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I overheard a friend asking another friend whether she, being of legal age here in Spain, would have any trouble taking wine purchased here back to the USA where she is not allowed to buy it.

The response was merely anecdotal, so I decided to try to find better information.

A person over eighteen can legally buy alcohol in Spain. If under 21, can she (USA citizen) bring some back to USA? If not, what are the consequences for the attempt?

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Simply, no.

If the traveler declares the alcohol, it will be seized as the traveler is not of age to import it.

If the traveler does not declare the alcohol, and it is discovered, it will be seized as the traveler is not of age to import it, and will be penalized for smuggling undeclared goods into the United States.

If the traveler is traveling with someone of age, perhaps that person can import it on his behalf, but even that is legally sketchy. It would be best to consume the alcohol abroad, where possession of it is legal.

Here is a reference from CBP about this.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – JonathanReez Apr 11 '18 at 19:00
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    It won't always be seized. When I was 19 I returned to the US with alcohol and, upon declaring it, I was physically escorted to meet my parents so the Customs officer could personally hand them the bottles. I've spoken to acquaintances who have had similar experiences, so your mileage may vary. – Roddy of the Frozen Peas Apr 11 '18 at 19:55
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    While obviously legit, that link to CBP has some strange details in it. For one it says: "...although travelers coming from the U.S. Virgin Islands or other Caribbean countries..." You can't return to the U.S. from the the U.S. Virgin Islands". The other thing about this I find strange is that there is no federal drinking age: drinking age is a state law concern. Anecdotally, I know a lot of people who regularly purchased cases of beer in Canada when they were under 21 and declared them with no issue. Granted it was a different time when locals didn't need passports to cross. – JimmyJames Apr 11 '18 at 21:08
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    @JimmyJames: Strictly-speaking, the U.S. Virgin Islands are not, in fact, part of the United States (they're an unincorporated territory), so you can, technically, return to the U.S. from the U.S. Virgin Islands. – Sean Apr 11 '18 at 21:23
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    @Strawberry if you have any alcohol, or indeed anything that you plan to leave in the US as a visitor, or that you acquired abroad as a resident, you are supposed to declare it. If you fail to declare it, and you get searched, and they find it, they can confiscate it even if it's under the limit. The fact that it's under the limit means that you won't have to pay import duty on it, not that you don't have to declare it. – phoog Apr 13 '18 at 22:47
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The fact that you bought something legally somewhere else isn't actually relevant. When you want to bring an item into a country, it's that country's law that applies.

Indeed, the law about what you can bring into a country is usually even stricter than the law about what you can buy when you're there. For example, you can legally buy raw meat in Spain and in the US but you can't bring raw meat from either one to the other.

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Legally, no.

In practice yes, provided you are a little lucky and it is under a liter. I successfully did it a few times when I was under 21.

In my experience if you are a US citizen, and you do not declare anything, you are likely waved through US customs without an additional check of your bag. This is not a guarantee and depends on the customs agent's mood and view of you.

I believe there is possible random check before you receive your bags from baggage claim for smuggled goods and dangerous items. Since you are allowed to bring up to one liter of liquor undeclared a single bottle of wine or hard liquor in a suitcase is not going to raise any eyebrows. The people checking for serious smuggling are not going to waste time checking the age of each person with a single bottle in their bag.

It is my understanding if you are caught, customs will simply confiscate the alcohol. You are not violating any customs laws as long as you are under the amount that must be declared.

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    If you are asked if you have alcohol and answer "no", and in fact, you do have some, then you will likely have some interesting border crossing experiences ahead as you get sent to secondary inspection frequently. I don't recommend doing this at all. – Jim MacKenzie Apr 11 '18 at 21:32
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    @JimMackenzie you aren't always asked this. The CBP form doesn't have such a field, so you only have to declare alcohol over 1L – JonathanReez Apr 11 '18 at 21:59
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    @JonathanReez I cross the US-Canada border monthly or more (as a Canadian citizen/resident) and I agree, you aren't always asked, but I certainly have been asked. – Jim MacKenzie Apr 11 '18 at 22:20
  • @JonathanReez the form clearly instructs travelers to declare all items. If you have a liter or less of alcohol, you're still supposed to declare it, even though no duty will be payable. – phoog Jan 3 at 3:04
  • @phoog you have to declare the monetary value, but you don't need to declare that you have alcohol unless explicitly asked. – JonathanReez Jan 3 at 4:52
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I brought back a bottle of pisco (brandy) from Chile last year. I was 19. Got detained when I arrived back in the states, but after 20 minutes of waiting they let me go. It was really weird and I probably wouldn't do it again, but maybe you'll get lucky too. I said it was for my parents and that seemed like a good enough excuse to them, I guess. Don't tell jeff sessions

  • Did you declare it, or were you trying to smuggle it in without declaration? Or did they find it without asking you about alcohol first? – Jim MacKenzie Apr 12 '18 at 0:38
  • @JimMacKenzie They sometimes randomly search bags. I’ve had it happen a couple of times. (On one occasion, they found some tea that I’d forgotten to declare, though they didn’t mind since tea isn’t a big deal and I’d declared everything else. Actually, I might have seen it before they did and pointed it out to them.) – David Richerby Apr 12 '18 at 7:58
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    @DavidRicherby They will give you the benefit of the doubt much of the tiime - people do honestly forget. But an under-21 in the US with alcohol? I tend to think they will be much less understanding, thinking that you "forgot" rather than forgot. – Jim MacKenzie Apr 12 '18 at 13:13
  • @JimMacKenzie Completely agree. I was mostly just pointing out that random searches do happen. – David Richerby Apr 12 '18 at 13:55

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