I live in Costa Rica but I am a US citizen. The last time I traveled solo back to the States, the customs agent grilled me about how long I live in CR vs the US. He said I needed to reside in the US for at least 6 months out of the year to qualify for residency status. Absurd, I think.

Can anyone expand on this? I have to travel solo again next month back to the US, and I would like to be better prepared for any unfair irregularities.

  • 8
    What "residency status" was he talking about? Why would you want any sort of residency status in the US when you do not actually reside there? Did you enter the value of your goods in the "residents" box on the customs form?
    – phoog
    Oct 24, 2017 at 2:03
  • 21
    There are some differences in customs duties for returning residents from non-residents. Maybe the customs agent was trying to determine if you were a returning resident for that purpose? Oct 24, 2017 at 2:49
  • 8
    I agree with @PatriciaShanahan and I'm going to guess you filled in the Residents $ amount on the customs form. Next time leave that empty and fill in the Visitors $ amount instead, and all will go better.
    – Dennis
    Oct 24, 2017 at 4:37
  • 3
    What exactly happened? Were you compelled to do something?
    – Johns-305
    Oct 24, 2017 at 10:25
  • 9
    @LemuelGulliver they didn't "confuse a resident with a citizen", they were determining a resident citizen from a nonresident citizen.
    – hobbs
    Oct 24, 2017 at 17:40

3 Answers 3


CBP stands for Customs and Border Protection. Proof of citizenship, as other answers have pointed out, resolves the issue of whether you should be allowed to enter. It does not resolve the issue of what customs duties you need to pay.

The last question on the first page of the US Customs Declaration and the back of the form require different answers from residents and non-residents. Residents declare everything they are bringing into the US. Non-residents only declare what they will leave in the US. On the other hand, residents get a $800 duty-free exemption, non-residents $100. Your choice of box for Question 15 tells them whether you are declaring as a resident or non-resident, so be careful where you put your answer.

Residence and citizenship are separate issues - I am a British, not US, citizen but fill in the declaration as a US resident, because I live in the US. I am not a UK resident, which affects issues such as access to the National Health Service.

In complicated, borderline cases such as digital nomads and people with multiple homes, determining residence can be quite complicated, and you can be resident in multiple countries and in different countries for different purposes. In simple cases, if you would unequivocally say "I live in country X", country X is your country of residence.

The customs issue is the simplest explanation of a CBP official questioning a US citizen about resident status on entry. Either you answered as a resident and the official thought you might not be a resident, or you answered as a non-resident and the official thought you might be a resident. Either way, they would ask questions related to your resident/non-resident status, such as how much of your time you spend in the US.

As long as you continue to live outside the US declare as a non-resident. If questioned by CBP about your non-resident status just answer the questions. It is a legitimate subject for them to ask about, and does not mean they are questioning your right to enter the US.

  • 2
    @ChrisDeniseBadger Did you do your customs declaration as a resident or non-resident? Oct 24, 2017 at 16:46
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    @phoog According to the question, it was "at least 6 months out of the year to qualify for residency status". A US citizen who has lived outside the US for years at a time would be absolutely entitled to enter the US, but not entitled to claim to be a US resident on a customs form. Oct 24, 2017 at 18:56
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    @ChrisDeniseBadger "(now close to tears)" you were close to tears because he asked you where you spend more time? Is there something else missing here? Oct 24, 2017 at 22:16
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    @CodyBugstein, why such a silly question? It's incredibly obvious that she was not upset because she was asked a question, and that she was close to tears because "he became agitated" and "Then he asked me, still very aggressively, if I spend more time in the States or in CR." This description of the attitude of the officer makes it blatantly obvious that she was afraid of being accused of wrongdoing or having some sort of legal problem, NOT that she was upset by being asked a simple question.
    – barbecue
    Oct 24, 2017 at 23:15
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    @CodyBugstein there's nothing exceptional about someone being robbed either, doesn't mean it's not upsetting. Context. It matters, people.
    – barbecue
    Oct 24, 2017 at 23:49

The Customs and Border Protection officer is confusing your status with that of a Resident or Non-Resident Alien for the purposes of US Tax Law, which a CBP officer is allowed to query your status under.

Basically, US Tax Law requires non-citizen residents (so Resident and Non-Resident Aliens) to be taxed under given criteria, including the Substantial Presence Test which is what the CBP officer is referring to.

If you are a US citizen, you can ignore his comments - you are taxed differently.

  • 3
    Why would a US customs officer care about whether someone is a resident or nonresident alien for income tax purposes? I find that highly unlikely. Perhaps he was asking with respect to the personal duty-free exemption, which depends on residency.
    – phoog
    Oct 24, 2017 at 2:06
  • 1
    @phoog Customs officers can pass information on to the relevant tax authority - if they think you are avoiding taxes, they can and will pass that information on to the IRS. UK Customs do the same thing with HMRC.
    – Moo
    Oct 24, 2017 at 2:07
  • 1
    When I lived outside the US for nearly six years, no customs or immigration officer showed the slightest bit of interest in my income taxes or anything related to them.
    – phoog
    Oct 24, 2017 at 2:09
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    @phoog good for you. Others aren't as lucky - flyertalk.com/forum/checkpoints-borders-policy-debate/…
    – Moo
    Oct 24, 2017 at 2:12
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    @phoog sigh I give up - do you want me to delete the answer? Just say so and I will. Fact of the matter is that the CBP does get involved in IRS issues at the border and determining residency status is a good fishing question - if the officer gets it right....
    – Moo
    Oct 24, 2017 at 2:37

In addition to the customs issue, which seems to be a likely explanation, the CBP officer might have tried to gauge if the passport was genuine and belonged to you. One way to make that estimation is to talk about the personal data and the circumstances of the trip. The real owner of the passport will have his date of birth memorized, know where he is coming from and where he is going, and so on. An illegal immigrant with false papers might trip on such questions.

  • 1
    While this is true, I don't see how an assertion that the traveler needs to spend at least six months in a year in the US would help uncover a counterfeit or misused passport.
    – phoog
    Oct 24, 2017 at 16:55
  • 1
    @phoog, surely the customs issue is the main thing. But we regularly get assertions like "an US citizen can always enter, so why would they question him" like the deleted answer here. Wrong. An US citizen can enter as soon as he convinces the CPB officer that he is a genuine US citizen and not an impostor.
    – o.m.
    Oct 25, 2017 at 5:07
  • Even after CBP is convinced that the traveler is a US citizen, however, there remain reasons for further questioning, as explained by Patricia Shanahan. So the determination that the traveler is a US citizen does not exclude the possibility of further detention for questioning or search.
    – phoog
    Oct 25, 2017 at 8:43
  • If the US citizen derived citizenship from naturalization, being out of the country more than you are in country could be considered abrogating the US Citizenship. Mar 3, 2018 at 19:34
  • @MatthewBarclay there was a policy like that some 80 or 100 years ago, but the courts struck it down because it had no statutory basis. A naturalized citizen cannot be deprived of US citizenship for living abroad, no matter how long the person has lived in the US or outside of it. An 18-year-old could move to his or her home country directly from the naturalization ceremony, remain outside the US for 80 years, and still return as a US citizen at the age of 98.
    – phoog
    Mar 10, 2019 at 0:50

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