Customs shopping guide for the holidays

by Robert Szostek
U.S. European Command Customs and Border Clearance Agency Public Affairs

WIESBADEN, Germany — Some people are just not good at buying the right gifts. While this is normally a matter of taste, people new to Europe should note that many items available in Europe may seem like good Christmas presents but violate U.S. import rules.

Some products are banned from the United States altogether and others may only be carried in baggage, but not mailed. Violations of customs, agriculture, or postal regulations can lead to hefty fines and confiscation of the goods.

Meat and meat products are the biggest problem, said Julie Aliaga-Milos, U.S. Department of Agriculture advisor at the U.S. European Command Customs and Border Clearance Agency.

“Delicacies like French pâté, German wurst, Spanish chorizo, and Italian Parma ham are here for the buying and much sought-after in the States,” Aliaga-Milos said. “Unfortunately, they can also carry viruses and other organisms that are not present in the U.S. and which may cause new animal disease outbreaks of virulent livestock ailments such as the Foot and Mouth Disease and Classical Swine Fever (Hog Cholera).”

These products are therefore banned, as are canned meats, sausages, some types of cheese, and even soup mixes or pasta containing dried meat. Fresh fruits and vegetables are also prohibited because they could harbor plant pests such as the Mediterranean fruit fly.

The threat to U.S. agriculture is so great that U.S. Customs and Border Protection fine people who mail or take banned foods to the States a minimum of $100 as a deterrent. Criminal action for deliberate cases of smuggling can result in a $5,000 fine and a year in jail.

Many European artisans make old-style nativity scenes that are popular with shoppers. However, the scenes are sometimes made with natural products that are banned from import to the United States, Aliaga-Milos noted. Scenes that contain untreated straw or wood, bark, moss, or pinecones may harbor insects or plant diseases and should not be sent stateside, as the consumer can be charged a $100 fine. However, she says nativity scenes that are produced using finished wood, plastic, or ceramics are fine to mail.

Europe also boasts many fine wines, spirits, and liquor-filled candies that make original Christmas gifts. Unfortunately the U.S. Postal Service bans all liquor from being mailed, even if it is inside a piece of candy. However, customs allows travelers more than 21 years of age to import one liter of duty-free liquor.

“The federal taxes and duties are currently low enough to make it worthwhile to take more than one liter of beer or wine stateside as gifts,” said Tim Sellman, director of the CBCA.

However, state liquor laws must also be met which can add to the cost. Taxes on distilled spirits like Scotch whiskey are generally considered high, he noted.

Cigars, cigarillos, or pipe tobacco may be your idea of a great gift. Unfortunately, USPS does not allow tobacco products to be imported into the U.S. in the mail either. However, travelers are allowed to take limited amounts of tobacco as gifts with them when they fly stateside.

And don’t be surprised if you get a letter from CBP saying they removed Kinder Surprise eggs from the package you mailed stateside. The reason is that the chocolate eggs are banned in the United States. While many people think the eggs are innocuous fun, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission believes the toy hidden inside can pose a choking hazard to very young children. Other Kinder products, such as the Kinder Joy eggs, are not banned because the candy and toy are contained in separate halves of the egg.

Wildlife products also present problems. Buying ivory as a gift is a bad idea, according to Sellman.

“Only ivory pieces previously registered with Customs and Border Protection generally may be imported,” he continued. Whale teeth carvings, known as netsuke or scrimshaw, are also prohibited from import. When buying furs, shoppers should insist on a certificate of origin stating the animal’s scientific name to avoid buying prohibited endangered species products. The import of caviar is also restricted.

Foreign-made gifts are allowed duty-free entry if their retail value is under $100 and the recipient does not receive over $100 worth of foreign gifts in one day. If such a gift is over $100, the entire amount is subject to duty and a customs processing fee. Only the recipient can pay the duty and the fee.

However, American-made gifts are duty-free if they were not altered abroad in a way that increased their value.

“Many people think that gifts bought in military exchanges can go to the States duty-free,” said Sellman. “but this is not necessarily true. The items have to be American-made to gain duty-free entry.”

“It is important to make an accurate declaration when mailing packages stateside,” Sellman concluded. “Failure to do so can result in a penalty or seizure of all the items, or even potential criminal prosecution.”

Military customs offices can provide more advice on these and other holiday mail questions. There are many informative pamphlets available from CBP and USDA to ensure holiday gifts don’t present problems stateside. Information is also available online at