arrival duty free: When, where, how, why and exactly what is Duty Free?
In April 2014 on Carnival Magic, my husband purchased an expensive necklace for me for our 40th anniversary in the ship's jewelry shop. When we asked the store staff about duty were told there wouldn't be any.
However, on debarkation morning (Galveston, TX) his Fun Pass ship card was flagged to not allow him to disembark the ship. I was told to proceed with disembarking and go through Customs & Immigration. I was not allowed back onto the ship -- even though I had both our U.S. passports and the Customs & Immigration Declaration form. They (Carnival) wouldn't even let me give his to him.
I did as I was told, went through Customs just fine, but they would not allow me to stay in the terminal near their "territory" to wait for him.
I eventually had a cell phone call from my husband telling me he needed his passport and the Customs form. I told him where I was waiting, and a Carnival staff-greeter showed up & got these from me. About 10 minutes later, I had another phone call telling me he needed several hundred dollars in either CASH OR CHECK to pay the duty on the necklace!
*** Customs ONLY takes cash or check -- there is an ATM machine available by their office but we only had a credit card and the interest rate on ATM cash withdrawals is 22%!! And we don't take checks with us when traveling out of the country!
What had transpired on the ship unbeknownst to me, was my husband was made to stand in an area away from the other debarking passengers. No one with Carnival or U.S. Customs would tell him what the detainment was about -- although the only thing it could be for was the necklace purchase. About 15 minutes later, he was escorted up 5 decks and questioned about "any purchases made while onboard." When he told them he'd bought a necklace for his wife, they STILL would not confirm if this situation & treatment was because of that -- he said they barely spoke at all). He was then escorted off the ship to Customs by an agent. When the Customs desk agent discovered he didn't have his passport and declaration form, he was again escorted to a private office (with his luggage in tow) where he was allowed to call me. After the Carnival staff member brought those 2 items to them, the agent calculated the duty at just over 5% tax. A U.S. Customs agent came out to where I was sitting and retrieved the cash payment from me, and afterwards my husband was allowed to leave.
The entire situation was handled inappropriately and was embarrassing. He felt like he was being treated as a thief and was already pronounced guilty. We had filled out the Declaration form with the purchase price of the necklace -- we never intended not to show our purchase, even though we were told there would be no duty.
As a travel agent & agency owner, both my husband and I attended the Carnival Conversations (for travel agents) in Austin two weeks later, & discussed the situation with the Carnival staff. They apologized for the way he was treated and how it was handled. However, U.S. Customs is in control of the ship once it docks and the ship has no control over how Customs handles any situation. But more to the point, we told Carnival to please tell their onboard shop employees NEVER to tell guests there's no duty on purchases.
As we later found out after many phone calls to U.S. Customs, each person within a family traveling together (on the same Customs & Immigration form) is allowed $800 duty free in purchases. They did tell us that had we purchased the necklace OFF the ship in one of the ports, Customs would never have known about it and would have a hard time proving we owed duty.
Once a ship arrives back into the U.S. and Customs boards the ship, it is "THEIR" ship; the cruise line has no control. Customs goes over ALL onboard purchases and red flags large ones which would require duty tax to be paid. Those people who've made these large purchases are not allowed to leave the ship. They go through exactly what my husband did.
As I waited in the approved area of the terminal, I watched as unsuspecting guests were herded over to a bank of teller windows to pay the duty on all cigarettes and alcohol purchased whether onboard the ship or in a port.
I heard "I NEED SOME MONEY!" constantly,
In May this year, I had a fellow alumnus tell me about having to pay duty on his wife's carton of cigarettes that were bought in Houston prior to their cruise. He even showed the Customs agent the Texas tax stamp on them. He was told to either pay the duty or go to jail. He paid. And he's still pi$$ed about it.