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I'm travelling from south America to Toronto via Houston. Do I need to declare the cash I bring to Canada at Houston Airport?

Let me add some information for clarification purposes: we are travelling as a family and we plan to settle, legally, in Canada. We have proof of that by the Canadian government.

UPDATE 2: I did bring well over 10k into Canada, declared it at Houston, filled two FINCEN 105 forms, with the exact amount, no questions were asked, I did explained, however, we are starting a new life in Canada and show all the proper paperwork. Everything went really well and my money is with me. I'm adding this for anyone else who needs an answer.

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    Interested to know why you would carry over 10k in cash. That's very risky indeed.
    – camden_kid
    Oct 7 at 8:42
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    @camden_kid: It's probably easier than the alternative. Oct 7 at 11:30
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    Yes, you will need to declare it. Plan for extra time! Bringing a large wad of cash from South America is likely to result in some detailed questions and an extended conversation with CBP/customs. It helps to have a good story prepared.
    – Hilmar
    Oct 7 at 12:01
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    Probably because when you arrive to a new country as an immigrant to start a new life, you don't have bank accounts in the new country, which makes wiring money a bit of a problem until you can get one. This may take a few days, but there is always initial expenses that you might need to have money for before you can actually wire money. I wouldn't bring all my money this way, but I find it reasonable for a family to have to bring several thousand dollars for the initial landing.
    – yorch
    Oct 9 at 4:58
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    @camden_kid The OP is from the same country as I am; Argentina. We are used to carrying high amounts of USD. We buy real estate in cash (hundreds of thousands on a backpack), have saving "below the mattress," as we say here, because we don't trust the banking system either. For us, it is natural to try what the OP asks, but it is highly unadvisable: A max of 10K USD is permitted cos it is considered a fair amount for leisure travel. Any country in the world will confiscate any sum above that to fight money laundering. Good luck trying to prove to an abroad authority how that cash was earned.
    – conejoroy
    Oct 9 at 6:01
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WARNING: You are at risk of losing your money!

You actually have to declare it TWICE:

You have to declare cash (or equivalent) over 10k both when entering and leaving the country. See https://help.cbp.gov/s/article/Article-195?language=en_US#:~:text=International%20travelers%20entering%20the%20United,file%20a%20FinCEN%20Form%20105.

Most people don't know that you need to declare cash on departing the US as well and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) doesn't advertise it a lot. You need to fill out form FinCEN Form 105 once for import and once for export. You can NOT use the same form for both entry and exit. I honestly don't know where and how to drop off the export version and retain proof that you have filed it.

Failure to declare is often a trigger for "Civil Forfeiture": the government can confiscate your money just on a paperwork mistake or simply by assuming it's related for something criminal. They do NOT need to proof anything, file charges, or arrest anyone, they can just take it if they feel like it. The only recourse is to sue the US government for "return of property", which is prohibitively expensive and complicated for most people.

This is a VERY real thing: the DHS seizes over 100 million dollars per year at US airports.

To be blunt here: It's entirely possible that a DHS officer will say: "you are coming from South America, so I assume that is drug money, and so we will confiscate it". Astonishingly this is entirely legal and happens regularly.

I strongly recommend transferring the money some other way. Even if you do everything correctly and the money is perfectly legal, there is non-trivial risk that it gets confiscated.

More reading

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    Transferring the money in some fashion other than carrying cash does seem to be a very good recommendation. Not just in this case, but in all cases. I prefer cash, but carrying that much is just too much hassle.
    – FreeMan
    Oct 7 at 15:03
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    Even if you declare it and make it through the airport, if you get pulled over by police, even for something as mundane as a routine traffic stop, they can still take it (civil asset forfeiture) if they find it. Being a large sum of cash on its own is cause enough for them to seize it, afaik. OP would be well advised to simply not carry that much cash in the US. That's a good rule for anyone.
    – J...
    Oct 7 at 19:51
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    @J... Honestly, it's a good rule everywhere, not just in the U.S. Cash is very easy to be parted from and incredibly difficult to get back if lost/stolen/confiscated regardless of where you are in the world. I'm not sure what part of South America OP is traveling from, but there are a lot of parts of South America that I'd be a lot more concerned about carrying $10k cash through than I would through the U.S. And, while it's perhaps more likely to be confiscated in the U.S., carrying $10k cash will attract suspicion at customs in virtually every country.
    – reirab
    Oct 7 at 21:34
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    ...and when entering Canada. And in case this point wasn't made loud enough, they can seize it even if you declare it! If they have a legitimate banking system in your country, for God's sake use it. I know that's not some people's "personal style", but it's also not such people's "personal style" to sue the government to get back what's theirs, and they know that. Such civil forfeiture has become an enormous racket. Oct 7 at 21:59
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    @hanshenrik The lawsuit would cost considerably more than $11,000... and the government knows this. If J.R. Ewing or T. Boone Pickens came through with $500,000 they'd leave that alone, because they know old J.R. isn't someone you mess with and has an army of Texas lawyers who play golf with judges. In that sense, OP is the perfect victim - too little $ to fight over, and too far away to logistically be able to put up a fight. Oct 8 at 21:56
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Yes, you must declare the cash.

The US doesn't have sterile airside transit: all passengers on every international flight arriving in the US (except those flights departing from a non-US airport with a US Preclearance Facility) must pass US Immigration and US Customs when physically arriving in the US, and enter the US. There are no US Preclearance Facilities at airports in South America, so you will pass Immigration and Customs in Houston.

Because you will enter the US, and you're carrying more than $10K in cash, you must declare the cash when you enter. For you, that's Houston. Travelers who pass US Immigration and Customs at a Preclearance Facility must declare at the Preclearance Facility.

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    Preclearance doesn't change the fact you need to pass through US immigrations/customs, it just changes where you do it. Even with pre-clearance, you would still need to declare the money!
    – Doc
    Oct 7 at 3:30
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    @Doc Correct. I'll amend to make that clear. Thanks. Oct 7 at 14:48
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I will answer my own question since, even though there are some proper remarks in all other answers they are overthinking this, IMHO.

First of all, as @Hilmar pointed out: if you are in transit through the US, you need to fill out two FinCEN 105 forms (one for entry and one for leaving the US). This is all done at the same time, with the same CBP officer.

You just need to declare your money, have proof of funds (which I had). If you sell your car or your house or whatever, you make sure you have a legal document from your country of origin. If you declared your money when leaving your country, have some proof of that.

Also, there is a lot of profiling going on, CBP officers are highly trained and they can now right on the spot who is suspicious and who is not. Have all your documentation ready, and answer honestly. Be calm and relax. In our case, nothing was requested, and no questions were asked about our money.

The same thing in Canada when we arrived, we declared the money and that's that.

I hope this will help other travelers.

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