was very interested in this cheese, and we had to go to one side to describe it to the official. He asked us to remove it from the bag so he could make sure it wasn’t the wrong type of cheese, and when we did, the resulting stench prompted him to ask us to replace it quickly! Apparently, they didn’t want “runny” cheeses brought back, for some reason.

FTR, I did first go to the U.S. customs website, but could not run down the exact rule I was looking for. I got frustrated after awhile and so posted this question. Thanks, sailor, for posting the link leading to the correct rule – I see that it’s a one liter limit, but if you want to bring back more for personal use, customs might charge you a duty, as CKDH says. Well, the wine was all for personal use (hic!), and we accurately declared its value, so it’s up to customs if they want to discuss it.