What happens if I don’t declare products at U.S. customs?

You want your runny cheese so badly, but customs will take it faster than you can say “camembert”. So what are you risking if you decide not to declare your contraband products at customs? If you’re considering clandestinely bringing goods into the US, know that it’s not without risk.

Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the federal agency in charge of US borders, takes their job very seriously. At the American border, everyone entering must provide details on all products coming into the US from abroad, specifically their value and country of origin. All this is indicated on the famous blue form distributed on the airplane back to the states.


So what products are we talking about? All products that aren’t considered personal effects. (Personal effects are things you already owned before you left the US, like clothing, jewelry, phone, etc.) Souvenirs, presents — to yourself and to others — and food products must be declared. There are limits on what kinds of products you can bring in and how much, so before you try and smuggle something in secretly, take a look at this article to find out if you even need to be smuggling it in the first place.

Option 1: You declare a contraband product

You didn’t read up on Frenchly about which products can come to the US, and now you’ve got some runny cheese in your purse, which isn’t allowed in. You are safe to declare it without fear of being reprimanded. But if even though there is no penalty for declaring a prohibited item,” you still have to either abandon it voluntarily at customs, or you will have it confiscated.

Option 2: You don’t declare a contraband product

From here, there are two possible scenarios.

  • Scenario 1: You’re transporting this contraband product in non-commercial values (less than $2,500).

If you don’t declare your contraband products or give false information, you will most certainly face consequences. According to section 592 of Customs Law, a fine of $300 will be given as a “spot penalty” for the non-declaration of a forbidden non-agricultural product, and the product will be confiscated. French Morning reached out to CBP for further commentary on this topic. CBP spokesperson Jason Givens added that travelers who refuse to pay the fine can ask to choose to have a hearing. “However, if there is a hearing the penalty could increase to $1,000 or more, depending on the item,” said Givens.

As for forbidden agricultural products (fruits and vegetables, meat and all food made from animal and vegetable byproducts), which are susceptible to transporting parasites, if you forget to declare, make an error in your declaration, or don’t declare at all, you can be charged with a civil penalty of up to $10,000.

  • Scenario 2: You’re transporting commercial quantities (more than $2,500 dollars).

In this case, the CBP uses article 542 — a section of title 18 in the United States Code of Law. Under article 542, a person transporting commercial qualities of undeclared goods can be charged with the criminal penalty of money laundering, and illegal or attempted illegal importing, punishable by a maximum of 20 years in prison, a fine, or both. The criminal fine is up to $500,000 or twice the value of the contraband non-declared products, whichever is greater.

The fines don’t stop there. In additional to the criminal penalty, there is a civil penalty of up to $10,000, or the value of the contraband non-declared product, whichever is greater.