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I'm not planning on doing this myself (I'm not in a geographical position to either), but I just thought about the idea, and I wonder what type of rules are in place to prevent it.

This question could easily be too broad (differ from country to country), so I'll just say the two countries involved are Norway and Sweden.

Bob, Elise and Camilla are Norwegians traveling to Sweden.

Product A is much cheaper in Sweden than in Norway. Toll regulations say each person can bring only one unit of product A back to Norway from Sweden without paying toll.

While in Sweden, Bob, Elise and Camilla buy 20 units of product A. When they are very near the Norwegian border, they stop somewhere.

  1. Camilla gets out of the car, and keeps 18 units with her.
  2. Bob and Elise bring two units across to Norway.
  3. They stop very near the border, on the other side. Bob gives his unit to Elise and goes back to meet Camilla again in Sweden.
  4. They repeat the process, driving back and forth like this, bringing one unit at a time, until all the units are in Norway. They then drive happily into the Norwegian sunset with their stock of product As.

What rules are in place to prevent this type of behavior?

I limited it to Norway (to prevent it from being too broad). But is there a generally prevalent way (rules, etc.) that governments around the world use in an attempt to make this behavior impossible or difficult?


One thing I can think of is that you could have a rule that each person can only bring one unit within a timespan of 24 hours. But how is that enforceable? How would they keep track of which individual has already brought what? And often, if you are within the duty free limit, you don't have to declare it. If they check you, you are only carrying one unit, which is legal. I guess they could have a rule that says even the duty free quota must be declared and linked to your passport in a computer system. Then they could have hefty fines for not declaring even the duty free quota coupled with random sweep checks. But what do they actually do?

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    Many duty free allowances do have a time-based component, and if you do this often enough and on a large enough scale, it's more likely that the authorities will come to notice you. – Zach Lipton Jul 28 '16 at 21:29
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    @pnuts Haha :) Yeah. And how can we trust that Camilla doesn't eat up all the product As while we're on the other side with Elise? Camilla is known to be very greedy. – Revetahw Jul 28 '16 at 21:57
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    Beyond that, plenty of laws are hard to enforce 100% of the time, but are still enforced anyway. What stops people from buying a bunch of untaxed cigarettes from a wholesaler and selling them? What stops people from overstaying their visas? What stops an importer from claiming a box of iPhones is really a box of cheap plastic toys? Not a whole lot, and some people do it, but some of them get caught eventually. – Zach Lipton Jul 28 '16 at 22:33
  • @ZachLipton Yeah. I'd say if you make something risky and thus unprofitable in the long run, you are successfully enforcing the rules by discouraging people from doing it. – Revetahw Jul 28 '16 at 22:37
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    Brings to mind this very old joke. – AakashM Jul 29 '16 at 7:42
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To answer your question (and also limit the answer to entering Norway), Norwegian custom rules only allow you to make use of the duty free allowance once every 24 hour.

Quoting from Norwegian Custom's information page on the duty free allowance:

Hvis du er i utlandet kortere enn ett døgn: Ved utenlandsopphold på mindre enn ett døgn kan du én gang i løpet av 24 timer ta med deg alkohol- og tobakkskvoten hvis du kan dokumentere at du har betalt avgifter i et EØS-land. Du kan derfor ikke handle på tax-free.

Or my rough translation: If you stay abroad for less than one day (24 hours), you can once every 24 hours make use of your free alcohol and tobacco allowance if you can document that you have bought the items with duty in another EEA country. You can therefore not bring items bought tax-free.

  • Oh, so you're not eligible for tax free if you've been outside for less than 24 hours? And you can only take your allowance over once a day? How is that enforced, though? How can they keep track of how long someone has been out? And whether they have already brought something in on a given day? (Do they keep records? What if the person didn't get stopped the first times?) – Revetahw Jul 28 '16 at 22:14
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    The amount of value you make that way results in such a low hourly rate that it's not worth the time - that's the whole trick. If you want to spend your days (and gas) driving back and forth, they probably would just laugh and enjoy the show. – Aganju Jul 28 '16 at 22:19
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    Strictly speaking, it is your responsibility to prove that you have been abroad more than 24 hours to bring tax-free goods into Norway. The enforcement of the 'once every 24 hours' rule is of course not very easy, but many land border crossings now have video surveillance with licence plate recognition. I am not sure if the customs actually do so, but it is technically feasible to detect if e.g. the same vehicle crosses the border with only short intervals. – Tor-Einar Jarnbjo Jul 28 '16 at 22:23
  • Yeah, what both of you say makes sense @Aganju . – Revetahw Jul 28 '16 at 22:25
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    @chx, this can still make sense as the car companies update the prices in different EU counties as different times and don't respond to curanacy movements quickly. – Ian Ringrose Jul 29 '16 at 8:28
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Beyond that specific case, there are a number of rules that can be used to make sure duty-free allowances are difficult to abuse (not all of them might apply to any one country and some might be difficult to enforce):

  • Time-based limit as already mentioned by others. Alternatively, the allowance can also be limited to one use "per trip" (the end of the trip being defined as the time you return to your usual place of residence).
  • Allowances only apply for personal use. If Bob, Elise and Camilla really want to use 20 units of A for themselves then it could still be technically OK but if a car goes back and forth, customs agents might very well get suspicious and consider that they are likely to want to resell them. That's usually illegal, even if the total price is well under the threshold.
  • Allowances are not that high, you could play games with clothing or food but big ticket items are out (a single mid-range computer or smartphone is often already over the limit by itself).
  • Allowances are typically even lower for tobacco and alcohol, which are often highly taxed and attractive to smugglers.
  • The duty-free allowance may be lower when entering by road rather than by air and/or see (because open land borders lend themselves to a quick trip to buy something in the neighbouring country, whereas even a cheap flight is already much more of a hassle).
  • The duty-free allowance may also be lower for cross-border workers, people living close to the border or working in international transport (because they can bring a few items every day without much inconvenience).

Regarding enforcement, many borders in Europe are quite "soft" (certainly compared to earlier times or other parts of the world) and you will often get waved through or walk through the green channel at airports without anybody talking to you or looking through your stuff. Customs agents rely on random searches or simply noticing that something seems odd (like a car showing up frequently) and, if it comes to that, they can ask you to prove you did not break the rule (the burden of proof is on you). Another way many people get caught is simply tips: from jealous neighbours, estranged spouses, competitors, etc. None of this is systematic but that's how it works for all customs rules including checking that travellers are not exceeding the allowance itself so any 24-hour limit would not be unusual in that respect.

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    "or simply noticing that something seems odd " - By the time you have done this 5 times in 5 days, it will probably seem "odd" that you are more familiar with the procedures than most other travellers ;) I knew a guy who ran a small restaurant and got the idea of taking trips from the UK to Spain and coming back with the maximum legal personal allowance of amount of (expensive) wine to sell in the restaurant. He only made about one trip per month. After a few trips, he was "randomly" picked out for a very thorough search. They didn't actually find anything illegal - but he got the message! – alephzero Jul 29 '16 at 2:54
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    @alephzero: well, they did find something illegal, since it's illegal to use the personal allowance with the intent of selling the stuff you bring in on it. They just couldn't prove it was illegal :-) The message (if there was one) is that with additional effort, for example sending customs inspectors to his restaurant, they could prove it if they felt the case worth pursuing. I wouldn't be surprised, though, if customs hadn't spotted the pattern of a trip every month at all, they just do a certain number of random searches on people at the limit, with vans full of booze. – Steve Jessop Jul 29 '16 at 9:07
  • @SteveJessop & alephzero Note that within the EU, the allowance is much larger, which makes it the "personal use" requirement somewhat more difficult to enforce (in principle, you can take as much as you want for personal use, except for "means of transportation" and things that are flat-out banned in one of the countries in question like drugs or some weapons). For alcohol, in practice, it means up to 90 L of wine (which makes me wonder how your restaurant owner went to Spain, btw, by car?), which can make a single trip a lot more attractive than the external limit of 4 L. – Relaxed Jul 29 '16 at 9:07
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    I live near the Swiss-German border. Many people I know work on one side and live on the other, and there are benefits both ways; petrol for Germans and groceries for the Swiss. If you cross the border in a car with the local registration they generally just wave you through. There is a lot of traffic so theoretically you could do it 12 times a day, but at some point they would notice and, hmm, Swiss border guards do not have a sense of humour. – RedSonja Jul 29 '16 at 11:38
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    A colleague of mine (one with morals I find rather lax) bought some pirated hardware in the Far East and flew into Zurich. At Zurich airport they grabbed him in a spot check and he explained he was only going to Germany, so they let him go (this is a valid excuse in Zurich, but you have to promise to tax it when entering Germany). So he arrived in Germany and they stopped him and addressed him by name: Have you anything to declare? Being a fool he said No, and they searched him and took his stuff away and fined him. It seems Zurich airport had telephoned ahead... – RedSonja Jul 29 '16 at 11:41

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