Bringing wine back from Israel through US Customs

If you are like me, when you are on vacation and walk into a wine shop, you have eyes larger than your luggage has space. You see Israel is clearly improving its export to other countries, especially America, but many of the best wines are sold behind the rock walls of Israel. Israel sadly, is easily consuming its best wines, and blessedly its worst as well. That leaves wines ranging from the middle to the upper echelon finding their way to the US shores, at a slow and sometimes infuriating pace. Still, we are happy and feel lucky to see them, no matter the timing, unless they are mevushal, but that is for another posting.

Sure enough, I could barely fit the wines I bought, throughout my travels around Israel, into my luggage. So I thought I would share a few points of concern, counterpoint, and solutions to the many issues that revolve around US customs and alcohol, of any sort.

The main topics are:

  1. How to pack the wine
  2. Country of origin duty (tax)
  3. Country of destination duty
  4. Country of destination customs laws
  5. State of country of destination’s import laws
  6. Pad your layover times if you have connecting flight in the US

What I thought I would do is go through the list of perceived and actual issues listed above, and describe what I do to be a legal law-abiding citizen of the United States, while also successfully bringing in wine that I adore (I hope).

How To Pack Wine

There are truly just two options, and I use them equally when I bring wine back:

        1. Styrofoam packers
        2. Bubble wrapped wines in your luggage

We all buy wine on the web and most web merchant will ship you wine in these Styrofoam shippers. DO NOT throw them out! Keep them and then when you are going to Israel use one or two as “luggage”, empty or course, and fill them up as you buy the wine in Israel, and once again, put them in luggage, filled this time. These shippers work great, and are a real lifesaver.

I have also packed my wine in my luggage using bubble wrap. Wrap each bottle with the bubble wrap and then place the wrapped bottle in a secure, not floppy part of the luggage. Again, these are ideas that I use, I am sure there are many other great ones, just make sure to keep the wine safe, otherwise, it is a real crying shame.

Outgoing Duty

Everyone loves the idea of duty-free shops and items, at least they do until the actually see the prices. You see, based upon my own empirical data that I have mined from hours of wasted time in Duty-free shops and shops all around the world, Duty-free shops in Israel and other countries are just a big rip off! Why you ask and what is Duty Free? The world’s first Duty Free shop was established at Shannon Airport in Ireland by Dr Brendan O’Regan in 1947and is in service to this date. Designed to provide a service for Trans-Atlantic airline passengers typically traveling between Europe and North America whose flights stopped for refueling on both outbound and inbound legs of their journeys, it was an immediate success and has been copied worldwide. Soon after that duty-free shops popped up all over the place and were all a very good deal, as taxes were saved from the country/port of origin. Meaning, if you were leaving Ireland, you could buy Whiskey tax-free! For some time these were by far the best deals anywhere, and I would ask friends and family to haul wine and whiskey for me, as it beat local prices, by a long shot. Well this all started to fall apart quickly for a few reasons:

  1. Internet Shopping finally started to live up to all of its long trumpeted hype
  2. 9/11 happened
  3. Duty free can apply to only the port of origin

Internet Shopping

This one is quite simple; competition is kicking the pants off of the duty-free shops. Wines are sometimes cheaper in America than in the Duty-free shops, same goes for Scotch and Whiskey. The reason is quite simple, competition! Thank goodness for that, the Internet billing is finally starting to live up to its potential. The Internet allows for lower overhead, which allows for tighter margins, which means lower prices! It used to be that the buy 3 bottles and get a fourth free deal in Israel duty-free was a huge hit, but those days are over. Either Duty-free is getting greedy or stores are cheaper, either way, prices on the Internet in America or Israel are cheaper – period!

9/11 Happened

Please be careful about this one! I have seen folks having to throw out good whiskey, even getting drunk on the spot by inhaling a bunch of whiskey, before the police took the alcohol from him, from fear that he may truly injure himself or someone else! The tragedy of 9/11 cost us more than the loss of three thousand beautiful souls and our soaring twin towers; it cost us some of our liberties! Early on after 9/11 we had tighter security, but liquids were still allowed. But that led to further attempts to attack Western civilians, and in 2006 after a plot to blow up a plane, Western countries banned liquids in carry on luggage. Of course this had a huge hit on Duty-free shops. However, they quickly relaxed the ban and allowed liquids on planes from behind the security line, which is where duty-free shops now reside. Still, there is the ALL SERIOUS and VERY concerning issue of non-direct flights to the United States from anywhere in Europe and Asia. If you have a stop over in say Frankfurt from Israel, on route to Chicago, you will have to go through ANOTHER security check in Frankfurt, and wave goodbye to your alcohol, or watch a poor soul try to drink it down! Within Europe it is not an issue, as long as you have the bottle sealed and a receipt, you can carry on the bottle. However, the United States does not support this option. If you are flying direct from the port of origin to the United States, there is no problem, as your destination is the United States, even if will then go to LA, no problem, as you get your luggage as part of passing customs, which we will talk about later on. At that point, you can place the wine in your luggage and declare the alcohol on your customs form. However, when you go through a stop over, you do not retrieve your luggage at the security line. Early on there was nasty pandemonium, as Duty-free shops did not tell the customers and the customers did not know to check. Since then, ALL Duty-free shops that I have seen have large signs warning customers and they also warn the customers – to their credit. Europe and Asia will try to fix this problem this year, but in the end, it looks like it will fail for many reasons.

Duty-free may NOT be totally Duty-free

Duty free means that the port of origin does not charge you duty/tax, but the port of destination may well charge you taxes. We will talk about this more in the next section, but I wanted to make sure we do not confuse the two.

Country of Destination Duty

The country of destination has its own laws and if you do not abide by them, you can be thrown into jail or fined heavily. However, if you follow the rules and regulations, and declare everything, and I do mean EVERYTHING, you will not only save yourself a trip to the slammer, you may well be rewarded with the prize you wished all along, duty-free alcohol.

If you do follow all the regulations and are still asked to pay taxes, it will be very light, unless you are bringing in so much alcohol that it looks like you are importing it for business, which is a TOTALLY other blog. The good news is that if you are asked to pay taxes it is VERY low. The current taxes for wine is 21 to 31 cents a bottle, given the average alcohol content of a bottle of wine, that is not fortified. The cost of the duty is based upon the alcohol level, so you will be doing fine if you bring in your wine, declare it, and then pay the duty, if needed. Like the article states, and I repeat here, do NOT bring in so much that it would raise suspicions, that may well get you in trouble, or cause the wine to be confiscated until you obtain an alcohol license!

Country of destination customs laws

So, we have finally arrived at the part of the article that I thought would be the bulk of my post, but hey once I get started on a topic, I have no idea where it will take me 🙂 The laws in the US are pretty simple:

  1. Declare EVERYTHING – even the lunch sandwich you bought at the port of origin
  2. On the average you get 800 dollars of exemption for merchandise you bring in
  3. There is a limit on the amount of alcohol you can bring in without duty – 1 liter of wine and 1 liter of alcohol, ignoring your exemption

Nothing too complex here – right? HAH! Everyone thinks you are NOT ALLOWED to bring in more than 1 liter of wine – NOT TRUE! To quote the US CBP (Customs and Border protection):

There is no federal limit on the amount of alcohol a traveler may import into the U.S. for personal use, however, large quantities might raise the suspicion that the importation is for commercial purposes, and a CBP officer could require the importer to obtain an TTB import license (which is required for all commercial importations) before releasing it. If you do intend to travel with a large quantity of alcohol, we suggest you contact the entry branch of the port you will be entering the country through to discuss your situation in advance.

There is NO limit for normal people, as long as you are bringing in wine and not IMPORTING wine! Anyway, please call and check with your port of entry. I called them and they are some of the nicest people I have spoken with. EVERY point of entry, yes even airport ports of entry have a phone number. I called the Philadelphia airport port of entry and asked them about what I should expect if I bring in a case of wine. She replied that it is 100% legal, many people bring in a case of wine, and none pay duty unless the wine is heavily fortified. Why? Again, duty is based upon the alcohol level, and so, a case of wine would cost some 4 dollars, and they do not charge you if it is under 10 dollars. Personally, I would be HAPPY to pay 10 bucks to bring in a case of Israeli wine that I cannot find in the US!

The 800 dollar exemption does not apply to alcohol, other than the 1 liter exemption of both duty and IRS.

State of country of destination’s import laws

Finally, I asked the border agent about state laws. She said, that each port of entry, which resides in a state, yes the port in Toronto is US soil, may have different duty rules. However, she said they only kick in when you set off alarms by bringing in 5 cases of wine. Otherwise, there are none that she could think of.

Please read this VERY WELL written and easy to read pamphlet by the CPB, called: Know Before You Go, about what you can expect when bringing in merchandise from abroad.

Pad your layover times if you have connecting flight in the US

Well, remember that when you choose to LEGALLY wave your exemptions, you have the simple fact that you must now face, there are regulations that must be checked. So, you will be asked to go through a customs check, THIS IS OK! You have done NOTHING illegal! Again, all you have done is wave your right to alcohol exemptions, so they must check that everything is on the up and up. To do that, they must do a total pat down and check of your bags, which is 100% fine by me. The only issue is a connecting flight like I had! AHH!! I was not prepared for that, which was 100 MY FAULT! So, I hope I am helping the wine lovers out there to be careful, lawful, and sane. You see unless you find a 1 mile jog/sprint huffing and puffing all the way to your connecting flight a nice Sunday stroll, or you find hearing your name over the airport loud speakers to be entertaining, then I recommend making sure you add a bit fat to your connecting flight. You see, even though you honestly declared your alcohol haul, you were over the exemption, so you will be asked to go through a second examination. You may be lucky and not be bothered, which some people have lucked into. You may be asked to go to the investigation area, but be the only one there, so you get through swiftly. Otherwise, you may well be asked to go to the investigation area, and have to wait for more than an hour, like I had once coming in from Israel. That time I missed my flight, which turned out to be a blessing, but that is for another posting.

When you get to the investigation area, you must bring your luggage. This is the perfect time to put any duty-free wine you may have bought in your port of origin. At this point the nice agents will once again ask you what you are declaring, and check your bags that you are not blowing hot air out your pie whole. At this point, they may find your haul a bit over the limit and ask you to pay a duty, do not freak out, again, it is legal, and you are simply paying a small deterrent to keep the local merchants in business. Once you pay your duty, you will be given a receipt and be sent on your merry way – no sweat, as long as there is not a plane full of people waiting for you to haul your butt through security once more and then run to a different terminal! In the end, the duty, if you have any, and the wine price from Israel is well below what you would pay locally for some of the higher end wines, if they are available at all.

To me this is all part of the joy and experience of bringing wine back from the Holy Land. I hope this posting will hit the point to many that are either afraid or worse, misinformed about the rules and regulations regarding to US customs and Duty.

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Posted on April 6, 2011, in Israeli Wine, Wine Industry and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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