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Mar 17, 2010 03:24 PM

TIP -- Bring back food across the border without paying taxes [moved from Ontario board]

I wanted to share a money-saving tip to fellow chowhounds that I picked up from a post here -- it was mentioned in the middle of a many-reply post and I thought it deserved its own heading.

Most of us live close to the U.S. border -- I'm an hour from Port Huron, MI And many of us do some of our food shopping in the U.S., either for products that aren't available her, aren't of the same quality here or are much more expensive here. So long as you have a place that will accept packages for you in Michigan or NY, you can order just about anything online so long as it doesn't have to be immediately frozen or chilled.

Until this week, though, I didn't realize that "basic groceries" are exempt not just from duty but from tax when crossing the border to Ontario. The reason is this: Such groceries aren't taxes when bought in Ontario either. While I don't have yet the full list of what is conidered "basic groceries" the summary of the list is extensive.

Earlier today I picked up $600 worth of gourmet food, mostly higher-priced sardines from France and Portugal. When I crossed the border, I declared and told the customs official they were exempt from taxes as "basic groceries." A colleague of the official looked it up and said, "He's right." That's $80 saved in taxes.

The first of the sardines, by the way, were delicious -- Cole's from Portugal. Very meaty and firm with a mild fish taste complimented by smoke.


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    1. Very good tip. Makes sense - and easy to figure out what is tax-exempt!

      Yesterday, 3 of us were able to bring back 12 bottles of beer (the equivalent of 16 regular bottles of beer), chocolate bars, condiments, gadgets, etc. from Premier Gourmet in Buffalo, showed receipts and declared everything ($120 U.S.) after only being out of the country for 5 hours, and didn't have to pay any duty. Sometimes it depends on the border guard/official.

      Of course, Canada customs will still not be happy with meat/dairy/produce, so non-perishables are still the safest bet.

      6 Replies
      1. re: Food Tourist

        Every time my wife does a shopping run to Buffalo, she brings backs pounds of butter (like 8-12), and dozens of eggs. Never a peep from Customs. Packaged romaine, broccoflower, etc. - also no problems. Hasn't tried to bring back citrus to my knowledge.

        1. re: FrankD

          I don't think that Canada has a problem with bringing in citrus. Just don't try to take it from Canada to the US.

          Also, Food Tourist, I'm amazed that you weren't asked to pay duty/tax on the beer. Alcohol and tobacco seem to dominate the conversation whenever I cross.

          1. re: Yongeman

            They seem to have a lenient policy as long as you aren't bringing the "full quota" of beer. I think 4 bottles per person might be okay.

            1. re: Yongeman

              I have regularly bought beer in Buffalo for the past year and I haven't been asked to pay any duty/tax yet and I've never lied. I brought back 30 bottles from Priemier Gourmet and at the border I said, "I have 30 bottles of beer," and they just waved me through. Now they may have assumed I bought a 30 pack of Bud Light for $15 or something when I actually spent over $100 on microbrews, but I still didn't lie and if they checked my trunk there would have been 30 bottles.

              My parents live in St Catharines and pick up two 6 packs for me everytime they go to Wegmans (once a month maybe). Not once have they ever been charged any duty/taxes.

              I am not sure exactly what the duty/taxes on beer compared to other alcohol is, but I'm told it is almost not worth the time of customs to make you pay because it takes up more in employee time then the amount they make from you. If you declare any wine or spirits, anecdotally, they always make you pay duty.

              1. re: kwjd

                Thanks for the tips, kwjd. I'll have to buy some beer next time I'm down to Buffalo.

            2. re: FrankD

              Wow, this is news to me. I purposely didn't buy packaged bacon, and hid the raw milk Yancey's Fancy cheddar cheese just in case.

          2. There are limits on certain items (examples: 6 dozen eggs, 20 kg of beef?) but unless you're importing for a store or restaurant it's highly unlikely you'd be bringing in that much. Where the border guards get picky are the obvious: alcohol and tobacco, and the not-so-obvious: root vegetables come to mind here. We've never had them confiscated but had been warned about potatoes and onions so I don't recommend trying to bring those in. Don't attract attention to yourself!

            Also, avoid bringing in plants. We go south in May every year and always picked up tomato and pepper plants at a really nice garden centre in Shamokin Dam, PA on the way back, since that time of year the same plants in Toronto are tiny; we had better results in our garden planting Pennsylvania tomatoes that were already large. Last year the border guard warned us about them and I thought he was going to confiscate them. He let it go, thankfully. And go figure, with the cool summer last year we had a terrible crop, even with the larger plants.... he might as well have confiscated them, the result would have been the same :-(

            Since you mentioned Port Huron, we like to shop at the Sam's Club there since it's close to the border crossing and has a gas station that is 10-20 cents cheaper per gallon than the rest of them in the area,,,,, I take it you go to Detroit and load up at Trader Joe's? Love that place!

            2 Replies
            1. re: TexSquared

              I must admit I haven't been to Trader Joe's in a long, long time. I was spoiled on Trader Joe's more than two decades ago because I lived for two years in South Pasadena near the original store when the stores were more limited -- the quality was amazing and the prices were great as I was on a student budget. Years later, the chain expanded east (beyond Arizona) and opened up places in NY, where I was living at the time, and it was good but somehow not quite the same.

              That said, I'm long overdue -- last time in a TJ was five years ago in NY,

              Thanks for the tips about plants and root vegetables. Good to know our border agents are protecting us from rogue carrots.

              Do you have Sam's Club membership? I have Costco but its a 40 minute drive from the border.

              1. re: CookatHomeinLondon

                Yes, have a Sam's Club membership since we go to their WNY locations (Niagara Falls and Cheektowaga) often. It was such a disappointment when Sam's gave up on Canada over a year ago.... Last week we were coming back through Detroit and shopped at one in Madison Heights, MI which is huge, maybe 25% bigger than the Port Huron location.

                Thanks for the tips on TJ's. We also visited the original one in Pasadena, and most recently the one in Columbus, OH... the only major difference we notice is the prices of the wines; $2 chuck in California goes for $3-$5 elsewhere in the country. (but if they ever imported it to Canada, probably $15 at LCBO)

            2. Does anyone know if the OP's statement is actually true?

              It would be good to have a printout of some legislation to show guards but I cannot find anything online on first glance.


              2 Replies
              1. re: magic

                The guards know the rules. Recently what we've experienced, the guard will ask "total value of goods importing?" and then follow that with "and how much of that is groceries?", since that's duty and tax free.

                Start with this page:


                which gives some of the more commonly enforced limits (i.e. 1 turkey per person in the car!).

                and of course this:


                Food is duty and tax free other than the limits listed on those above pages, in which case they're supposed to seize the excess since you're importing commercial amounts without a permit. (might have been last year during U.S Thanksgiving, the border guards were confiscating turkeys because people were bringing in too many).

                1. re: TexSquared

                  This is great! Thank you TexSquared!

              2. I've been food shopping in Niagra falls USA for 5 yrs and bringing it back every week, i've never been asked to pay tax or duty yet. For years I brought a 30 pack of coors cans back every week and was only asked to pay the duty on it twice, I always declare what I have and show the receit. But , I have been pulled over for a full search because A-I was by myself(as I always was) and B-I was only over for an hour and the border dude was pissy and didn't believe me how much cheaper it was over there. It was also the only time I had 2 30 packs of beer with me, (declared as always) after the search turned up nothing the border agent repacked my truck,folded my clothes and forgave me the duty on the beer for delaying me.