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Intro to duty-free shopping

If you’ve traveled internationally, you’ve likely seen a duty-free store in the terminal, or people receiving their duty-free purchases at the gate before boarding a flight. However, the concept of duty-free can be confusing and unclear for many travelers. In this post and video, we’ll review what is duty-free shopping, whether it’s worth doing, and some tips to keep in mind when shopping at these stores.

What is a duty-free store?

I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t really understand how duty-free shops work until I started researching the topic. I’ve seen them many times and have even made a few small purchases in the past. However, it’s always been a bit confusing to me, so I thought others might also have questions about duty-free shopping.

Duty-free stores are stores that allow you to avoid paying local taxes and fees at your destination. So, if you were to purchase a bottle of wine in Spain at a local wine store in Barcelona, you would likely pay some form of tax or “duty” on the item. Buying it at a duty-free store means you will not be charged the extra taxes on that item (though you might still have to pay taxes when you arrive in the US).

Best and worst items to buy 

The prices at duty-free stores can vary quite a bit as well. The pricing is meant to reflect the local rates, but it doesn’t always mean that you’re getting the best deal. In general, liquor, tobacco products, and luxury items are probably the best items to buy at a duty-free store because cigarettes and alcohol tend to have the highest taxes. Luxury goods can be a great deal too, especially if it’s an item that isn’t normally discounted at home. On the other hand, electronics and fragrances are usually not the best items to purchase duty-free since you can find them at lower prices online or back home at stores like Costco, even if you’re having to pay taxes on them.

These are generally the best items to purchase at duty-free stores

Depending on the item that you purchase, you may be able to leave the store with it, or it may be handed to you when you are boarding your flight. This is generally to make sure that you are actually leaving the country and are not just buying it to consume during your trip. Admittedly, this aspect of duty-free always confuses me, and I think it would stress me out if, for some reason, my item wasn’t delivered to me in time.

Duty-free restrictions 

There are rules and regulations when bringing duty-free items back to the US

Every country has rules and regulations on what you can bring in without a tax or penalty. For example, in the US, you are allowed an $800 duty-free personal exemption every month. This means you can bring up to $800 worth of goods without having to pay for its accompanying tax.

Rules on alcohol and tobacco products

There are additional restrictions on alcohol and tobacco products. For example, you’re only allowed one liter of duty-free alcohol and a maximum of either 200 cigarettes or 100 cigars from most foreign countries. For example, if you were to bring back two liters of liquor, then you would only pay for one of the liters since the other would be exempt under the rule. The one-liter that is subject to the customs duty would be charged a 3% duty on the price of the item. Keep in mind that your state may also have additional restrictions or fees on imported items.

You may be subject to a 3% duty for items that are beyond the allowed amount (e.g., over 1L of alcohol)

Rules on the time outside the country

There are also rules around the amount of time that you need to be outside the country. For example, if you’re a US citizen, you must be out of the country for at least 48 hours before you can bring back goods from a duty-free store. In some cases, like traveling to Canada, US citizens are allowed to bring back fewer goods if they have been outside the country for less than 48 hours. Be sure to examine all rules, especially if you have a short trip. Also, most personnel at a duty-free store should be able to advise you if you have questions.

The exemption amount depends on the time outside of the US and the number of trips in the last 30 days

Rules on shipping duty-free purchases home

Lastly, there are additional rules on what you can ship back home without incurring duty fees. You’ll want to examine the official rules from US Customs and Border Patrol if you plan to ship back any goods from your destination.

Tips and tricks for duty-free shopping

1. Avoid certain food products:

The above food items are allowed for transport back to the US

Most countries are concerned about agricultural diseases and pests. As a result, you could have your duty-free purchase confiscated if customs views it as a threat. You’ll want to make sure you’re not transporting above the liquid limit should you purchase any alcohol or anything else that could be considered a liquid. There are exceptions for some purchases from duty-free shops, but you’re often at the discretion of a customs official. 

Be aware that transporting certain food items may not be allowed when entering the US

2. Be aware of alcohol transport rules:

This is one that seems to get a lot of folks in trouble. If you’re bringing alcohol back to the US, you’ll want to be careful of how it’s transported. For example, if you’re flying back to Los Angeles from Barcelona, but stopping over in New York, you’ll likely need to place your purchased alcohol into your check-in bag at your layover. This is because you’re not allowed to transport alcohol in your carry-on bag. You’ll likely pick-up your checked-in luggage, then drop them off again for the domestic leg of your flight. 

Be familiar with the alcohol transport rule to avoid losing your wine, beer, and liquor purchases

I saw someone have to give up several bottles of expensive wine because she didn’t realize that she couldn’t take the bottles in her carry-on bag. By the time she was informed, her check-in bag was already dropped off. You definitely don’t want to make that mistake! If you don’t have a non-stop flight back, be sure that you transfer your alcohol to your check-in luggage. Otherwise, check-in your carry-on bag to avoid this complication!

You must be the legal age to bring in alcohol purchased via duty-free

Make sure you are of legal age when trying to bring alcohol into the US. Even though you can buy alcohol without the same age restriction in other countries, it doesn’t mean that you can bring it into the US if you’re not 21 or older.

3. Be wary of duty-free price comparison sites:

When I was researching this topic, I came across a few duty-free price comparison search sites. One example is the site Duty-Free Addict. This site shows you the prices across various duty-free stores and the variance in the price. The only catch is that the information is outdated. I noticed that most of the items had not been updated in several years, so it’s probably not accurate. This seemed to be the case with most of these sites, so be careful when using them.

4. You can combine duty exemptions:

If you’re traveling as a household, you can combine your individual $800 exemption as a joint declaration. This includes children and infants too. So in theory, a family of two adults and two children could have up to $3,200 of duty-free exemptions.

A family of four has a combined household duty-free exemption of $3,200

5. Don’t plan on reselling your duty-free items:

Purchasing items duty-free is for personal use only. Planning or declaring that you’re going to resell the items could get you in trouble. This isn’t a situation where you want to try to make money off your purchases.

6. Don’t leave your items on the plane:

This one is obvious, but the reason I’m including it is that I’ve actually done it. When I flew back from Paris a few years ago, I purchased some expensive chocolates at the duty-free store for my family. But after a long flight and in the rush of getting off the plane, I accidentally left the bag in the overhead bin. I didn’t realize my mistake until I was leaving the airport. 

I’m certain that the flight crew was happy to find the chocolates. Though I wasn’t thrilled to have left such a pricey purchase on the plane. Getting off the plane can be a hectic process, so plan accordingly. Make sure to either place your goods in your carry-on bag or by your feet. That way you’re less likely to leave it on the plane.

Have you all shopped at a duty-free store when traveling? What has been your experience? I would love to know! 

Trip Astute has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Trip Astute and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers. Responses are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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