Shop smart: customs shopping guide for the holidays

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

***image1***When you are making your holiday gift list, you’d better check it twice. Some items available in Europe, that might seem like good Christmas presents, violate U.S. customs rules.

Violations of customs, agriculture or postal regulations can lead to hefty fines − from a minimum of $300 to jail time − and confiscation of the goods.

Meat and meat products are the biggest problems, said William Manning, Department of Agriculture attaché to the U.S. European Command.

“European delicacies like French pâté, German wurst, Spanish chorizo salami and Italian Parma ham are here for the buying and much sought-after in the States,” he said. “Unfortunately, they can also carry the spores of Foot and Mouth Disease, a virulent livestock ailment eradicated in the United States.”

These products are banned, as are canned meats and even soup mixes or pasta containing meat. Fresh fruits and vegetables are also prohibited because they could harbor pests like the Mediterranean fruit fly.

The U.S. Postal Service bans all liquor from being mailed, even if it is inside a piece of candy. However, customs allows travelers over 21 years of age to import one liter of duty-free liquor, said Bill Johnson, director of the European Command’s Customs and Border Clearance Agency. Cuban rum and cigars are also available in Europe but prohibited from import stateside by economic sanctions. And, buying ivory as a gift is a bad idea, according to customs officials.

 “Only ivory pieces previously registered with Customs and Border Protection may be imported,” Mr. Johnson said.

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 movement of caviar is also restricted.

Many European countries have a tradition of making nativity scenes that Americans love to buy. However, the natural products used to make them are often banned from import to the United States because of the agricultural pests that could be nested in them, Mr. Johnson said. For a complete list of items with customs restrictions, visit