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A bottle of wine or a case of beer can allow you to savor your vacation long after it’s over. Getting it through customs, however, requires you to follow federal and state regulations and do some planning, unless you want to lose your booze.
If you know what you expect before you pack your bags, you can plan ahead and eliminate unwanted surprises on the way back.
Here's what you need to know to save yourself some money and headaches.
Understanding the basics
There are plenty of regulations to consider when bringing alcohol into the U.S. Even if federal law allows you to enter the U.S. with a certain amount of alcohol, your state’s laws might restrict it.
Let's start with some general rules from U.S. Customs and Border Protection:
You have to be 21 to travel with or import alcohol
A case of alcohol is an example of the amount that's generally allowed, but it's not a hard-and-fast rule, and state laws may permit less. You can verify the amount of alcohol allowed with your state’s Alcohol Beverage Control board.
Alcohol must be properly labeled, depending on type. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau offers guidelines on its website.
You must declare alcohol brought from a foreign country on a Customs and Border Protection form (6059B)
Duty-free? Maybe not
Be aware that you also may still have to pay a “duty” — a tax on goods brought across international borders — even if you bought your alcohol from a duty-free shop.
Customs and Border Patrol collects taxes on alcoholic beverages in the port of entry during the clearance process. The duty-free exemption generally allows you to skip the duty on one liter of alcohol purchased at a duty-free shop when you're traveling to the U.S.; more liters if you’re coming from certain Caribbean destinations.
Duty rates are charged on the percentage of alcohol per liter. Rates on wine and beer run relatively low — about $1 to $2 per liter — but rates on fortified wines and spirits could be much more costly, according to the CBP website. You may also be responsible for paying state taxes. Again, check with your state's Alcohol Beverage Control board.
Putting alcohol in your bag
Other federal rules will apply depending on whether you intend to fly with alcohol in carry-on or checked bags.
For starters, there's a size limit for bottles in your carry-on. The Transportation Security Administration requires liquids over 3.4 ounces to be packed in a checked bag, but exceptions are made for liquids above that size that are bought after you clear the security checkpoint.
If you're checking a bag with alcohol in it, the Federal Aviation Administration allows 5 liters per person of unopened bottles with alcohol by volume over 24% to 70%. You can pack more than that if the alcohol by volume falls under 24%.
The FAA doesn't allow bottles with alcohol by volume over 70% in checked bags or carry-ons.
Preparation and packing
If you know you’re going to want to bring back a bottle, or a few, you can save money by planning ahead.
First, keep in mind that buying a suitcase while you're abroad isn't ideal. Sure, it'll hold your liquid souvenirs, but new luggage can be expensive, and you may also have to pony up a checked-bag fee to get it home unless you have a credit card that waives such fees.
Ruth Berman, CEO of beer tour company Bon Beer Voyage, suggests packing an empty duffel inside your suitcase. She also likes to pack bubble wrap, packing tape or other items to protect the bottles.
“It’s hard to find things like bubble wrap over in Europe,” Berman says. “They are more ecologically-minded over there.”
Reusable protection sleeves may occupy less space, and they can also provide the same function as bubble wrap and packing tape. They may also prevent leaks if a bottle is damaged. If you're lucky, a duty-free store might give them to you for free with a purchase. Otherwise, you can order protector sleeves online.
Regardless, you'll want to wrap an alcohol bottle in a way that makes it easy for customs agents to check it and see the label. Otherwise, you might get delayed.
“I would take my wine bottles in their plastic sleeves and then wrap my clothes around those wine bottles for added security," says Elaine Schoch, a wine connoisseur and editor at Carpe Travel.
She makes a "wine sandwich" in her suitcase by packing her shoes first, adding a layer of clothes, putting the wrapped wine bottles in the middle and placing another layer of clothes on top.
Berman prefers the bubble-wrap-and-sock method for her beer. She wraps it in the bubble wrap, tapes it and puts it in a plastic bag. She then pulls her sock over the bag and wraps it in her jeans for added protection.
Shipping alcohol to the U.S., if your state allows it, can be a more-convenient option than carrying it yourself — but it can also be more expensive. When you ship alcohol, you forfeit the duty-free exemption.
U.S. postal laws prohibit alcohol shipments through the mail, so you’ll have to go through a courier and likely pay handling and customs broker fees, according to CBP's website.
Before shipping, find out if the beverage you want is available in the U.S. If it isn't, consider the final cost after fees and taxes to determine whether it's worth shipping.
You may also want to pay for the shipment with a credit card that offers purchase protection. You could potentially be reimbursed if something goes wrong with your order.
Taking a sip down memory lane
Once you actually get your alcohol safely home, you may be tempted to crack it open immediately. Don't.
The change in temperature, altitude and other factors can have an impact on the contents. That's especially true of wine.
“If you travel with wine, lay it down for a week or two,” Schoch says. “Don’t come home and pop it open right away because wine needs to settle.”
Consult the merchant for best practices on how to make your beer, wine or spirits feel at home. Then, you'll be able to sip at your leisure and enjoy a taste of your fond vacation memories.