International travelers are often worried about being asked to pay
duty when they pass their laptop computers through customs. Although
many people never have problems, there are many that do, according
to the Los Angeles office of the US Bureau of Customs & Border
Protection (CBP, formerly the U.S. Customs Service). Consequently,
it’s best to take some precautions.
With a few hundred separate countries in the world, you can be sure
that there are an equal number of separate customs regulations. Yet
when it comes to assuring a customs officer that a computer is not
a very recent purchase, the procedure should be largely the same the
world round. We’ll use the US as our example, as in all immigration
and customs matters it can be one of the more difficult countries in
If you originate your trip in the US, generally no one really cares
what you carry out of the country for your personal use on your trip,
laptop included, with some minor exceptions. For example, the United
State has controls on the exportation of certain technologies and technical
data, which is the sort of thing frequently carried in laptop computers.
Be sure you have removed any technical data such as manufacturing processes,
technical designs and specifications and the like from your computer
before you travel. If you are traveling on business and need this information,
have your company export compliance professional check it and advise
you if an export license may be needed. The fines for violations are
very severe and start with the confiscation of the computer... But
when you return, you may be asked to prove that you started your trip
with the computer and didn’t purchase it while out of the country.
It is ironic that one often has more trouble bringing one’s laptop
home again than taking the computer into a foreign country in the first
place. Be aware that some foreign countries restrict the kind of encryption
software that may be installed on acomputer. France is particularly
notable for that and encryption is built into most modern operating
systems and many applications, such as Microsoft Office and its look-alikes.
Some encryption software is also restricted from export under U.S.
"You’d be surprised how many people get asked," pointed
out an LA CBP official.
A very useful publication, available from the CBP website (http://www.cbp.gov/xp/cgov/travel/vacation/kbyg/)
and in printed form at any CBP office is the pamphlet “Know Before
According to CBP, there are essentially two ways to protect yourself.
First, you can take along some sort of proof of purchase or ownership. "Foreign-made
personal articles taken abroad are dutiable each time they are brought
in to our country," CBP writes, "unless you have acceptable
proof of prior possession. Documents which fully describe the article,
such as a bill of sale, insurance policy, jeweler’s appraisal,
or receipt for purchase, may be considered reasonable proof of prior
The second alternative is to register your laptop with CBP prior to
departure: "Items...which may be readily identified by serial
number or permanently affixed markings, may be taken to the CBP office
nearest you and registered before your departure."
This Certificate of Registration, accomplished with Form CF 4457, will
merely contain a brief description of your computer and list appropriate
serial numbers. There is no charge for the certificate, and it is good
for as "long as it remains legible."
View a sample form
Form CF 4455 can be downloaded from the Web at http://www.cbp.gov/xp/cgov/travel/clearing_goods/certificate_of_registration.xml.
Unfortunately, though, there’s no way to register by phone, online,
or in any way short of showing up at a CBP office in person together
with your computer equipment. The officer has to see the equipment
to verify it.
CBP’s various Web sites seem to all recommend that you present
yourself at a main CBP office, mostly located downtown in major US
cities. Such sites are extremely inconvenient for most people. Tracking
down CBP officials at the airport from which you are about to hop on
an international flight is usually more practical. But you are on your
own when it comes to finding out where in each airport CBP officials
may be located and during which hours they are available.
Best advice is to phone ahead.
Also, leave yourself some extra time. While the form is rather simple,
you may have to queue up. And although the form is fairly routine,
travelers report that officials often appear less than enthusiastic
about offering the necessary stamps and signatures to validate the
certificate. The form may be filled out at any time; you do not have
to wait until at or near the time of your trip.
Taking along the receipt for the purchase of the computer sounds like
a good option, but is not always practical. First of all, it is often
not you, but your company, that has purchased the computer and the
receipt is safely filed away in the accounting department. Even if
you have access to the receipt, you may still prefer to keep it safe
for accounting purchases. You could take a photocopy, but no where
does CBP actually say that a photocopy is acceptable proof. If the
computer is company owned, it is also advisable to have a letter signed
by the corporate export compliance manager or a company officer that
certifies that you are authorized to carry company property internationally
and that the computer and its software is in compliance with the Export
Administration Regulations of the United States.
In the end, a Form CF 4457 is your only sure proof that a foreign-made
computer was purchased in the US prior to departure on you trip. Sooner
or later you’re going to find yourself with a long lay-over at
a major US airport, so make good use of your time by tracking down
the CBP office. If you never wish to be hassled, make it sooner rather
Until you pick up a Form CF 4457 be sure to travel with some ammunition.
A photocopy of a receipt is not sure proof, but it will help you talk
your way past an inquisitive CBP officer, as will an appropriate letter
from your employer and anything else you might dream up that establishes
your computer’s pre-trip purchase.
One last thing: Be sure not to forget about significant peripherals,
such as a printer, that you might take along. They, too, may be questioned.
Article updated April 2005 courtesy Ronald E.
Edelstein, CHB, Senior Manager, International Customs & Export
Compliance, Solectron Corporation.
He can be reached at RonaldEdelstein@tx.slr.com