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I'm a Canadian citizen currently visiting family abroad for a month and a half, and for some reason I've been irrationally anxious about declaring goods at Canadian customs. For context, I am expecting to declare around CA$3000 to CA$3500 in total value, ranging from all the clothes I’ve bought and worn to anything my parents have given to me to take home for personal use, down to small items like spare toothbrush heads and kettle descaling powder.

  1. How do customs officers calculate duties for goods without receipts?

  2. When estimating dollar amounts for goods without receipts, is it better to be as precise as possible, or to overvalue them?

  3. Is there an opportunity when speaking to an officer about paying duties and taxes to differentiate between items brought from Canada vs. items brought outside of Canada? I’ve been using pretty much everything I’m declaring during this trip and I’m worried they might tax me on items I brought from Canada but no longer have receipts for (like my electric shaver).

Thank you in advance. Again, I've been extremely anxious about this whole situation and I want to make sure that I follow customs laws and be prepared for any future situations that may arise.

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  • Related: travel.stackexchange.com/a/174560/30703
    – jcaron
    Commented Jul 10, 2022 at 12:08
  • Unless you have a box full of them (enough for resale), you can definitely discount things like “used body wash or spare electric toothbrush heads”…
    – jcaron
    Commented Jul 10, 2022 at 12:12
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    As a general observation they are generally more relaxed and lenient about limits and such like if you've been away for a long time or have come a long distance. Brief trips with a lot of stuff attract more attention. There's a valuation inflection point at $2,500 CAD but that's so low (it's not been increased in forever) that it's not necessarily observed. But I would suggest having receipts for more than $2,500 of your $3,000 to 3,500. Commented Jul 12, 2022 at 13:40

5 Answers 5

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I always keep my receipts, I always prepare a small spreadsheet summarizing everything, and I've never been asked for either one. It does enable me to provide a precise number without hesitation, though, which has value to me and I think reduces the chance of a more thorough inspection.

I have never been over my allowable limit, but I don't think you should assume you will go to secondary if you are. You say you're bringing in $X, they say "go to that counter over there to pay the duty" and you and that counter will work out what the duty is and you'll settle up. None of this creates a mark or problem on your record. OTOH, claiming to have [$limit- $1] of stuff, getting searched, and the inspector realizing you have at least 3 times the limit (more if they don't believe some of your stuff came from Canada) is going to get you a fine, and possibly a "watch out this person doesn't declare all they are bringing" note that will earn you trips to secondary every time you come home. Declare what you are bringing in.

Generally speaking, partly used "personal use" items like soap etc are not declared. But things that were gifts to you or have religious sentiment or some other "good reason" for importing them absolutely are.

You do not declare "what you can't prove you took out with you", you declare what you know you acquired outside Canada. You declare what you paid for it. The proof, receipts etc, only come into play if the inspectors don't believe you. I have seen, on Border Security, people claiming that they paid $100 for something and the agents Googling that it sells for $1000 and using the larger figure. But this only happens if you're being searched in secondary.

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  • Thanks for the advice! You mentioned that in many cases the customs officer will just direct me to a counter to pay duties and taxes; for things like clothing where I purchased a lot of but have no receipts, gifts given to me, or religious jewellery where no price was given to me, how do they calculate duties?
    – Turnip
    Commented Jul 10, 2022 at 23:21
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    Sometimes, they trust you. Other times, they google it, look it up on ebay, same sort of thing as you did. Don't try to fool them, and you'll be fine. Commented Jul 10, 2022 at 23:22
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    Also, this related question covers a lot of that: travel.stackexchange.com/questions/80998/… Commented Jul 12, 2022 at 0:43
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It seems you could use the experience of someone who did go over the limit now and then. I crossed the border this last 14 years (gosh, has it been that long already??) countless times, first as a permanent resident and then a citizen. I have been over the limit four times. No flags. No problems. The process is smooth even if you need to pay. The slowest process is when you have "unaccompanied goods" but even then only because there's more paperwork to be done. No one ever searched me or questioned whether all the electronics I have -- which are over five figures in total worth -- has been with me when I left Canada -- sometimes months prior, sometimes days prior. I declared new suitcases, hard drives, monitors, expensive clothing, I always declare anything worth a damn. I never lost sleep over not declaring the replacement underwear I bought at the mall for ten bucks. But you bet I declared the brand new dress shirts I brought back from London.

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I've done this dozens of times and never been asked. I've never kept receipts except for significant purchases. Customs are not interested in trivial items. By "trivial" I don't just mean used body wash (which is far below their level of interest) but small items. Anything costing a few tens of dollars just isn't worth their time inspecting unless you have lots of them.

Before you pack, simply look at the things you have bought outside Canada and haven't consumed. Do a rough calculation to see if the total value is within the import limits. If it is then write or check the appropriate amount on the customs form. You won't be asked for any more details unless you are selected for secondary inspection for some reason. Even then they won't necessarily expect you to have a written list of everything. Keep receipts for unusual or expensive items. Your religious jewelry should definitely be included in the total - it doesn't get exempted.

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I'll emphasize what others have said here: do not, do not, DO NOT just "claim under $800 and try to brazen it out". It'll work 99 times out of 100. But as Kate Gregory says, the one time it doesn't, you'll get everything searched, they'll be suspicious when you say "Oh no, I bought that in Canada", and you'll pay duty (possibly on stuff you owned before you left!) and a fine(*); and you'll be running that itemized receipt down to the penny every entry for the next N years(**). Oh, that's if you're lucky. If you're not lucky, they'll just seize the stuff, with no possibility to pay.

You may even have to play the game of pre-identifying the stuff you're taking out of Canada just to make your life easier when you come back (frankly, it's not a bad idea anywhere, I probably should go to the trouble of doing that at least for my electronics). If you have the money to travel, and the money to spend $2000 on stuff to bring back (even if some of it was given to you), you have the money to pay duty on the excess $1200 once and get into CBA's books as a straight shooter.

Edit to add: The CBSA has a duty and taxes estimator on their web site that can give you a ballpark figure on what you might expect to pay. Goods made in the US and México get a break; and the first $300 over the limit gets a break.

Which might help you the time the conversion rates drop like a stone halfway through your trip and your USD670 purchases, which were CAD 770 when you bought them, are now CAD 822 and they decide the play isn't worth the candle. But if you're on record as having tried to evade duty, they have all the time in the world to get their $1.14 duty. How much is your time worth?

Having said that, the one time I was anywhere near the limit, I did pick my worst INR->CAD rate for my conversions to get to CAD 789. I duly reported that to customs when they asked as well. Using the best conversion rate I got on that trip for anything would have made it about 840, 850 (when you spend over 10 000 on a suit, it leaves a very small hole for anything else, even if it's rupees!)

(*) From Travel Canada's "Be Safe, Declare" page: "If you do not declare, or falsely declare, goods, the CBSA can seize them. This means that you may lose the goods permanently or that you may have to pay a penalty to get them back. Depending on the type of goods and the circumstances involved, the CBSA may impose a penalty that ranges from 25% to 80% of the value of the seized goods."

(**) Same page, same section: "The CBSA keeps a record of infractions. If you have an infraction record, you may have to undergo a more detailed examination on future trips. You may also become ineligible for the NEXUS and CANPASS - Private aircraft programs."

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You are much better being upfront and honest than trying to play games, especially if you are well above the limit. Personally I go through customs sufficiently frequently that I don't even want to be grey-listed, much less black-listed, so I prefer to pay when I'm over than risk being caught.

I never declare clothing items that I've worn, although I never buy much more than a couple of shirts. Really new clothing items are tricky to declare as duty depends on the origin of the garment: I keep those (when I have such unused items) in a separate bag for easy retrieval from my luggage in case the officer wants to verify the provenance. I did have to buy an electric razor once but did not declare it as it has been used. Basically, everyday items I will clearly not resell - used clothing or a toothbrush - I do not declare.

I have regularly brought back more than the allowed amount. The officers have never cared for the everyday stuff like descaling powder, unless you bring sizeable quantities; they will care about sizeable amounts of stuff that cannot justifiably claim to be for personal use: a dozen set of high quality headphones for example, a huge supply of tea. They will also care for tobacco and alcohol.

Estimating without receipt is fine, although receipts are better. I usually prepare a list with either the exact price as per receipt or an estimated prices so I can quote a reasonably accurate number. The officer will then enter this (without challenge if I have receipts or if the numbers make sense) into the system and a duty amount comes out.

I have been randomly "searched" once, entering by car. I got into trouble once because I claimed some frame photos that were in my spouse's luggage so I could not produce the actual frames when asked (I think the officer was junior and on a power trip). Most of the time, it's harder to explain unusual shapes when they scan my bags (I travel without checked luggage) at security than at customs.

It may be too late for you but it is usually possible to get ahead of your departure some customs cards wherein you list some valuables (laptop, iPad) on which you write the serial number and a description, get this stamped and keep it with you in case you need to prove when you return that they were not bought abroad.

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  • Thanks for your advice! With regards to a list - I've taken an inventory of what I've acquired outside of Canada on a Google Spreadsheet; can I print this out right before I leave just so I can remember what I'm declaring (I have really terrible memory and anxiety likes to make it worse)? There's a summarized list as well as an itemized list with the prices of everything that I acquired abroad.
    – Turnip
    Commented Jul 12, 2022 at 2:02
  • yes of course. Make sure you have somewhere computed the net total amount. Commented Jul 12, 2022 at 3:35

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