Penalties for Incorrect Customs Declarations

Title 19 of the U.S. Code of Regulations defines import and export rules and U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, or CBP, enforcement of them. One of the provisions of this law — Part 148 — states: “All articles brought into the United States by any individual must be declared to a CBP officer at the port of first arrival in the United States.” Travelers “declare” their articles by listing on CBP declaration form 6059B the estimated value of everything they acquired and presenting it to a CBP officer at their port of entry. Omissions, incorrect or false entries on this declaration form will lead to fines and/or possible seizure of the merchandise.


The severity of not declaring imported items centers on their classification. The U.S. International Trade Commission classifies all merchandise as duty-free or dutiable. CBP defines “duty” as an import tax. A “dutiable” classification means an item is taxable at the border. Classification as “duty-free” effectively means “tax-free” for customs purposes. Examples of duty-free merchandise include antiques at least 100 years old, fine art and most goods from Caribbean, Andean, sub-Sarharan African and NAFTA countries.


Fines for declaration inaccuracies involving duty-free goods start at $50 and rise to 1 to 5 percent of their domestic value, up to $1,000. Fines could double, depending on the circumstances such as level of cooperation and traveler experience. For example, a U.S. citizen who purposely fails to declare the 110-year-old, first-edition book she purchased in England for $500 will be penalized. The CBP has the right to double the minimum fine of $50 dollars because the declaration omission was intentional.

Duty Eligible

When the undeclared article is dutiable, or duty eligible, the CBP officer will consider prior knowledge of customs declaration law and the circumstances involved to determine the penalty. The traveler can be charged as much as $250 or the item’s domestic value, whichever is less. Repeat offenses will raise the fine to eight times the applicable duty or the domestic value. Duty must be paid in addition to the fine. The duty amount depends on the item. For many wines, for example, one bottle up to 1 liter is duty free. However, a second bottle is duty-eligible, and if it is not declared, it is dutiable at about 3 percent of its value. CBP will charge duty and federal excise tax on the second bottle, plus levy a fine equal to the duty amount.

Restricted Agriculture Goods

Restrictions on importing agricultural products — food, plants, fruit, meat and vegetables — aim to prevent infestation and disease outbreaks. A first-time fine of $100 rises to $500 for a second offense for attempting to bring a restricted agricultural product into the United States. According to the CBP, travelers can avoid penalties by declaring and presenting all agricultural articles to a CBP officer. A CBP agriculture specialist will then decide if they can be admitted.

Other Restricted Items

The CBP reports that the wildlife black market ranks second to drug trafficking in terms of profit. The Lacey Act prohibits the introduction of injurious wildlife, mammals, reptiles, fish and birds. Even species deemed to be harmless require import permits. Individuals without permits who attempt to smuggle birds will be fined $1,000; commercial smugglers will be levied a $10,000 fine. Those violating the Dog and Cat Protection Act of 2000, which prohibits importation of items containing cat or dog fur, will also be fined $10,000 per intentional incident.


On the customs declaration form, travelers are asked if they are carrying more than $10,000 into the country. If they answer yes, they must complete another form, FinCEN 105. Fines for an incorrect declaration related to currency depend on the amount being transported. The minimum fine is $500 for $15,000 or less. The maximum is $50,000 for transporting more than $500,000. CBP has the authority to confiscate the money. If no illegal activity surrounds the declaration violation, CBP can release it once the penalty has been satisfied.