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Let's say I need to bring over $10,000 into the US and decide to use cash to save on transfer fees. What would happen at the border when I declare all that cash? Would CBP briefly question me on the source of funds or require some proof to confirm that the funds are from a legal source?

Are there any official guidelines on this matter?

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    One friend did and it was just a matter of filling out a form but since then has been stopped for question every single time he enters into the US. It's a one-point statistic, so think of it as you wish, but I would not be surprised if this happens often. – Itai Feb 18 at 0:15
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    @R.. The requirements on reporting specify "monetary instruments", not just cash. I once did a round the world trip in 1991 with over $USD10k in travelers cheques on me and as such would have had to declare it if I came thorough the US at the time. – Peter M Feb 18 at 2:50
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    This doesn't really directly answer the question, but is more of a frame challenge: Has the hypothetical person asking this question looked into whether their country has bank accounts available that refund ATM fees? This would be far safer than carrying $10,000+ USD by hand into the U.S. (or any other country, for that matter.) For USA residents, Charles Schwab offers free checking accounts that refund ATM fees worldwide, which is incredibly useful while traveling, but I'm not sure how common such accounts are outside of the US. Also, lots of US cards don't charge foreign transaction fees. – reirab Feb 18 at 5:49
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    I haven't looked into it in a while, but some years ago you could purchase American Express traveler's checks, then record serial numbers and shred them. Upon arrival into your destination country, declare them as accidentally destroyed/lost/whatever. Amex (at the time) would simply issue replacement checks for whole amount (unless of course you used any of them). – Aleks G Feb 18 at 12:48
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    @PaŭloEbermann Yes, that's true. But then most tourists don't need to take out $10,000 cash in a day (or the entire trip for that matter) when visiting the US. Honestly, using a credit/charge card with no foreign transaction fees is the best plan for the vast majority of purposes in the U.S. But, when you do need cash, just getting the amount you need from an ATM is a much better plan than carrying $10,000+ cash around with you. – reirab Feb 18 at 19:47
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I've done this once (doing all the right paperwork up front). They pulled us out for questioning: "where does the money come from" "why do you need this" "what are you planning do to with this", "why do you use cash", etc.

The amount of questioning will depend on how much you fit into any "suspicious" category otherwise. There is plenty of profiling going on there. Fortunately we were "mostly harmless" for everything else (white, middle class, small children it tow, from a "good" country).

You also need to be careful how this looks against your visa status. If you have a non-immigrant Visa or an ESTA, carrying lots of cash can be interpreted as "intent to immigrate", in which case they can turn you around and send you back.

Unfortunately customs and immigration officers in the US have a lot of leeway and discretion and not a lot of rules to keep them grounded. Could be harmless, could be lots of trouble, hard to predict.

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    With regard to your third paragraph: were you entering as a visitor when you declared your cash? – phoog Feb 17 at 21:22
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    Yes. I think I had a B2 at the time. – Hilmar Feb 17 at 23:18
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    This sounds like a fun way to spend my time when I'm rich to be honest. – ESR Feb 19 at 15:53
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    This is a dangerous answer because it fails to stress the very real risk that the cash is confiscated without recourse. Anyone in the US is at risk of having larges sums of cash confiscated by the authorities without any of the normal protections of law that citizens of other countries might expect. I wouldn't carry large sums of cash in the US for any reason whatsoever, not just because it might be stolen by thieves, but because it might also be stolen by the police. They need no reason and no evidence of wrongdoing to do this legally. – J... Feb 20 at 14:07
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    @J... I wouldn't say there is no recourse. Assuming you are speaking of civil forfeiture you can fight it. It's just hard costly and there seems to be a decent chance you will lose even if you are in the right. Oh and of course they seize first and you fight later without the benefit of the property. Also they do need "a reason" it can just be really really flimsy. "You know what, that white flake on your carpet looks like it could be cocaine. I'm taking all your money, since it's obviously from drug sales." – DRF Feb 20 at 14:34
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You simply fill out a form at the border. See the official CBP page Currency / Monetary Instruments - Duty on money, checks, etc.

Travelers leaving or entering the U.S. are required to report negotiable monetary instruments (i.e. currency or endorsed checks) valued more than $10,000 on a "Report of International Transportation of Currency or Monetary Instruments" FinCEN Form 105. The requirement to report currency on a FinCEN 105 does not apply to imports of gold bullion. You can obtain the form at www.fincen.gov or request one from the CBP Officer if required.

Failure to declare currency in amounts more than $10,000 can result in its seizure.

From Form 105

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.

and

PENALTIES: Civil and criminal penalties, including under certain circumstances a fine of not more than $500,000 and Imprisonment of not more than ten years, are provided for failure to file a report, filing a report containing a material omission or misstatement, or filing a false or fraudulent report. In addition, the currency or monetary instrument may be subject to seizure and forfeiture. See 31 U.S.C.5321 and 31 CFR 1010.820; 31 U.S.C. 5322 and 31 CFR 1010.840; 31 U.S.C. 5317 and 31 CFR 1010.830, and U.S.C. 5332.

NOTE that the form itself contains no fields requiring you to justify where the funds were obtained from. However I would expect that declaring the money would trigger some sort of process that flags you as having carried the money across the border. I also expect that whether or not you are questioned more throughly would depend on a lot of things from who you are to where you are coming from.

NOTE also that simply carrying a large sum of currency in the US puts you at risk of Civil Forfeiture by local police departments. There have been many cases of people carrying legitimately obtained funds being stopped by police (for example traffic stop) and having those funds confiscated. You do not even have to be convicted of a crime for this to happen. As such I don't recommend traveling with large sums of cash in the US.

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To add onto Peter M's answer (where Civil Asset Forfeiture is mentioned in passing), it should be noted that you have far fewer rights with CBP than you would with police. An Albanian man attempted to fly with $58,100 that wound up seized.

It all began last October, when CBP agents at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport seized $58,100 from Rustem Kazazi, a U.S. citizen, while he was headed to a layover in Newark during a trip back to his native Albania. Rustem, a former Albanian police officer, had worked hard to save up the money with help from his wife, Lejla, and son, Erald, over a dozen years after the family immigrated to Ohio in 2005. Before Rustem could board the plane, CBP agents strip-searched him, interrogated him without a translator and then took his family’s entire life savings, even though they never found anything illegal. They have held the family’s savings for more than seven months, despite never charging anybody with a crime.

Oh, and CBP counted less money than he had on him

Compounding insult and injury, the receipt CBP agents gave Rustem at the time did not note the amount of the seized “U.S. Currency.” CBP later claimed to have taken only $57,330—$770 less than he was actually carrying.

Why did they seize the money? They claim he was involved in drug trafficking

“This is to notify you that Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) seized the property described below at Cleveland, OH on October 24, 2017: $57,330 in U.S. Currency,” the notice states. “Enforcement activity indicates that the currency was involved in a smuggling/drug trafficking/money laundering operation.”

They also accused him of a money laundering crime: structuring. That's where you move money in increments designed to avoid Federal reporting requirements.

In a statement, CBP said that “pursuant to an administrative search of Mr. Kazazi and his bags, TSA agents discovered artfully concealed U.S. currency. Mr. Kazazi provided inconsistent statements regarding the currency, had no verifiable source of income and possessed evidence of structuring activity,” that is, making cash withdrawals of less than $10,000 to avoid reporting requirements.

If I were you, I would not travel with that much cash across the border, declared or otherwise. CBP has immense search power.

  • Did Mr. Kazazi end up with a criminal record though? – JonathanReez Supports Monica Feb 19 at 18:07
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    @JonathanReez I took that part out, but there have been other cases where someone is merely accused of a crime and deported or denied entry. If CBP enters that they seized money from you that they suspect you were laundering, you may be subject to more extensive searches or denied entry (cash or not) – Machavity Feb 19 at 18:11
  • Of course, Mr. Kazazi can't be deported or denied entry, but if he were liable to deportation or denial of entry I suppose he probably would have been subjected to it. – phoog Feb 19 at 18:18

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