If you are returning home to the US after a trip abroad, take notice! Under certain circumstances, you may be charged a duty on your photography gear if you are unable to prove that you were in possession of the gear before leaving the US. You are thinking that sounds crazy. With the price of camera equipment today it could happen to any of us, particularly if your equipment looks or is new.

US Customs and Border Protection

When you re-enter the U.S.you are allowed a duty-free exemption for the total value of merchandise purchased abroad, which in most cases is $800. The exemption covers items bought for personal or household use or intended to be given as gifts. You will most likely be asked to declare what you acquired overseas, and its value, so that Customs and Border Protection officers can determine whether or not you have exceeded your exemption. The officer may examine your bags, and request proof that items you have not declared, such as your camera equipment, were in your possession in the United States before you left on your trip.

I have always carried receipts for the purchase of my camera equipment, as well as a copy of my insurance policy which contains a list of my equipment. I had read in a brochure published by the CBP that receipts were proof of prior possession. I have recently learned that that may not be the case.

Form 4457

According to a CBP officer, I spoke with some officials may not accept a receipt as proof of purchase in the United States. The officer explained that many receipts do not contain the serial numbers of items purchased and that some officers may require serial numbers. The officer highly recommended securing a U.S. Customs And Border Protection Form 4457 signed by a CBP official verifying ownership of gear, before leaving on an overseas adventure.

Form 4457 is a Certificate of Registration for Personal Effects Taken Abroad. It is very simple to fill out. I printed an enlarged version of the form from the internet and listed all of my equipment on two forms. I then called the local customs office and asked the best place to have the forms signed and verified near my home. To my surprise, it was not the airport, but a CBP office in a downtown office building. Access was easier than the airport.

Visiting The Local Customs Office

My suggestion would be to likewise call and ask for the closest or most convenient location for you to visit, to have your forms signed. Also, ask for the best time of day to come in. If you do not live near a CBP office, you may have to stop at an airport office before you transfer planes and leave the US.

When I went to the local CBP office I took all of my camera and lenses with me in a rolling carry-on bag and backpack, not just the equipment I was taking on my next trip. I came the time recommended to me and was in and out in ten minutes. The officer compared my equipment to the equipment listed on the Form 4457, and then signed and stamped the form.

Now, whenever I travel overseas, I carry my forms with me. As with my passport and other important travel documents, I keep a copy of the forms at home. I also have copies of the forms and other important documents on a thumb drive, which I also take with me on my travels.

Editor’s note: It’s also a great idea to photograph your passport, drivers license, insurance card, and the form 4457 with your phone.