There is a related previous question with an answer that suggests (in passing) that the declaration can be done at the final airport before leaving the US. But it does not address whether waiting until then to declare can be seen as suspicious, or what happens if a layover is not suitably timed to do so. There is also a related previous question whose answers suggest that carrying any amount of cash on a purely US domestic flight is not in itself grounds for seizure.

This question is motivated by a news article about a US citizen who alleges that US Customs and Border Protection seized over USD 50,000 that he was carrying. The cash was discovered when he went through airport security in Cleveland for a domestic flight to Newark; his final destination was in Albania.

It brings up the issue of declaration requirements when carrying cash out of the US (although this incident may or may not have been related to the declaration issue -- the grounds and legitimacy of the forfeiture are in dispute). The man says he intended to declare the cash in Newark before boarding his international flight. Is this indeed all that is required?

It is well-known that carrying large amounts of cash in the US is risky anyway due to forfeiture practices, but is there any wrongdoing in attempting to board a domestic flight with undeclared cash over USD 10,000 that could justify its seizure by CBP? Does it matter whether the ticket includes a connection to an international flight, and whether the person is intending to carry the cash out of the country (as opposed to, e.g., giving it to someone at the domestic connecting point)?

There are also logistical issues: The CBP offices for use by departing passengers at US airports (which are not frequented or well-known by the general public, due to the lack of exit inspection in the US) are located landside, not necessarily in the passenger terminals, and not open 24/7. The information on the Newark airport office is here. What role do these logistical considerations play in when and where cash needs to be declared (e.g., whether it's even feasible to access an office during a layover)? If the originating airport doesn't even have a CBP office, then it might be necessary to travel to visit some other CBP office, potentially days before the flight.

The declaration form itself says (emphasis added):

Travelers carrying currency or other monetary instruments with them shall file FinCEN Form 105 at the time of entry into the United States or at the time of departure from the United States with the Customs officer in charge at any Customs port of entry or departure.

The news article cites a CBP webpage about the declaration requirement, and the reporter then writes:

It's unclear whether one has to declare the money at the first stop at an airport or before leaving the United States.

Is it simply unclear to that reporter, or is it regarded as a true ambiguity by experts?

EDIT: An update regarding the case that motivated the question -- after being sued, CBP agreed to return (most of) the money (a relatively small amount is still in dispute as to how much was seized). Before this, though, according to another news article, CBP provided a statement on the case that alleged "inconsistent statements" by the man and also cited the declaration issue: "Failure to declare monetary instruments in amounts more than $10,000 can result in fines or forfeiture and could result in civil and or criminal penalties."

The layover in Newark, when he planned to declare, was apparently scheduled as four hours. His day of departure was October 24, 2017, a Tuesday; his transatlantic flight was to Frankfurt according to the lawsuit. Flights from Newark to Frankfurt typically depart in the early evening, so with a four-hour layover he might have arrived from Cleveland by about 3 pm and thus had time to visit the landside CBP office at Newark airport before it closed at 4:30 pm. (Of course flight delays can happen, and in that event he would have needed to reassess continuing his trip.)

Is any of this relevant to the declaration requirement? Can a traveler just say, in effect, "Yes, I was boarding the domestic flight without declaring; I was going to find out where to declare during my layover before leaving the US; if I successfully accomplished this, then I would board my international flight; if it didn't work out logistically for any reason (e.g., the CBP office was closed), then I would either find a way to leave the cash in the US or would cancel or postpone my onward travel until I could declare it"?

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    Interesting question, and one that might be better-suited for Law.SE. Here are (I think) the sections of the Code of Federal Regulations that lay out the rules: 31 CFR 1010.340 - Reports of transportation of currency or monetary instruments; 31 CFR 1010.306 - Filing of reports; 31 CFR 1010.830 - Forfeiture of currency or monetary instruments; 31 CFR 1010.850 - Enforcement authority. – Michael Seifert Jun 4 '18 at 2:47
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    Personally I think it continues to raise the question of why does the US perpetuate this civil forfeiture scam? There are many examples of it being perpetrated upon honest people moving around inside the US and having their legitimately hard earned cash taken away from them. /rant – Peter M Jun 4 '18 at 14:06
  • Although the article discusses when to file FinCEN 105, it says this isn't CBP's claimed basis for the seizure. Rather: "In December, Customs and Border Protection sent Kazazi a notice saying agents had seized the cash because it was 'involved in a smuggling/drug trafficking/money laundering operation,' according to the lawsuit." – krubo Jun 4 '18 at 16:41
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    I'm voting to close this question as too broad, opinion based, and a better fit for a discussion on SE Law – Giorgio Jun 18 '18 at 14:52
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    There are two issues here: reporting to Customs, and the U.S.'s propensity for civil forfeiture when funds are believed to be the spoils of illegal activity. One can be completely on board with one and run afoul with the other. – Jim MacKenzie Jun 25 '18 at 4:55

Although it is advisable, wise and logical to file the required report before going through any security, this does not appear to be required by law. The letter of the law, 31 USC 5316, says, in this regard:

...a person...shall file a report...when the person...knowingly...transports, is about to transport, or has transported, monetary instruments of more than $10,000 at one time...from a place in the United States to...a place outside the United States...

What is "about to transport"? Lawyers could argue about whether entering security for your first flight makes you "about to transport" the money. On the other hand the next section is more clear that the place CBP can search for violation of the rule is "at the border":

For purposes of ensuring compliance with the requirements of section 5316, a customs officer may stop and search, at the border and without a search warrant,...any person entering or departing from the United States.

This seems to imply that CBP wouldn't have the authority to search for such violations before the international part of your trip. The rules governing TSA on the other hand, are quite clearly focused on aviation security threats and do not mention any collaboration with CBP. So if CBP is concerned about a passenger traveling with a lot of cash, it looks like CBP should wait to search until the passenger boards the international flight.

(I've also been screened while entering the jetway to a flight leaving the US, by CBP asking each passenger how much cash they have, so I know they sometimes use this authority the way the law says to.)

Edit---Also, even CBP recognizes that they didn't follow the law in seizing this man's money---as shown by the fact they're returning it instead of taking the case to court.

  • A bit late, but it's important to keep in mind that CBP broadly defines the border to include anything within 100 miles of a physical border. Cleveland comfortably fits within this definition of a border so someone boarding a domestic flight in Cleveland with a connecting flight out of the US could conceivably be considered both "at the border" and "about to transport" money outside the United States. – Eric Mar 7 at 21:50

The form that is required to be completed in such a situation is form FinCEN 105

In the instructions, this form states that :

C. Travelers—Travelers carrying currency or other monetary instruments with them shall file FinCEN Form 105 at the time of entry into the United States or at the time of departure from the United States with the Customs officer in charge at any Customs port of entry or departure.

Based on this, the form could definitely be submitted after the domestic flight, but before the international flight.

Where this gets confusing is the fact that the US does not have physical immigration (or customs) controls on exit like most countries do. For countries with a physical exit immigration point, it would be obvious that providing this form to the immigration staff would be the correct action.

However the US does not have such a station, and in general most airports do not even have a customs station air-side for departing passengers. This would mean that on arrival into the connecting airport, the passenger would need to exit security, go to the customs office, and then re-enter security.

Thus legally, the declaration could be made at either the originating airport or any connecting airport before departing the US. Logistically, it would most likely be preferably to make the declaration at the initial airport, presuming that airport had a customs officer on duty.

Or even better, use a wire transfer or some other form of electric transfer and don't risk having your life savings be stolen at some time during your trip!

  • But using the wire transfer would alert people at the other end of someone with a bunch of money and perhaps make them a target. – Loren Pechtel Jul 11 '18 at 5:15
  • @LorenPechtel I'm not sure what you mean. The money would be in the recipient's bank account. Who would be alerted? – Zach Lipton Jul 11 '18 at 6:07
  • @ZachLipton Somebody dirty in the bank. – Loren Pechtel Jul 11 '18 at 14:14

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