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I'm planning a trip to the USA soon (from Germany). I'd like to know how much cash I can bring in without problems.

Just to clarify, I am not talking about the $10000-or-file-a-form limit. I'm talking about the point where the authorities will assume that with that much cash, I must be a drug dealer (I'm not), and will confiscate my money with little or no hope of my ever seeing it again.

I realize this is an open-ended question, and there is no precise threshhold -- that much depends on the authorities I come in contact with. But can someone give me some idea of where the effective boundary is?

EDIT: Yes, I do expect to be well under the $10000 limit. My concern is more along the lines, what if my credit card doesn't work? I want to be able to continue my vacation anyway.

Still, with all the noise about civil forfeiture in the USA I am concerned.

I know I'm not going to get a precise threshhold, but what I did get was a range between $300 and $10000. I was hoping to narrow that down a bit.

And no, my question is about traveling with that money; not about spending it when I get there. (Although I am looking forward to pastrami sandwiches and cheesesteaks.)

10 Answers 10

2

As many answers pointed out, there is no limit amount. But carrying $500 - $600 in cash would not in itself raise suspicion, if you are visiting as a tourist.

71

The threshold can't be determined to a particular number, because so much of it depends on your facts and circumstances, and what you show (and tell) CBP.

And it's worse than that. It casts shade on the purpose for your visit, risking a refusal.

What I'm about to say is unfair. For many of our HNQ visitors, it's shocking that the 4th and 5th Amendments don't seem to apply at the immigration desk*. But I am answering OP's question. OP is not asking what fairness ought to be; we know that answer. OP is asking what is likely to happen.

You're a citizen of an advanced country that has a state-of-the-art banking system, competent and uncorrupted law enforcement, and is a member of G8 and all the relevant banking treaties. Not every German travels to the US, only certain ones: and the ones who visit for (your visit purpose here) tend to reside in a certain socioeconomic class. The vast majority of them simply use that banking system in the normal way. Which makes you a "high nail": a standout.

So this raises questions about you. Aside from the question of civil forfeiture, it raises the question of whether you should be admitted in the first place.

You would first, need a darned good reason for wanting to do this, that jibes with your story, believable documents, and allowable purposes for visiting the U.S. And second, have that reason be one that sounds perfectly reasonable to US CBP.

Remember how immigration control works. They make a presumption of immigrant intent: if you refuse to defend yourself, they presume your intent is immigration. That is reasonable, since their mission is controlling immigration by stopping immigrants, and only allowing in people who are short-term travelers. Then, they allow you to present your story and facts (documents) to prove yourself not an immigrant.

Your main weapon in rebutting immigrant intent is to show ties at home. One of the "ties" they like to see is an active, regular banking life. Having a pile of cash suggests the very opposite: a person who is "unbanked"**. Such people tend to overstay their original promise, get in trouble, seek social services or employment, or even resort to crime. Also, they tend to be poorly rooted back home, and that introduces the risk of them immigrating.

So the pile of cash will "light up" questions like this about your visit. Aside from having a reasonable reason for the cash pile, you should be well prepared to document your home ties back in Germany. Owning a home, being politically active, having a well-developed career that doesn't lend itself to telecommuting, that kind of thing.

You'd be sorting all this out with immigration control (CBP) right there at the immigration desk at JFK Airport, and if they refuse you, you'd cross an ocean twice for nothing. Here are two ways to dodge that.

  • Don't rely on VWP; apply for a visa, and say right in it, "I know I am VWP eligible, I want a visa because I plan to bring $6000 cash for Very Good Reason Here, and I want to disclose and clear that in advance." (that is not something a criminal does). If they had a problem with that, they would hang up your visa or contact you. Immigration loves this kind of advance disclosure, not least because criminals don't do it.
  • Book via Dublin or Shannon. Those airports have CBP Preclearance, which means the CBP desk is right there. If they refuse you, you can grab your bags, leave the airport, pick a four-leaf clover for next time, and head to the nearest pub to drown your sorrows in a 568ml Guinness.

* Because a traveler entering a US border is explicitly not protected from search and seizure. As to the right not to self-incriminate, yes, that applies in full and a visitor can plead the 5th at the immigration desk, and that will stop further questioning. However, she will also be refused entry, since she has no right to enter the US (that's what citizenship means, and certain other limited categories.)

** Unbanked: A concept we are VERY familiar with here in the US, and often taken as a bad sign. Again, within the demographic of ordinary travelers, this either means a very unusual philosophy on money, or (will be presumed to be) inability to bank, due to a blacklist arising from bouncing checks and not covering it, presumably because of not having the money.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – JonathanReez Supports Monica Apr 26 at 17:07
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    Point of clarification, the statement - [CBP's] mission is controlling immigration by stopping immigrants, and only allowing in people who are short-term travelers - is not wholly correct. They will happily accept people with immigrant intent, provided an appropriate immigrant visa or permanent resident document is furnished. – CactusCake Apr 26 at 19:54
  • I presume the logic here is: "if you're taking a big pile of cash, and you don't have any money elsewhere, then you're [presumably] thinking about immigrating [illegally] with that cash stash being your support and/or gifts to a mob/whatever." However, what if you bring only so little cash that it clearly is not anywhere close to being enough to live off of or do anything significant, say $5 in your wallet? – The_Sympathizer Apr 28 at 6:52
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I realize this is an open-ended question, and there is no precise threshhold -- that much depends on the authorities I come in contact with. But can someone give me some idea of where the effective boundary is?

Your question cannot be answered, as the way you've asked it implies. Because there is no precise threshold, and because it depends on specifically which authorities you encounter, there is no effective boundary.

All we can tell you is that if you carry enough cash to have to declare it, and you do declare it, you're guaranteed to encounter CBP. CBP does not share the policy that some municipal police forces have of abusing civil asset forfeiture to acquire resources for the department, so filing the form probably does not increase your risk very much.

If you fail to declare your cash despite exceeding the limit, then there is a chance you won't encounter any authorities over the cash, but if you do encounter CBP in a spot check, you're pretty much guaranteed to lose the cash.

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    I think Jennifer made it clear that she will be under the $10,000 limit. – TonyK Apr 25 at 19:34
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    @TonyK Did she? I don't see that in the question at all. She just says that needing to declare it or not isn't her concern. If she said that in a comment somewhere, it should be edited into the question. – reirab Apr 25 at 21:19
  • there exist dogs than can can smell cash, and can pin-point travellers carrying large sums. – Jasen Apr 27 at 4:49
  • @reirab consider it done – Jennifer Apr 28 at 18:34
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There is no 'safe' limit.

The amount you can safely carry is the amount that you are prepared to lose.

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    When it's guilty until proven innocent, this is sadly the correct answer. U S A! U S A! – Tom Hale Apr 26 at 5:43
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    Came to write this answer. A girl's piggy bank with about $98 in birthday money is above the "safe" threshold. If US police want your assets, they can and will take them (depending on jurisdiction). – WBT Apr 26 at 15:12
  • @WBT: Perhaps you meant to post that comment on Politics or Law, because it has absolutely no connection to Travel. – Ben Voigt Apr 27 at 19:05
  • @BenVoigt Then the question should be closed as off-topic. As soon as OP walks into the US, and anywhere in the country after that, whatever cash s/he happens to have is subject to seizure via forfeiture. OP wanted to know if there was a "safe" amount not able to be considered suspicious/eligible for seizure, while still being practical to vacation on without plastic, and the answer to that is no. It's the same answer Trapper wrote, backed up by an actual practical example. I didn't feel it would be helpful to basically duplicate an answer, preferring to supplement this one. – WBT Apr 29 at 22:38
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    @DouglasHeld Correct, most visitors will not experience any civil asset forfeiture issues. However, this answer does address the question that OP asked, directly and correctly. – WBT May 1 at 0:45
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First off, let's differentiate the two Civil Asset Forfeitures(CAFs):

  • Police - This tends to be focused on people committing (or merely suspected of committing) smaller crimes (i.e you had illegal drugs on you) and having assets seized. The US Supreme Court recently limited actions like this, but they still occur with some frequency. Most of the CAF examples you find via searches are of this type.
  • CBP - These tend to be aimed at people believed to be actively doing something like smuggling, laundering money, etc.

The CBP doesn't seem to do this as often, but that's probably because there's a lot more police and people in the general population than go through customs. The largest customs case of CAF centers around an Albanian man who tried to fly with undeclared cash. CBP miscounted the cash and then seized it under a variety of laws aimed at money laundering.

But can someone give me some idea of where the effective boundary is?

The main thing is you don't need to stand out to where they decide to inquire about why you have a lot of cash. CBP might just check your documents and let you through. If you like to smoke marijuana or do drugs, I would make sure I refrained from that for some time before and during your trip, lest a CBP dog indicate you, or your baggage, smell like drugs.

I would also get a visa. You might not need one for your visit, but it's far less likely that someone who has gone through that hassle for a simple visit is trying to launder money.

I know you're aware, but it bears repeating that if you want to bring more than $10,000 in cash, be sure to declare it because the CBP website directly states

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

There's a large chance they will use CAF to seize it if you're caught like this.

8

You didn't give many details, so I'll make some assumptions:

  • You're carrying less than 10,000 USD. (The threshold for filing FinCEN 105.)

  • There is no other reason the US government would be suspicious of you. (You have a suitable reason for your trip, and you have no immigration violations, criminal record, involvement with drugs, etc.)

  • If asked, you would answer truthfully how much money you're carrying.

  • If asked, you would give a good explanation of what you plan to do with the money. (Such as paying for food, taxis, and/or some extra in case of unforeseen needs. Bear in mind that US hotels aren't always happy to take cash...at least they will want a credit card on file.)

  • If asked, you would give a good explanation of where you got your money. (Such as from your own job, or from your family member who earned it at their job.)

  • You have a bank account and you're carrying a credit card or debit card, even if you prefer not to use it.

  • Losing all the cash you're carrying would be aggravating, maybe even make you angry enough to avoid the US forever after, but wouldn't really be a major life disaster. It wouldn't change your family situation, career, health, etc.

Based on the above assumptions, you are definitely too worried about this. Millions of tourists visit the US every year with varying amounts of cash, and the amount lost to civil forfeiture is minuscule in comparison. Civil forfeiture laws are a disgraceful abrogation of civil liberty, but their application is rare enough that it is unlikely to affect you as an individual who satisfies the above assumptions.

EDIT: what I did get was a range between $300 and $10000. I was hoping to narrow that down a bit. --- If you satisfy the above assumptions, any amount of cash in this range is fine and will not put you at any significant risk from civil forfeiture. (However, do be careful about regular theft or robbery, which are prevalent in some areas.) You can bring a bit more than you expect to spend, which would depend on the trip length, destination, and level of luxury.

5

To balance other answers that focus on the risks of carrying cash, I would recommend that you should have a minimum of $300 cash when traveling internationally to the US. This should be enough to pay for a taxi, a few meals, a phone card, and a couple nights in a hotel in most US cities. You don't have to use the cash---you can use your credit card only, or plan on meeting a friend---but you should have it just in case your plane lands in the wrong city and/or your credit card doesn't work in a new country, and you need a day or two to get it sorted out.

  • Does not address the question, but this is very sound advice. – Douglas Held Apr 30 at 18:47
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There is no such thing as a lower bound. Civil forfeiture laws and practices vary greatly from state to state. See, for example, https://ij.org/report/policing-for-profit/grading-state-federal-civil-forfeiture-laws/

It is certainly a rather unfair and frustrating practice of law enforcement, but on the other hand, it's not common either and the chance of you are encountering such a situation as a tourist a quite small.

The best protection is to carry no or little cash. Credit and debit cards are widely accepted and if you really need cash for anything, you can get it easily at the nearest ATM. Cash is used less and less: For example the food truck outside of Boston South station where you buy your morning coffee doesn't accept cash at all: plastic only. I sometimes go months without using cash.

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    This answers the question but the advice to carry no cash at all is not sound advice. A variety of things can go wrong with payment cards while traveling overseas. – Douglas Held Apr 30 at 18:47
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I believe you are asking the wrong question. The issue is not getting a large amount of cash into America but spending it when you get there.

I admit it is many years since I have lived in the States and perhaps attitudes have changed although I doubt it. I worked for a multinational and I was moved to world headquarters in Detroit. It took a few days to get credit and debit cards so my wife and I tried to buy things with dollars. At hotels, car hire firms, larger stores and so on, this either required the authorisation of a senior manager or was refused. As I understood it, they did not want the security risks of accepting cash.

I understand that an increasing number of shops here in the UK are refusing cash because it is so labour-intensive. I would not be surprised if this was also true in the States.

I understand your university insists on giving you cash. I would deposit that money in my bank account and take a credit card to the States. This may not be normal in Germany but we say “When in Rome do as the Romans.” The experience of cbeleites (as described in a comment against your question) suggests this will not be expensive when you can use cash. I assume your University will expect an expense claim listing the money you spent. You will quote the amount on your credit card statement which will include all currency conversion costs including fees when you cannot use cash.

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    Cash is certainly accepted at most (but not all—some businesses, especially counter-service restaurants, have gone cash-free in cities) normal stores for reasonably small purchases. Trying to pay only in cash at hotels, rental car counters, and larger purchases (in the hundreds of dollars or more) is likely to be more trouble, to the point that it may not be allowed or may require additional deposits. – Zach Lipton Apr 25 at 23:19
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    You will have no problem spending cash in America... – trapper Apr 26 at 6:43
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    You haven't heard of civil forfeiture. That land you call the land of the free, ain't so free. – dan-klasson Apr 26 at 8:25
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    The reason for wanting a credit card for hotels and car rentals is to give a clear way to bill you should you incur costs over the initial payment (e.g. wreck your room, do non-obvious damage to the car, etc.) – Xan Apr 26 at 10:53
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    "I understand your university insists on giving you cash" - Germany is a first world country. We do use cash for small everyday sums (for sure in the 0-100€ range), but it would be very weird to get cash in any significant amount from an employer or especially a bureaucracy like an university. Credit (or more likely debit) cards are completely normal here, although you cannot usually pay with them at very small booths (like when buying an ice cone or something like that), and some locations refuse very small payments (like < 10€) due to cost overhead. – AnoE Apr 26 at 15:25
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There is no safe limit regarding civil asset forfeiture: the bulk of the confiscated cash is small amounts not warranting the hassle of a contest. Basically try to be white and reasonably well-dressed (like a large-scale drug dealer would be) and you'll not likely be bothered. The problem with actually declaring large amounts of cash is that this information will immediately be passed on to DHS or local law enforcement agents which will likely pick on you "by chance" when you leave the airport premises.

So basically don't bring large amounts of cash into the U.S., whether declared or not, if you don't want them to get stolen by U.S. "law" enforcement. Particularly not if you don't have the kind of race/standing/backup to look like a lot of trouble.

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    'The problem with actually declaring large amounts of cash is that this information will immediately be passed on to DHS or local law enforcement agents which will likely pick on you "by chance" when you leave the airport premises.' [Citation needed] – David Richerby Apr 25 at 20:56
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    There's a lot of problems in America, but customs and immigration phoning law enforcement to take traveler's cash under civil forfeiture is not one of htem. – Azor Ahai Apr 25 at 21:42
  • This is an extreme answer and doesn't represent the experience the vast majority of visitors are going to have. – Douglas Held Apr 30 at 18:44

protected by JonathanReez Supports Monica Apr 25 at 23:45

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