U.S. customs laws are confusing. Here is a simplified guide.
The cornerstone of every great rum collection are bottles brought back from trips abroad. There is no sport in going to your local liquor store and buying every bottle of rum. The fun is in the travel, tasting and return. If you pose the question of how many bottles you are allowed to legally return, there is a good chance you will get various and often wrong answers. It is that reason I’ve done a little research for you in order to answer that question correctly.
We are only considering bottles of rum you are legally allowed here. What else would be worth bringing back?
When you return to the U.S. you will clear passport control and then retrieve your luggage. If your trip back to the U.S. terminates at your entry point you could hand carry any rum you bought at a Duty Free store aboard the aircraft. If not, don’t forget that you need to put those bottles you bought into your luggage before you recheck them on to the final destination. A key note regarding Duty Free stores. Duty Free refers to the taxes you are avoiding in the country you purchased the rum in, and has not bearing on how the U.S. considers them. Rum is rum is rum to the U.S. Customs and Border Control agents who are responsible for clearing you through customs.
Typically each person gets an $800 duty free exclusion on any items brought home. You can use this exclusion once every 30 days. This amount can vary up to $1,600 and has other adjustments and restriction which I won’t get into here because liquor and tobacco products are limited outside of this.
Typically you allowed only 1 liter of alcohol per adult over 21 years old. That’s it. Period. No more. Seems stingy right? It is. My personal observation is it seems Customs agents feel the same way. If you happen to bring three bottles of wine back from Italy (over your limit) and you claim them correctly on your form, often they will waive you through. That is just my observation, don’t bother sending me a nasty e-mail saying you had bottles taken or fees levied because you followed this. I’ll just laugh at your foolishness and delete the note. Cheers to you.
Now the good news for those of us who love rum. Our rules are less strict! If you buy rum in the Caribbean (see exact list of countries at the end of this article) you are allowed to bring home 2 liters of rum. One liter has to be from one of those Caribbean countries, the other could be from Spain if you want. Obviously, the rum can’t be from Cuba.
Want even better news? If during your trip to the Caribbean you visit the US Virgin Islands and/or Puerto Rico then you can bring home 5 liters of rum! NICE. The rule says that 1 liter has to be from one of those U.S. insular territories. (Which also applies to American Samoa and Guam). Five liters of rum on one trip is a nice haul and great addition to your rum collection. With that much rum you might even be willing to gift a bottle or two. If you are feeling especially charitable don’t forget to send a bottle to your favorite island writer, your’s truly.
These are the duty free limits. There is no law that says you can’t bring home more than the limits. It just means you will have to pay duty on the extra. Typically 3% of the value. It’s best to keep receipts to make this process easier. I always fill out my customs form and list what I purchased. It’s just not worth getting caught. With travel already difficult, why would I want to end up on a watch list for breaking customs laws? Although there is no limit on how much you can bring home, typically the Customs supervisor will consider one case per person reasonable. They have wide latitude to require an import certificate from you for much more.
Although Customs tariffs on alcohol may seem tight, we as rum lovers come off pretty well in this process. The big mistake we can make is be lured by the chance of bringing home a bottle of Cuban rum and hoping we don’t get caught. I would say, don’t be greedy and appreciate that we already do better than other liquor categories. There are many many world class rums you can bring home without getting caught with Cuban rum. If you want that, buy and drink the hell out of it in the islands.
I hope this clears up the law for you and helps you avoid tariffs on your rum. Cheers.