The dutiful shopper

Jane E. Fraser answers the taxing question: how much do I owe customs?

WITH the dollar so strong Australians are heading overseas for shopping bargains, particularly to the US. But there are limits on how much can be brought back to Australia and exceeding them can be expensive.

The limits

When returning to Australia, there is a combined $900 limit on "general goods" you can bring in tax free (in addition to duty-free alcohol and tobacco). There is no limit per item, so if you want to bring $900 worth of perfume, you can do so.

Families travelling together can pool their allowances but if you exceed your limit, you can be charged tax on all your purchases, not just the items that exceed the limit. It is not a case of whether you get asked, either, because all travellers must make a declaration on their incoming passenger card.

The exemptions

Clothes and footwear are exempt from the $900 limit, so baggage allowances are your only consideration if you want to restock your wardrobe. Australian traveller Kirk Muddle returned home from a recent trip to the US with "a ludicrous amount of clothing", saying it is a great time to be shopping there. "When you can buy Calvin Klein jeans at $29 a pair; of course, you buy three pairs," Muddle says. "I left home with one bag and came home with three."

He says another bargain he found was a brand-name suit on sale in Australia for $395 (down from $595) and selling in the US for $US140, or about $132.

Things that count


Jewellery, watches and leather goods are included in the $900 limit. Beauty products are generally exempt but perfume concentrates are counted as general goods.

Also be aware the $900 limit includes any goods you bought tax-free on your way out of Australia, or on which you made a Tourist Refund Scheme (TRS) claim for a tax component. So, if you bought an $800 duty-free camera on your way out, you can spend only another $100 on general goods while away.

At the border

How strictly are duty-free concessions policed? A Customs and Border Protection Service spokesman says there is "no discretion applied" and anyone with more than $900 worth of goods is required to pay the applicable tax.

However, I once declared a camera that was more than the duty-free limit and the customs officer just smiled and sent me on my way.

There is also the question of how a customs officer can know that the Prada handbag tucked under your arm is something you bought overseas and not something you already owned. Customs says if passengers claim their goods were bought in Australia before travel, "officers may request to see receipts or other proof of purchase".

While customs officers do not routinely check TRS claims, they can undertake checks on passengers if suspicious. "Passengers are selected for questioning and examination based on a number of factors," the spokesman says. "At any stage in the assessment process, a passenger may be subject to further scrutiny."

The penalties

The incoming passenger card is a legal document and making a false claim or failing to declare goods is a serious problem. Where a passenger has deliberately tried to evade duty and tax, financial penalties can be applied and goods can be impounded until the penalties are paid. In more serious cases, the passenger might be prosecuted.