Coming Home Again:
Plan Ahead to Ease Your Laptop Through Customs

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 the world.

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. laws.

"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 You Go”.

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 possession.

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 than later.

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

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