Dealing With Customs & Immigrations and Camera Equipment – Reality & Legally

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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…
Michael S.
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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…………… 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

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.

-Steven Frischling

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Happy Flying!



  1. Thanks for the informative post, it will be useful in the near future 🙂

    Are you using duct tape and printed labels on your gear? I’m just wondering as i’ve yet to find tape that sticks very well but doesn’t leave the gunky residue after a bit.

  2. Yong

    All of my equipment, from bodies to batteries and lenses to CF cards, are labeled with white laminated tape from Brother. I use a Brother P-Touch label maker, with TZ Tape which is durable and doesn’t leave a lot of residue when you remove the labels.

    The pink tape on my gear is vinyl tape, with duct tape on the base of the 1D bodies. I also use Gaffers Tape which does not leave a lot of residue on anything. A great place to look for tape is Tape Brothers,

    Happy Flying!


  3. Hi Fish,

    1. There’s a less expensive option to a carnet that does not expire. It’s a Customs & Border Protection Form CF 4457. You list your stuff and show it to a customs officer and you then have your stuff validated for re-entry into the U.S. Admittedly, this won’t help for customs entry into another country, but useful and easy nonetheless. Here’s a link with more info:
    And a TinyURL if that breaks:

    2. Brother makes tapes in bright colors so you can get a twofer…label and bright ID tape in one step. I’m using black on yellow. There’s black on orange, black on red, black on silver, etc.

    Rick Wallace

  4. Rick

    Thank you for pointing out the US Customs form which can be used by international travelers .

    I did not address the US DHS Customs form 4457 as it is only valid in the US. I tend to rely on the Carnet as it is accepted by not only US Customs but also international customs.

    My worry is more about entering a foreign nation than returning home to the U.S.

    For those that would like to explore the option of using US Customs Form # 4457, you may do so at the URL below:

    Happy Flying

  5. For non-residue tape, use Permacel gaffers tape …the good stuff. Well worth the few extra $US or Euros.

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