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.

What Do the Numbers and Letters on a Boarding Pass Mean?

iStock.com/Laurence Dutton
iStock.com/Laurence Dutton

Picture this: You're about to embark on a vacation or business trip, and you have to fly to reach your destination. You get to the airport, make it through the security checkpoint, and breathe a sigh of relief. What do you do next? After putting your shoes back on, you'll probably look at your boarding pass to double-check your gate number and boarding time. You might scan the information screen for your flight number to see if your plane will arrive on schedule, and at some point before boarding, you'll also probably check your zone and seat numbers.

Aside from these key nuggets of information, the other letters and numbers on your boarding pass might seem like gobbledygook. If you find this layout confusing, you're not the only one. Designer and creative director Tyler Thompson once commented that it was almost as if "someone put on a blindfold, drank a fifth of whiskey, spun around 100 times, got kicked in the face by a mule … and then just started puking numbers and letters onto the boarding pass at random."

Of course, these seemingly secret codes aren't exactly secret, and they aren't random either. So let's break it down, starting with the six-character code you'll see somewhere on your boarding pass. This is your Passenger Name Reference (or PNR for short). On some boarding passes—like the one shown below—it may be referred to as a record locator or reservation code.

A boarding pass
Piergiuliano Chesi, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

These alphanumeric codes are randomly generated, but they're also unique to your personal travel itinerary. They give airlines access to key information about your contact information and reservation—even your meal preferences. This is why it's ill-advised to post a photo of your boarding pass to social media while waiting at your airport gate. A hacker could theoretically use that PNR to access your account, and from there they could claim your frequent flier miles, change your flight details, or cancel your trip altogether.

You might also see a random standalone letter on your boarding pass. This references your booking class. "A" and "F," for instance, are typically used for first-class seats. The letter "Y" generally stands for economy class, while "Q" is an economy ticket purchased at a discounted rate. If you see a "B" you might be in luck—it means you could be eligible for a seat upgrade.

There might be other letters, too. "S/O," which is short for stopover, means you have a layover that lasts longer than four hours in the U.S. or more than 24 hours in another country. Likewise, "STPC" means "stopover paid by carrier," so you'll likely be put up in a hotel free of charge. Score!

One code you probably don’t want to see is "SSSS," which means your chances of getting stopped by TSA agents for a "Secondary Security Screening Selection" are high. For whatever reason, you've been identified as a higher security risk. This could be because you've booked last-minute or international one-way flights, or perhaps you've traveled to a "high-risk country." It could also be completely random.

Still confused? For a visual of what that all these codes look like on a boarding pass, check out this helpful infographic published by Lifehacker.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, send it to bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

Taco Bell is Opening a Taco-Themed Hotel in Palm Springs This Summer

Taco Bell Corp.
Taco Bell Corp.

For some, having a Taco Bell and its cheese-filled menu within driving distance is enough. For others, only a Taco Bell destination vacation will do. This August, the popular fast food chain is going to convert an existing Palm Springs, California, hotel into a burrito-filled Taco Bell getaway for a limited time.

The Bell Hotel will have all the usual amenities—rooms, food, gifts, and a salon—operating with a taco-themed cosmetic facelift. The nail salon, for example, will feature Taco Bell-inspired nail art. (Though we're not entirely sure what that consists of—possibly nails that resemble hot sauce packets.) The gift shop will feature Taco Bell apparel. Guests can also enjoy the standard variety of Taco Bell menu items. According to Thrillist, some new additions to their line-up are expected to be unveiled.

The as-yet-undisclosed hotel in Palm Springs will be operating as a Taco Bell partner for five nights total. As with pop-up stores and other publicity campaigns, the expectation is that guests will share their bizarre Taco Bell resort experience on social media and create some buzz around the brand. Taco Bell is no stranger to audacious marketing, as in the case of their Taco Bell Cantina in Las Vegas, which books weddings. Recently, the company also began making home deliveries via GrubHub.

The Bell Hotel website is now accepting sign-ups so fans can be notified when reservations open. The facility is expected to open August 9.

[h/t CNBC]

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