There’s no entry fee at the border that you have to pay simply to be allowed into the United States or Canada. Traveling across the border is free – but the items you bring back with you are a different story.
You may need to pay duties, a special kind of taxes, on some goods you bring across the border. However, the U.S. and Canada have personal exemptions, and if what you bring with you falls within the country’s personal exemption, you won’t have to pay anything. Read on to learn how to find out what duties you’ll owe and how personal exemptions work.
Before heading to the border, make sure you check out the following pages to make sure you’re ready for your trip:
- Prohibited items: While considering what to bring with you across the border, make sure you also check out this page to see what’s restricted as well as what you might be charged for.
- Customs inspection experience: Learn what you’ll face at the border and how you can best prepare.
- Jewelry: When transporting valuable jewelry across the border, there are steps you can take to protect your items.
Before you spend too much time calculating duties for specific items, you should first try to gauge whether you’re going over the country’s personal exemption amount (also sometimes referred to as the personal allowance).
The value of the items you bring across the border will be calculated by customs officials, and if the value is less than the personal exemption limits, you won’t pay anything.
Here’s some helpful information about the personal exemption:
- The U.S. and Canada have their own personal exemption amounts, as well as limits on certain types of items.
- The personal exemption is per person, not per vehicle.
- The United States allows travelers to combine their personal exemption amount, while Canada does not.
- If you go over the personal exemption (or the limit for a particular item type), you will have to pay duties on the excess.
- The duties will be calculated by customs officials in the currency of the country you are entering. You will need to convert the amount you paid for goods in one country into the currency of the country you are entering at the applicable rate of exchange.
- Customs agents are supposed to arrange things to your best advantage, by grouping higher duty items under your personal exemption and charging the excess on lower-duty ones.
Be sure to check the both United States and the Canadian personal exemptions. And remember, the rules change, so confirm this information at the time of your travel if you are trying to be precise about landing within the exemption levels. You can always contact the United States or Canadian government agencies directly for up-to-date information.
Duties Owed to Cross the Border
It’s not easy to estimate how much you will have to pay in duties and taxes. In general, the amount of duty is based on the type of item, its value, and its country of origin. U.S. duties are governed by the 2,700+ page U.S. Harmonized Tariff Schedule, and Canadian duties by the equally cryptic Canadian Customs Tariff. Thanks to an agreement among the United States, Canada, and Mexico, some goods made in those three countries will be charged at lower duty rates than comparable items from other countries (the USMCA).
We have separate pages with further information on how to estimate United States and Canadian duties. These pages have links to some calculators which will give you a decent estimate of duties on many items.
If you really need to know how exactly much you will be charged, we suggest you contact either the Canadian Border Information Service or the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Information Service. You should be ready to exactly describe the merchandise you are planning to import, including the country of origin of the merchandise and manufacturer, the composition of the merchandise, the intended use of the item, and pricing/payment information.
Duty Free Shopping
“Duty free” shopping, counterintuitively, doesn’t mean you don’t have to pay duties at the border. It means you don’t have to pay local sales taxes at the place where you buy the item. However, this can still be a good deal if you take proper advantage of things like the personal exemption.
For more information, check out our page on duty free shopping.
Importing Vehicles Across the U.S. / Canadian Border
We have a separate page for importing an auto, which you should read before buying a car across the border. There are strict rules for importing a car, and if you don’t follow all of them carefully and declare the car’s value correctly, you could face major problems. You risk court appearances, seizure of the car, and penalties of 25-75% of the car’s undeclared value.
Bringing Gifts across the U.S. / Canadian Border
Gifts, such as wedding or birthday presents, and gifts you have brought back for others, must be declared and will generally be treated like any other item you purchased. Gifts intended for business, promotional or other commercial purposes may not be included in your duty-free exemption. In addition, you cannot claim alcoholic beverages, tobacco products, or business-related material as gifts.