How Does Duty Free Work?

iStock
iStock

If you’re traveling abroad for a vacation anytime soon, you’ll get to enjoy the fun and excitement of passing through Customs on your way home. Let’s take a look at a few of the other rules regarding duties and declarations, and see what's up with the duty free shop.

What am I supposed to declare to Customs officers?

As a general rule, you’re supposed to declare anything you’re bringing back from your trip that you didn’t take with you. Anything you bought or inherited while abroad has to be declared. If something you took abroad with you received any repairs or alterations, you have to declare those, too. (The Customs website specifically mentions that these repairs have to be declared even if you didn’t pay for them; might be worth declaring “button sewn back on shirt” the next time you pass through Customs.)

How much stuff can I bring back duty-free?

The size of the duty-free exemption varies a bit depending on what country you’ve visited, but if you’ve spent at least 48 hours out of the country, you can generally bring back up to $800 worth of merchandise for your personal use or to give as gifts. There are exemptions to these exemptions, too; under various growth programs for places like the Caribbean and sub-Saharan Africa you can bring back more duty-free items. Also, fine art is duty-free.

You can only use this $800 exemption or any part of it once every thirty days. If you’ve already used your exemption for one 30-day period or if you haven’t been out of the country for at least 48 hours, you can still get an exemption of $200.

Ack! I wanted to bring back something that cost $1,200! Is there any way to circumvent the law?

Yes. Get married. Family members who live together can combine their exemptions using a joint declaration. If you want to bring in something that’s $400 more than your personal exemption, you can combine, declare jointly and “borrow” $400 worth of your family member’s exemption.

Any other ways around the rules?

If you’ve got enough foresight, you could always have another kid to help save on customs duties. (We didn’t say it was cost-effective, just that it was possible.) The U.S. Customs website features this terrific quote: “Children and infants are allowed the same exemption as adults, except for alcoholic beverages and tobacco products.” Our deepest condolences if this rule foils your plan of using your infant as a duty-free mule for that sweet, sweet Scandinavian snuff.

Wait, I bought this in the duty-free shop! I don’t have to pay duties on that, right?

Yes, you do. “Duty-free” is a tricky term. You don’t have to pay the duties of the country where you originally purchased the item, which is why the prices are often inexpensive compared to what you’d find in a normal store. (The kinds of items that duty-free shops tend to carry, like liquor, cigarettes, and perfume, would otherwise have high excise taxes bumping up their prices.) However, you’ll have to declare your purchases once you get back home and pay duties on them if they fall outside your exemption.

Let’s cut to the chase: I just want to bring back booze and smokes. What are the rules there?

What an outlaw! Alcohol and tobacco operate a little differently under the exemptions. Alcohol is the easier of the two: adults are allowed one liter under their normal exemption. After that, you’ve got to pay duty on any booze you’ve got with you, but you can bring in as much as you want within reason. If you’re bringing in gobs and gobs of alcohol, though, Customs agents might make the judgment call that you’re importing it for resale, in which case they’re allowed to confiscate it.

Tobacco is a bit slipperier. Within the standard $800 exemption you can ferry in up to 200 cigarettes and 100 cigars. If you want to bring in more than 200 cigarettes, they’d better be foreign-made; any previously exported American cigarettes over the 200-smoke allocation are up for confiscation. It’s okay to bring in more than a carton of foreign cigarettes, but you’ll have to cough up duties on anything over 200.

Oh, no! I went over my exemption. These duties are going to clean me out, aren’t they?

Not unless you’re unusually destitute for an international traveler. The rate varies depending on the country from which you’re returning, but the duties are still pretty low. For most countries, the first $1,000 worth of merchandise after your exemption (including any tobacco or liquor over your exemptions for those) is taxed at three percent of its retail price.

The relatively low duty rates are a good reason to follow Customs’ advice about erring on the side of caution with your declarations. So you’ve got an extra $25 bottle of liquor? The duty on that would be a whopping 75 cents. You’re probably better off declaring it and potentially shelling out the spare change instead of making Customs think you were trying to pull an extremely low-stakes fast one on them.

Customs agents have to process over a million travelers a day, though, and they’re trying to keep important things like drugs and guns out of the country. Since it’s not worth Customs agents’ time to fill out paperwork and go to the trouble of collecting an extra buck or two from tourists, there’s lots of anecdotal evidence that suggests you’ll just get waved through unless you owe quite a bit in duties.

Are there any other odd Customs laws I should know?

Yes, particularly if you’re in the market for a nice cat-fur sweater. Here are a few choice Customs regulations you might not have known:

• You can bring absinthe back home with you, but it must be free of thujone. Also, according to Customs, “the term ‘absinthe’ cannot be the brand name; the term ‘absinthe’ cannot stand alone on the label; and the artwork and/or graphics cannot project images of hallucinogenic, psychotropic or mind-altering effects.”

• You can’t bring in any products containing dog or cat fur.

• Haitian animal hide drums may not make it back into the States thanks to a risk of cutaneous anthrax.

Note: A version of this story originally appeared last year. It was lost in a server meltdown.

10 of the Most Popular Portable Bluetooth Speakers on Amazon

Altech/Bose/JBL/Amazon
Altech/Bose/JBL/Amazon

As convenient as smartphones and tablets are, they don’t necessarily offer the best sound quality. But a well-built portable speaker can fill that need. And whether you’re looking for a speaker to use in the shower or a device to take on a long camping trip, these bestselling models from Amazon have you covered.

1. OontZ Angle 3 Bluetooth Portable Speaker; $26-$30 (4.4 stars)

Oontz portable bluetooth speaker
Cambridge Soundworks/Amazon

Of the 57,000-plus reviews that users have left for this speaker on Amazon, 72 percent of them are five stars. So it should come as no surprise that this is currently the best-selling portable Bluetooth speaker on the site. It comes in eight different colors and can play for up to 14 hours straight after a full charge. Plus, it’s splash proof, making it a perfect speaker for the shower, beach, or pool.

Buy it: Amazon

2. JBL Charge 3 Waterproof Portable Bluetooth Speaker; $110 (4.6 stars)

JBL portable bluetooth speaker
JBL/Amazon

This nifty speaker can connect with up to three devices at one time, so you and your friends can take turns sharing your favorite music. Its built-in battery can play music for up to 20 hours, and it can even charge smartphones and tablets via USB.

Buy it: Amazon

3. Anker Soundcore Bluetooth Speaker; $25-$28 (4.6 stars)

Anker portable bluetooth speaker
Anker/Amazon

This speaker boasts 24-hour battery life and a strong Bluetooth connection within a 66-foot radius. It also comes with a built-in microphone so you can easily take calls over speakerphone.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Bose SoundLink Color Bluetooth Speaker; $129 (4.4 stars)

Bose portable bluetooth speaker
Bose/Amazon

Bose is well-known for building user-friendly products that offer excellent sound quality. This portable speaker lets you connect to the Bose app, which makes it easier to switch between devices and personalize your settings. It’s also water-resistant, making it durable enough to handle a day at the pool or beach.

Buy it: Amazon

5. DOSS Soundbox Touch Portable Wireless Bluetooth Speaker; $28-$33 (4.4 stars)

DOSS portable bluetooth speaker
DOSS/Amazon

This portable speaker features an elegant system of touch controls that lets you easily switch between three methods of playing audio—Bluetooth, Micro SD, or auxiliary input. It can play for up to 20 hours after a full charge.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Altec Lansing Mini Wireless Bluetooth Speaker; $15-$20 (4.3 stars)

Altec Lansing portable bluetooth speaker
Altec Lansing/Amazon

This lightweight speaker is built for the outdoors. With its certified IP67 rating—meaning that it’s fully waterproof, shockproof, and dust proof—it’s durable enough to withstand harsh environments. Plus, it comes with a carabiner that can attach to a backpack or belt loop.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Tribit XSound Go Bluetooth Speaker; $33-$38 (4.6 stars)

Tribit portable bluetooth speaker
Tribit/Amazon

Tribit’s portable Bluetooth speaker weighs less than a pound and is fully waterproof and resistant to scratches and drops. It also comes with a tear-resistant strap for easy transportation, and the rechargeable battery can handle up to 24 hours of continuous use after a full charge. In 2020, it was Wirecutter's pick as the best budget portable Bluetooth speaker on the market.

Buy it: Amazon

8. VicTsing SoundHot C6 Portable Bluetooth Speaker; $18 (4.3 stars)

VicTsing portable bluetooth speaker
VicTsing/Amazon

The SoundHot portable Bluetooth speaker is designed for convenience wherever you go. It comes with a detachable suction cup and a carabiner so you can keep it secure while you’re showering, kayaking, or hiking, to name just a few.

Buy it: Amazon

9. AOMAIS Sport II Portable Wireless Bluetooth Speaker; $30 (4.4 stars)

AOMAIS portable bluetooth speaker
AOMAIS/Amazon

This portable speaker is certified to handle deep waters and harsh weather, making it perfect for your next big adventure. It can play for up to 15 hours on a full charge and offers a stable Bluetooth connection within a 100-foot radius.

Buy it: Amazon

10. XLEADER SoundAngel Touch Bluetooth Speaker; $19-$23 (4.4 stars)

XLeader portable bluetooth speaker
XLEADER/Amazon

This stylish device is available in black, silver, gold, and rose gold. Plus, it’s equipped with Bluetooth 5.0, a more powerful technology that can pair with devices up to 800 feet away. The SoundAngel speaker itself isn’t water-resistant, but it comes with a waterproof case for protection in less-than-ideal conditions.

Buy it: Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

The Teddy Roosevelt-Inspired Roller Coaster That Killed 7 People at Coney Island

Brooklyn Museum, Wikimedia Commons
Brooklyn Museum, Wikimedia Commons

The rides at Coney Island aren't the tallest or fastest in the world, but they have a way of reminding riders of their mortality. The Cyclone shows its age as it vibrates over its wooden track, the Wonder Wheel creaks loud enough to be heard from the line below, and regulations throughout the park seem looser than they do in Disneyland. But none of the rides at Coney Island today are as perilous as Rough Riders, the Spanish-American War-themed roller coaster that killed seven people in the early 1900s.

At the turn of the 19th century, Coney Island was the largest amusement area in the United States. Tourists flocked to the Brooklyn shore to travel along the boardwalk, see the sideshows, and experience the groundbreaking thrill rides. Coney Island was home to several roller coasters at this time, many of which offered more thrills than riders could handle. The Flip Flap Railway, the world’s first looping coaster, was infamous for knocking people out, and many paid to be spectators instead of riders. Other early Coney Island coasters featured cars shaped like horses that guests had to straddle and cars that cleared (or didn’t clear) gaps in the track.

Coney Island debuted its Rough Riders coaster in 1907. Less than a decade earlier, Theodore Roosevelt had resigned from his post as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy and led the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry—nicknamed the Rough Riders—into the Spanish-American War. Roosevelt was president in 1907, and the Rough Riders still loomed large enough in American culture to get their own roller coaster. The ride’s operators dressed in military uniforms, and cars passed by scenes depicting the war before ascending the hill. Beyond the creative theme, the ride also offered guests an exciting format. Unlike most other Coney Island coasters, which were propelled by gravity, this one ran on an electric third rail—much like a subway car. “Conductors” were assigned to each train, and they had control over how fast the cars moved over inclines and around curves.

As it turned out, technology invented to safely transport the public wasn’t the best fit for an amusement park. Because the cars had to be operated manually by park employees, there was no way to regulate how fast they went. Many operators pushed the ride vehicles to their limits; instead of slowing down on drops and sharp turns, they often went ahead at full speed.

In 1910, Rough Riders’s lack of safeguards proved disastrous. During one ride, the coaster turned too quickly, and 16 riders were flung from their seats. Four of them perished in the accident. Surprisingly, this tragedy wasn’t enough to get the attraction shut down, and on July 27, 1915, history repeated itself. That day, six passengers boarded the ride, and when the driver sped down an incline and into a curve, the car tipped onto its side. The operator and four riders flew out of the vehicle, crashing into the cheap iron railing enclosing the track. The fence broke and three of the victims fell 30 feet to their deaths onto the concrete below. The conductor’s body hit an onlooker on the way down and sent her to the hospital.

Two of the riders that were tossed from the coaster survived: Clara Moles and her 4-year-old son Edward. When the car flipped, Clara gripped the handrail with one hand and used her other arm to hold her son. She stayed dangling above the pavement until two detectives who had witnessed the event climbed up the coaster’s framework and pulled the pair onto the track.

Thomas Ward, the ride’s manager, was arrested following the incident and charged with homicide. A jury ultimately exonerated him after deciding that the accident was “unavoidable,” but the roller coaster itself didn’t get off as easy. It ceased operations for good in 1916, apparently proving too dangerous even for Coney Island’s risk-seekers.