U.S. Customs Procedures For Photographers Who Travel With Their Equipment Overseas, A Rebuttal

Steven "Fish" Frischling, AvatarThis is a guest post by Steven “Fish” Frischling, a Connecticut based intrepid photographer. You can find him blogging about his escapades in airports and on airplanes at Flying With Fish. And, I do recommend you follow him on Twitter for his sage advice about the air travel industry.

In the world of travel there are regulations, laws, gray areas and the simple facts of every day events. All of these possibilities don’t always match up and sometimes it seems traveling photographers may get caught in the middle.

Recently Scott Bourne wrote about a photographer who nearly had to pay taxes on US$15,000 worth of camera equipment while traveling back into the United States because he did not have a Form 4457 that proved his ownership of the equipment.

In reading the blog post by Scott Bourne, U.S. – Based Photographers Traveling Abroad – Beware The Duty, I was left pondering the realities of travel. Having racked up more than 1,000,000 butt-in-seat miles traveling since I started paying attention to my miles in 2005 I have done my fair share of international travel and researched travel with camera equipment extensively.

In my experience, a Form 4577 is cumbersome, as every single piece of equipment needs its own form filled out in detail. To negate the sheer time and annoyance it takes to fill out a Form 4577 I prefer to use a Carnet. A Carnet is a single form that lists all items a photographer would be traveling with, it proves ownership and eliminates the need to pay taxes and US Customs Agents are legally required to accept it … but do I really need a Form 4577 or Carnet to reenter the United States? No, I do not … and let me tell you why.

In my experience, a Form 4577 is cumbersome, as every single piece of equipment needs its own form filled out in detail.

If you follow the links from Scott Bourne’s post you’ll find one to the US Customs & Border Protection (US CBP) Traveler’s Checklist. Under the US CBP Checklist if you read #5 it states: “Receipts or registration paperwork (CBP Form 4457) for any new electronics, such as a camera or laptop, that I’m taking with me? (Only suggested if traveling with recently purchased goods. Not necessary for goods more than 6 months old.)”

I have asked about getting stopped and having gear searched by US CBP and the best answer I got from a Supervisor at Los Angeles International Airport (who wishes to remain anonymous) is “it’s all about red flags.”

US Customs scans tens-of-thousands of passengers in airports daily. Some are flagged by passport control, others for body language, and others by intuition, but you need to send off a red flag to have your bags checked upon reentry into the United States as a Citizen.

I have set off red flags and been checked more than once, but never once have I been threatened with a duty on my equipment. I have been flagged after traveling to Tokyo for 36 hours. When asked why my trip was so short I replied that there were no earlier connections home … that was a red flag. Explaining to passport control that on a trip I had travelled to Basrah Iraq for six hours followed by a two-hour stop in Kuwait City … and I was not traveling with the Military … that was a red flag. Having passport control notice I had been in and out of Amsterdam Schiphol International Airport 3 times and Paris’s Charles De Gaulle Airport once in a single day … that was a red flag.

I have set off red flags and been checked more than once, but never once have I been threatened with a duty on my equipment.

In all of these red-flag instances when my camera gear was revealed it was obvious that I was a professional photographer, my equipment was my own and it had likely been in my possession longer than six months.

US Customs agents are over worked and under staffed at nearly every airport I know. I spent a considerable amount of time documenting US CBP as a news photographer for a major magazine a few years back and got to witness how they operate from the inside out, not just from the perspective of a passenger, and agents generally use their own common sense to determine who is being truthful, who is lying and if equipment being brought into the country left the country with the traveler.

One way to ensure your gear will not get a second glance should you get red flagged is to take ownership of your gear before you leave. All of my equipment have uniform labels with my name and contact info on them, some pieces of gear have it twice. All of my gear is marked with tape (I use pink tape to quickly be able to ID my own gear), the tape on all the gear makes it uniform. My cameras all have gaffers tape in the eyepieces, nearly all my lenses have gaffers tape on the lens hoods or marks of the tape where the hoods attached to the bodies. All my camera batteries have pink tape and identification labels as well.

One way to ensure your gear will not get a second glance should you get red flagged is to take ownership of your gear before you leave.

When my bag is opened up an agent knows my equipment is … well … my equipment. Gear that is 2 days old may look cleaner than gear that is six years old, but having them taped and marked the same way speeds up the process and I never get a second look.

The one time I ended up being significantly scrutinized by a CBP Agent, at Atlanta (ATL), the agent asked for my card, I handed it to him and he walked off. He checked my web site, saw I legitimately was a photographer, he apologized for the delay, helped repack my bag and sent me on my way.

One thing to note is that in Scott Bourne’s post he suggests filling out the Form 4577 then having it signed by the US CBP at your Port of Entry (POE) prior to departure. This is problematic for many travelers. Never mind that nearly every CBP Agent I have asked said they hate signing off on Form 4577s because its never one form, its 30 forms and they need to verify every piece of gear … but there is no CBP Office near many travelers and most travelers depart from a location different than their Port of Entry. For example, most of my trips start and end at New Haven’s Tweet Airport, but my Port of Entry when I fly home is usually Philadelphia … although my Port of Entry can also be Atlanta, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, Shannon (Yes there is US Immigrations & Customs in Shannon Ireland), Miami, Toronto (Yes there is US Immigrations & Customs in Toronto), Newark, Detroit, Dulles, etc etc etc.

One thing to note is that in Scott Bourne’s post he suggests filling out the Form 4577 then having it signed by the US CBP at your Port of Entry (POE) prior to departure. This is problematic for many travelers.

Travelers who feel the need to have a Carnet or Form 4577 for reentry back into the United States should look for a local CBP Office, although there are many regions that simply don’t have an office conveniently located.

So what should you do when you fly internationally and are returning home to the United States? Know the rules, US CBP will not laugh at you, as Scott Bourne states … and I have had my fare share of run-ins with Agents (just search my blog), but if you are right you ask for a Supervisor and as them to review the US CBP Traveler’s Checklist … unless you’ve already read the CBP Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States (which I don’t suggest reading, its quite boring).

Happy Flying!

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  • Pingback: Returning Home With Your Camera Gear & U.S. Customs - Flying With Fish

  • Chelo

    Thank you so much for putting this together- very good to know.

  • Fotofah

    Excellent content. Thanks!

  • http://thedigitaltrekker.com Matt Brandon

    I also have traveled my fare share of miles. The only time I seem to get into trouble is flying via Thailand or Cambodia. Once while returning to the States via SEA Int’l airport I got taken aside and searched. While watching the CBP officer rummage through my bags , I asked him what he was looking for? He said any evidence that I might lead him to believe I was a pedophile or running a marriage scam. YUCK! So I asked him what that might be? He said compact cameras or multiple cellphones with cameras. MORE YUCK! I gulped and said, “Well, I am a photographer and here is my gear or if you want to view my CF cards or look on my laptop or backup drives.” He laughed and said I was clearly a professional photographer and did not fit the profile. There are a lot of sickies out there and they go to many of the same places we go, but over all, the US CBP folks know their stuff. Hats off to these folks. Go catch those bad guys!

  • oldguy

    The only time I had trouble was returning from Viet Nam in the early 70′s. No I look, and am, too old. They never even ask me to open my bag.

  • http://www.garyschapman.com Gary S. Chapman

    Thanks for this contribution to the photo community. I used to carry copies of the purchase receipts but never had a problem. Now I do as you say and make the gear look like my own..I’m not brave enough to use pink tape though!