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Almost all countries levy custom duties (with an allowance) on imported goods by passengers, such as electronics, clothes, etc., that have been bought from outside that country and are intended to stay there.

I am an EU citizen (Germany), and once when flying in from a non-EU country I was stopped by a customs officer who thoroughly checked my bag. I had a few new shirts and shoes (with removed labels), and they didn't ask anything, even though the apparel was obviously never worn. The value was around the tax-free €430 allowance, or it was even exceeded.

However, another time I was in an opposite situation when I was not bringing anything new. I had a hard time explaining that my camera and clothes are not so new, and have been bought in Germany/EU, and not during my trip outside the EU.

Can someone explain how does this work? How do custom officers determine if the imported goods of a passenger are old or newly bought? How do passengers prove that they did not buy the goods during the trip? Since people do not carry receipts of all the things they have with them, I don't see how it would be possible to prove that something fairly new was not bought during the trip.

It is not unknown that many people tend to remove the packaging and/or tags of new goods to conceal that the goods are being imported, but there are also people who travel with new goods which have been bought shortly before the trip. How do customs officers distinguish the two?

  • Show the grime, marks and smudges to prove they aren't new, probably. – DumbCoder Oct 10 '14 at 8:04
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    @pnuts If the camera has been used a lot, the shutter count might serve as evidence that it is not new. It is not always easy to retrieve the shutter count though. – Szabolcs Oct 10 '14 at 15:20
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    In some instances they don't decide. A few years ago if Romanian customs officers found a laptop, they always asked people to pay duty, regardless of the computer's condition. It was necessary to bring documentation that the computer was originally from Romania (such documentation was easy to obtain at customs when leaving the country) or that it will leave the country again (e.g. it is a work issued computer). I believe they don't do this any more. – Szabolcs Oct 11 '14 at 18:12
  • In addition to the other answers, I'm sure there is a certain amount of age, economic, racial and cultural profiling going on. Just look at the cars that get pulled over for secondary inspection at land border crossings. – Spehro Pefhany Nov 19 '15 at 18:59
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There are several tell-tale signs (condition, packaging, receipts, having several identical items, having things you would not typically need on a trip abroad) that might suggest an item has been bought during a trip. Beyond that, I guess customs officers follow (unpublished) guidelines or use their own judgment but they do in any case have a lot of discretion. Even where you presently come from might matter (I don't have any strong evidence for this but I have the feeling that flights from, e.g., Hong Kong receive more scrutiny than others at my local airport – even if it would be trivial to walk to another exit and mix with the flow of travellers from other EU countries).

One thing I did hear once from a friend who is a customs officer is that they rely a lot on people's dumbness, ignorance and on informants or tips to catch smugglers (small and big). There are enough people carrying brand-new electronics complete with packaging and receipts from the place they come from to make it worth their while. But whatever they do is aimed at providing some deterrence and recovering money, nobody expects it to be a 100% accurate process and people do manage to import things illegally everyday.

The most important thing to note is that your thinking seems predicated on the notion that customs officers need to prove you bought something abroad. It isn't necessarily that way, at least not to collect duty (as opposed to bringing criminal charges). I don't know relevant German law at all, but a quick Internet search suggests it's like that in Germany, too.

How you are supposed to prove something is not new is indeed by producing some documentation establishing when and where you bought the item. From your perspective, not carrying receipts for your things is a given but from the authorities' perspective, it isn't so. So the fact that people typically do not do it isn't a problem for them as much as it is for the people concerned. If an agent determines something is new, you might not have much effective recourse if you cannot prove otherwise (if you still have it, you might still produce the receipt afterwards even if you didn't carry it with you, though).

If your equipment (e.g. camera) is professional grade and particularly expensive, you might even want to go one step further and secure temporary export paperwork to ensure an easy return. Some countries also discourage traveling with a lot of jewellery for that reason.

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    The US allows you to register newly purchased high value items before you depart on your trip, to avoid questions when you return. – user13044 Oct 10 '14 at 10:43
  • @Tom Procedures differ slightly but I think it's pretty common, it's the kind of things I alluded to in the last paragraph. – Relaxed Oct 10 '14 at 10:45
  • I was simply mentioning the US registration system to supplement your export paperwork mention, since as you just said systems vary from country to country. – user13044 Oct 10 '14 at 11:00
  • @Tom Yes, yes, and I upvoted your comment, no worries ;-) – Relaxed Oct 10 '14 at 11:02
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    It's also the duration of your trip that might set off red flags for the customs officers. For instance, Canadian's going to the USA to do cross border shopping usually stay more than 24 hours but less than 7 days so they can buy up to $800 (CAD) of stuff without paying duty. People traveling by car or bus are usually checked more than those traveling by plane or boat, as people usually don't want to worry about their stuff breaking on the plane or by baggage handlers. There's also the time of year (especially Christmas season) that can set off flags. – ub3rst4r Oct 11 '14 at 4:18
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To add the other answers (the one by Relaxed is spot-on - customs officers use their intuition), here comes some information about the legal situation, adapted to your case (Germany). Note that IANAL - so this is information is all only to the best of my knowledge.

Legally, it is enough for the German Customs officers to suspect that something is imported to the country for the first time. There is no legal necessity for them to prove it before they can ask you to pay customs (and a fine for undeclared goods). Of course, in obvious cases of wrong decisions by them, your chances to appeal are quite good. But in principle, it is the reponsibility of the traveler to provide a proof that the goods you bring into the country have been brought back by you. This is particularly relevant in case of electronics.

There are two ways to do so - either you carry a receipt for the good with you that lists a serial number and that thus proves that the good has been bought within the EU, or (2) before you depart from Germany, you go to your local customs office with the goods and have them prepare a form for "good re-entry" for you. The official term for this is "Nämlichkeitsbescheinigung" (which is probably the most uninformative term ever invented - it roughly translates to "Proof of Particularity", which means nothing - just as the German term). Typically, your goods will need to have a serial number for that approach to work.

  • +1 for the details on the legal aspects, things like the Nämlichkeitsbescheinigung is what I had in mind when I alluded to “temporary export”. – Relaxed Oct 10 '14 at 10:43
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    Your answer helped me find an official page that might of interest to the OP: zoll.de/DE/Privatpersonen/Reisen/Reisen-in-einen-Nicht-EU-Staat/… – Relaxed Oct 10 '14 at 10:54
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    I suspect that you can leave in item with customs and return later with evidence that it isn't new, in case you don't live too far away from the airport and you have proof at home. At least worth asking if you are in the situation. – gnasher729 Oct 10 '14 at 14:16
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I don't think you will find a concise answer and even if there was one, Customs & Immigration Departments would not want it known publicly. In very generic terms ... They Observe. They are trained to read your body language, to interpret the way you answer, to go beyond the surface. They look at how you dress, what you have, where you were, how long you were there, why you were there. And then they make judgement calls based on what they have observed.

While they have set examples they use in training, it is mostly time on the job that improves their judgement. Perhaps the customs agent you had a hard time convincing was new on the job or maybe was just having an off day.

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In some cases the custom officers can see if something is bought on your trip or brought by you from home, by looking at the serial number. Quite some electronic devises keep a log of serial numbers, country where it was sold, etc.

However in most cases, it all is very subjective and probably dependent on personal decision by custom officers. The only thing, in my opinion, you can do to prevent this is to keep proof of purchase of the goods.

I do this by storing scans in dropbox and always have access to my dropbox from my devices (tablet/smartphone). Since you will probably not bring that many brand new devices you could also choose to simply carry a copy of your receipts with you.

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    What about stuff bought abroad, then paid duty on it, then take it with you and bring back - you shouldn't be paying duty on it again - but the serial number will show that it was bought abroad. – Aleks G Oct 10 '14 at 9:50
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    @AleksG I guess when you pay duty, you get a receipt for it. So bring the receipt with you – user141 Oct 10 '14 at 14:12

protected by mindcorrosive Oct 10 '14 at 22:42

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