My friends tell me one of their favorite activities in China is to buy counterfeit items such as Gucci handbags or Montblanc pens. My friends do worry about U.S. Customs and Border Protection (U.S. Customs) officers looking through their luggage upon arrival at an airport in the United States, seizing the counterfeit items, and fining them. The truth is that U.S. Customs allows the importation of counterfeit merchandise, but closely follow the rules as I explain them to you now.
First, know that it is generally illegal to import counterfeit merchandise into the United States. The word "counterfeit" is defined in the Lanham Act at 15 U.S.C. 1124, and the U.S. Customs applicable law allowing for the seizure of counterfeit merchandise is 19 U.S.C. 1526. That law gives your friendly U.S. Customs officers who are waiting for you at the airport the authority to look through your luggage, and seize counterfeit merchandise from you. The U.S. Customs regulations at 19 CFR Part 133 give more specific guidelines to travelers interested in this topic.
What the readers of this blog, and even many U.S. Customs officers, do not know is that it is perfectly legal for a person who visits China, or any other foreign country, to buy counterfeit merchandise there, including one counterfeit Gucci bag and one counterfeit Montblanc pen, declare it on the U.S. Customs declaration form, pass through U.S. Customs, and enjoy using the counterfeit items in the United States. Of course, you generally get what you pay for, so the $2,000 Gucci bag that you purchased in China for $80 may not be such a bargain, but it can be a lot of fun to shop at a Chinese flea market, and compare the purchased products to the genuine items at your local U.S.-based retail store, or so I am told.
According to Customs Directive No. 2310-011A dated January 24, 2000, "Customs officers shall permit any person arriving in the United States to import one article, which must accompany the person, bearing a counterfeit, confusingly similar, or restricted gray market trademark, provided that the article is for personal use and not for sale." Moreover, the Directive states that "Customs officers shall permit the arriving person to retain one article of each type accompanying the person."
Now, don’t go crazy trying to bring too much counterfeit stuff into the United States at once. There are many restrictions. You can only bring counterfeit stuff in every 30 days, it must "accompany" you which means no FedEx, UPS, or DHL packages, and it is only applicable to "one article of each type" which means, for example, if you attempt to bring in two counterfeit Gucci bags, they both will be seized by U.S. Customs. And "personal use" means for you the traveler only; no counterfeit gifts for your friends and family.
Finally, please don’t waste the U.S. Customs officer’s time attempting to explain to him that the fancy watches you purchased are marked "Rolexx" so they are not counterfeiting the Rolex trademark because of the different spelling, or that you did not know that importing counterfeit merchandise was illegal, because now you have read this blog post from "Mr. Customs".
Just in case you do bring in one too many counterfeit products, there is an administrative process to challenge all seizures made by U.S. Customs, as I described in a previous blog post.