This is a public service post. I am not an airline employee. I do not work for US Customs. I have not searched with an unrelenting fervor into all the rules and regulations on bringing bottles of booze back into the US from abroad. But I know enough to be dangerous and have several bottle-laden trips behind me so I have a bit of experience. Experience does NOT equal expertise so please do not take this as gospel.
When I post a bunch of bottle shots after a trip to Oaxaca, I frequently get asked how I was able to bring back that much mezcal (and I get asked even more frequently if I will share!). So here is a quick take on the way I see it.
What the Airlines Say
I think this is the trickiest piece of the puzzle, because it turns out that the airlines are more restrictive than US Customs. Living in NYC, I usually fly United through Houston to Oaxaca. Going through Houston gives me the added benefit of a stop at Papasito’s in the Houston airport – it’s mandatory if you have time! Looking into the United Airlines baggage policy, you will find that you can bring in 5 liters per person. 5 liters is equal to 6.67 typically sized bottles of 750 ml each. In other words, it rounds down to 6 bottles per person. That’s it. That’s their policy. 6 bottles. But I just brought back about 4 times that! How?
Well, the good news is that it does not appear to be the United Airlines employees’ responsibility to enforce that – at least not in Oaxaca. I had two suitcases this last trip – one was very heavy and one less so. The max limit on weight per bag is 23 Kilos, about 50 pounds. The counter agents told me they can give you leeway up to 25 kilos, or 55 pounds. Above that, you will pay a lot for excess weight (about $100 for every 5 lb overage). I was right at the 25 kilo leeway zone on one, and the other was probably 40 lbs. Two dense bags of 55 and 40 pounds is a lot of luggage for one person so I expected a few questions. To my now warmed mezcal heart, there were none! They checked the bags and on I went.
Now if someone from United Airlines is reading this, let’s not make a big deal out of it. The 5 liter limit seems arbitrary and unnecessary in the first place. If there is a reason, please let us know. We are not breaking any laws, US Customs or otherwise. The materials are not hazardous (unless CONSUMED in vast quantities). We are not bringing these back for commercial purposes. We are just mezcal geeks who love this shit and want to bring back as much of the stuff as possible that we cannot get in the US. That’s it. Nothing untoward.
That all said, I don’t think you want to be bragging to the people at the ticket counter about how much mezcal you scored! And my experience was with United. My friends Tom and Brenda recently came back from Oaxaca on AeroMexico and they got nailed. They were told they could only check 6 bottles PER BAG, and they actually had to give up 5 bottles. Imagine their pain! They had already checked the bags and they came and found them at the gate and told them them about the 6 per bag limit. Different from United Airlines where their website says 6 bottles PER PERSON. But United also did not come track me down at the gate, and one of my bags probably had 12 bottles of 750 ml (again, they never asked me about the weighty contents).
A mezcalero who regularly brings large quantities of mezcal to the US for tradeshows, etc told me that he is occasionally asked how many bottles he has in his very heavy luggage, and his response is always “4 bottles”. That’s his story and he is sticking with it. And it works. They don’t question it.
Bottom line: different airlines have different policies and different levels of enforcement. A number of us have had different experiences with different airlines so your experience may vary.
What US Customs Says
Most people think they can only bring back 1 or 2 bottles through US Customs. Not true. From the US Customs and Border Protection website:
“There is no federal limit on the amount of alcohol a traveler may import into the U.S. for personal use, however, large quantities might raise the suspicion that the importation is for commercial purposes, and a CBP officer could require the importer to obtain an Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) import license (which is required for all commercial importations) before releasing it. A general rule of thumb is that 1 case of alcohol is a personal use quantity – although travelers are still subject to state restrictions which may allow less.”
So you can bring back as much as you want as long as you declare it! The only catch is you are likely to have to pay tax above the 1 bottle limit. But note the “state restrictions” comment. I have only come through customs in Houston and if you go to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission website, it says you can only bring in 1 gallon of distilled spirits. It seems this is not being enforced by the US Customs people in Houston. Right on my people! I have not looked into what other states say and have no idea if they enforce any limits. Maybe you know?
When I came through recently they asked me no questions and I went right through. My buddy Mario was pulled over and had a few less bottles than me (he could not keep up!) and he paid a total tax of $19. That’s it. No issue with the quantity he had.
So it appears US Customs has no issue with quantity as long as you will pay the tax (again with the caveat that some US states may enforce things differently).
The final piece of this public service announcement contains a few packing tips:
- Take an empty suitcase. If you are really planning on loading up, it’s a pretty good idea to take an empty suitcase down there filled with packing tape, bubble wrap and WINE SKINS.
- Buy Wine Skins. These things are fantastic! You can buy them at the Container Store or Amazon. They are wine-bottle shaped bubble wraps – sleak and compact yet highly protective. They will handle almost any-shaped mezcal bottle that you come across. The bubble wrap and packing tape are handy if you run out of Wine Skins or for smaller bottles.
- Saran Wrap your bags. When you are leaving, at the Oaxaca airport, there is a guy there with one of those Saran Wrap machines (not sure what else to call it) where they wrap your bag about 30 times with a thin plastic cellophane. As your bag is likely to be heavy, this will help the structural integrity of the bag and keep everything nice and tight. It costs about $15 per bag, but I think it is a good investment.
I am sure I am forgetting a few other things, but for now, that’s all I’ve got. Remember this is based on a handful of experiences and is not gospel. So please no nasty hate mail if you follow this advice and you have to give up bottles. But again, this is all perfectly legal and not even perfectly legal with a wink of an eye. The US government says you can bring back as much as you want. So try it, or if you have an experience to share, reply to this post. Good luck in your mezcal adventures, and as always, drink mezcal!
Kind of a zombie post here, but this is an issue I ran across while moving from Europe back to the US.
There are a couple different factors at play.
The “1 liter of alcohol” applies to the actual alcohol, not the volume of liquid. So, for ease of math, a 1L bottle that is 50% alcohol is only 500ml of alcohol. That’s why the CBP doesn’t hassle people with two bottles; it’s not over the limit.
The TSA has different rules because they’re responsible for safety of travel (whether they actually do that is another subject). So high alcohol content and large volumes are restricted because of that.
Not quite sure how this applies, but thanks for trying!
My understanding, mezcal only since that is my interest, is that it must be sealed in a glass bottle with the cork sealed, heat shrink, and bottle labeled. We came through with a dozen bottles this trip.
Alan Starkman provided me with that information.
The limit is for “untaxed” alcohol. You may pay a duty, aka tax, of the overage.
Yep, all sounds right. If they check your bottles, they better be sealed. You can bring back as much as you want as long as you are willing to pay taxes (and they don’t think you are bringing it back for commercial purposes). Drink mezcal!
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Thanks John– and your story made me smile.
In 2003 I spoke at a meeting in Rio de Janeiro, and while there I became crazed with the cachaca selection and prices, and ended up packing 7+ liters into my bags. It was post 911, and I was sporting a dark beard and I guess I was “randomly” selected in Rio to have my bags inspected. They pull you into a room and first look at the x-rays of the bag, and they asked what’s in all those bottles. I said–“cachaca– I really like it!” They were so thrilled about my fondness for the national spirit that they said no further inspection was needed, they apologized, wrapped my bags with yellow “security clearance” tape, and escorted me to the front of the security line. I bought 1.5 liters more at duty free ( to calm me down ) , and then happily walked through customs in the US with my security clearance bags, and tons of artisinal cachaca!
Interesting old post by Camper English of Alcademics on this exact subject http://www.alcademics.com/2012/03/packing-booze-airline-liquor-regulations.html
Yes, some good tips here as well. Thanks!
Now I’ll consider the five confiscated bottles a public service, as well as a happy Friday night for those five AeroMexico employees!
I brought back a case and change, declared it (be sure to scribble an alcohol content on there somewhere if it isn’t already there, just make it up), and the customs guy looked at it, said “you really aren’t supposed to bring that much back,” looked at the line behind me, clearly decided he didn’t feel like doing the paperwork to charge me twenty bucks or whatever it would have been, and said “just don’t bring so much next time” and waved me through.
“just don’t bring so much next time”. I’m sure we will ALL abide by that in the future!
Thanks for the post, John! No idea if this is true or not, but I’ve heard of people getting their mezcals taken from them before boarding the plane from OAX to the US. That said, I don’t know whether or not these folks accurately specified what they were bringing back, or whether the bottles were properly sealed for export.
I, myself, have had no problem bringing mezcal back to the US in large quantities, however, my Oaxaca flights were always domestic within Mexico; I’ve always flown from Mexico City back to the US.
One other thing to add with regards to import laws is that things differ depending on the vessel in which you cross the US border. Weirdly, depending on the state through which you enter, airplane travel often allows for a lot more than car travel.
It could be like my friends where they tracked them down at the gate because they had more than 6 bottles per bag……….
Wake up and praise the heavens every morning that you don’t live in Canada. You’re allowed only to bring 1.14 liters of alcohol into this highly overrated northern nation. Bring anything more and they’ll ding you with 170%+ taxes on whatever you purchased, meaning your lovely $100 Tobala becomes a lot more expensive.
Sorry to hear that. I have had a lot of complaints from your Canuck brethren over the years. Be strong!
Just keep reminding yourself – your healthcare is “free”.
So, are you sharing the list of Mezcals you brought back?
I am not purposefully not sharing, it is just that detailing 27 bottles takes too much time. Maybe the picture helps???
Good article! I often bring back between 10-15 750ml bottles from Oaxaca via Houston to Sacramento. I am yet to have a problem. I pack them in wine skins & dirty clothes. When checking the luggage at the airline counter they often ask if I have Mezcal- to which I reply NO. I do this because once bringing wine from California to Oaxaca I confessed to having wine and they made me purchase special boxes and repack the bottles before they would accept my luggage. On the customs form I say I have around 200 dollars of merchandise – I never fill out the part specifying what- its on the back and many people don’t see it anyway. If they ask me in customs what I have a say “some Tequila”- they are yet to ask me how many bottles.
Nice. Thanks for the contribution.
Heading south on Wednesday. We’re going thru Houston on United, so tell me more about Papasito’s ! We’ll have time to kill there Thursday morning. We’ll be in OAX from the 14th until the 19th, shopping & tasting 🙂
Papasito’s is just good ole Tex-Mex that transcends airport food. My favorite is the chicken taco fajita! Have fun down there Mike!
PS: a little butt-kissing in conjunction with absolute accuracy of bottle quantity declaration can go a long way at US Customs. While they did open the plastic wrap of one bag to inspect, the number of bottles/liter quantity in the bag matched my declaration…they didn’t open my other two bags. Be straight my friends!
Just bring some of it to Vail. Rushmore missed out on a good time, yet I’m sure his liver is better for it.
Do you recommend putting Mezcal in plastic water bottles in your luggage too?
Hmmm….you tell me. Success or failure?
Does TSA trump US Customs or the other way around? Careful what you preach – there will always be a mixed bag of results when bringing back that much alcohol into the US. Not to mention different airline policies and various customs around the world.
“Please note, you can’t take alcoholic beverages with more than 70% alcohol content (140 proof), including 95% grain alcohol and 150 proof rum, in your checked luggage.
You may take up to five liters of alcohol with alcohol content between 24% and 70% per person as checked luggage if it’s packaged in a sealable bottle or flask.
Alcoholic beverages with less than 24% alcohol content are not subject to hazardous materials regulations.”
Not sure what your point is here. The TSA info is consistent with US Customs. It is hard to find a mezcal above 70% ABV so almost all are below that level and the 5 Liter limit is the same as US Customs. I am careful with what I preach that’s why I said my “preaching” was NOT gospel. If i am missing your point, please clarify.
He had no problems. My only worry is that one of the kids may grab a ‘water bottle’ en route to a swim meet this weekend.
Probably not a good idea as filled, unlabeled bottles in your luggage WILL look suspicious, you may end up in deep trouble. Plus, your mezcal may pick unwanted odors/flavors… As Mario says, just be straight, even if you have to pay $19 in tax, it’s not that much for something you cannot get at all in the US.
Yes. And also, apparently they will confiscate unsealed bottles if they look at your stuff. So don’t open them until you come home.