What is Duty Free Shopping?
Duty-free shops are retail outlets that do not apply local or national taxes – for the country in which the shop is located. However, you may still have to pay taxes or duties when you cross the border. Your purchase is only truly “duty free” if your purchases fit within your personal exemptions for the country you will be entering. If you exceed your personal exemptions, you will pay that country’s taxes or duties on your purchases.
Duty free shops are typically found only at an international border, airports, or other areas where you are leaving the country. By definition, duty free items are for “export only” and must immediately be taken out of the country in which they are purchased. Once you enter the premises of a duty free shop you cannot turn around and head back into the country from which you came – you must continue out of the country and through Customs. Most duty free shops along the border will have an entrance with tire spikes so you cannot back out.
There are duty free shops at about a third of the U.S. / Canadian border crossings – primarily the larger ones. We have listed the duty free shops for each of the border crossings between the US and Canada on the pages for each port. When you finish with this page, you should be sure to read our pages on how to best handle your Customs Inspection.
What Should You Buy Duty Free?
Sometimes purchasing duty-free is a good deal; sometimes it’s not. Duty free shops offer deals on items that usually carry heavy duties and taxes. Veteran shoppers carefully pick their items, calculate their personal exemptions, and research the duty free shop before they reach the border.
Below we show duty free items ranked from those that are MOST often purchased, to those that are LEAST often purchased:
- Alcohol (liquor, liqueur, wine, coolers)
- Tobacco, Cigars, Loose Tobacco
- Perfume, Cosmetics, Skincare
- Beer (beer, malt-based coolers)
- Jewelry, Watches, Clocks
- Clothing (including hats, fur, leather)
- Accessories (purses, wallets, sunglasses, etc.)
- Office and Travel Supplies
- Glassware, crystal, china, figurines, porcelain
- Electronics, Cameras, Binoculars, etc.
Tips for Duty Free Shopping
- Look for goods that are made in the United States, Mexico, Chile and Costa Rica or other countries that are part of an international trade agreement such as NAFTA. Goods produced in these countries often have lower, or no duties at all.
- Make sure you know your license plate number before you go into the store. You will need it to make your purchases
- Always keep your receipts for items your purchase as you will be asked by Customs how much you paid – including any taxes.
- You will also have to show your receipt to an attendant as you exit the store parking lot.
- Pack all of your purchases together so you can present them quickly if a Customs Officer requests an inspection.
- You may want to consider the traffic situation before you enter the driveway to the duty free shop. Once you enter, you are not likely to be able to get out without transiting the entire facility. On heavy shopping days, or crowded border times, we have seen complaints of 2-3 hour traffic jams due to crowded conditions. Consider calling ahead to see what the staff says about current store conditions.
- Some duty free shops have food courts, travel centers, and various business services such as Internet connections.
- The goods you purchase must be exported intact – they cannot be consumed or used on the shop’s premises.
- Additional information on duty free shopping can be found on these pages at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Canadian Border Services Agency.
Warning – Bad Things Happen if you Cheat
Finally, a warning we echo throughout this site – don’t even think about smuggling your purchase across the border. If you are caught, the paltry amount of money you would have saved will pale in comparison to the penalties that will be imposed and the ramifications of a lifetime ban on ever crossing that border again.