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24/01/08 – Dealing With Customs & Immigrations and Camera Equipment – Reality & Legally
A few days ago was checking my mail I got a nice e-mail from an editor at Popular Photography asking if I could write a response to one of their readers. Naturally I sat down and wrote back that I’d love to answer some questions on travel for Popular Photography’s readers.
The following is the question I was forwarded, with the name of the original author removed
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Read you response to A. Aronowitz about insuring his equipment to Peru — good advice, but it begged an unasked question: Will he have a problem bringing his equipment back into the US?
The reason I ask: Back in the 70s and 80s, I had a job that frequently took me to some exotic international locations. I’d always bring my Nikons and lenses (who wouldn’t?). Before my first trip, a friend advised to bring receipts with the equipment, or bring it all to the nearest US Customs — They’d provide a form indicating they saw the equipment here, first. Never once did I not ease through customs — They’d ask if I bought the stuff overseas, I’d show ‘n’ tell, done.
My question above — or similar — my be useful to a lot of readers…
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I carefully read over the question a few times, because traveling internationally with camera equipment can be tricky. There are the legal rules of traveling internationally with photo equipment; there are huge grey areas regarding traveling internationally with camera equipment; there is the actual day-to-day reality of traveling internationally with camera equipment. Weighing all the options I laid out my answer for the readers of Popular Photography……………..you don’t have to wait until February like the Popular Photography’s Blog readers, you can read it now!
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Travelling internationally with camera equipment can be easy 99% of the time and tricky 1% of the time.
Over the past few years I have travellled as a professional photographer around the world with my equipment, always with at least two professional digital bodies and a minimum of four lenses. My trips generally raise red flags, but my equipment is almost never screened by U.S. Customs (although I get screened by U.S. Immigrations). These trips include multiple trips to Hong Kong for less than 24 hours; traveling to Basrah Iraq for six hours; an assignment in Kuwait City for less than three hours on the ground; flying to Frankfurt for a CEO shoot for less than 8 hours on the ground; and a five day journey where I exited the U.S. and traveled to Tokyo, Hong Kong, Vancouver (for 58 minutes), Hong Kong (again), Paris and finally landing back in New York.
With this said, I have only once been stopped from reentering the United States with my equipment. I was stopped after flying from Hartford, CT, to Tokyo, Japan, for less than two days in Tokyo. This incident occurred at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. I was stopped by U.S. Customs after being flagged by an Immigrations Inspector and pulled aside for about 10 minutes. In this 10 minutes I was asked where I was and why I was there and my documents were inspected. I answered the Inspector honestly and my bag, a fully loaded Think Tank Airport Addicted Backpack was hand searched and then released to me. Upon questioning what Customs was looking for I was informed that they were looking for anything unusual in my equipment; however, since all of my equipment was clearly labeled with my identification labels and a uniform identification mark (bright coloured tape and some gaffers tape) they could safely assume that all the gear that left the country returned with me and that I had not acquired any new, undocumented equipment.
In theory, you should always travel with a “Carnet.” A carnet is generally prepared by the US Council for International Business, and is validated by the US Customs Service. A carnet guarantees that what you are bringing into a foreign country, you will be taking home from that foreign country as well. Having a Carnet should exempt you from certain taxes in the country you are traveling to and verifies that what you are returning to the US with what you departed with.
Generally a Carnet is valid for one year and is 40% of the total value of what you are traveling with. With most carnet’s you should pay a 1% bond on the 40% value of the items you are traveling with. While I do not know any requirements for a person on vacation or a hobbyist to obtain a carnet, a good place to obtain a carnet is www.shoots.com
When in doubt travel with your gear list and serial numbers for both insurance and Customs reasons. You should keep a copy of this information in your travel documents file, as well as in your gear bag. In reality unless you are loaded for a full location production shoot you should be just fine coming home with all of your equipment and the full expectation of a US Immigrations Inspector looking at your passport, smiling and saying “Welcome Home.”
Hopefully this answers your question.
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