So you are shooting abroad, congrats! How much gear are you bringing? Just a backpack? One carry-on pelican? Or how about 10 hard cases? Regardless of the answer, you’ll want to make sure you have a CBP 4455 or Carnet to ensure no customs issues.
The best and safest option is to acquire a Carnet for your camera gear. A Carnet is essentially a passport (and bond) for your equipment. You'll get it stamped upon exit of your home country, entry into foreign country, exit and re-entry. The Bond aspect ensures foreign countries that you will be bringing the gear back to the US (and not re-selling it) and the paper work ensures US customs that all the gear has beeb purchased in the states and does not require any import taxes.
There are already some great resources and write ups about Carnets online. In the past I have used Boomerang Carnets, who have some great info on their site and have been extremely helpful.
If and when possible, travel with a carnet. It’s the safest way to ensure smooth travel with loads of camera gear.
If you are unfamiliar with Carnets, take some time to read the instructions. The pages are
color coded, but still somehow super confusing.
While the Carnet is the international standard (accepted in 85 countries) and widely publicized, there is another form called the CBP 4455, that is not as well known.
The CBP 4455 is a U.S. Customs form of registration of goods taken abroad. If you are visiting a non-Carnet country or do not have enough time to process a Carnet, a 4455 is the next best option.
The biggest difference between a CBP 4455 and Carnet, is the CBP 4455 is useless outside the U.S.. Other countries are under no obligation to accept a CBP 4455. Typically, I use a CBP 4455 when traveling just with a small amount of gear AND when I do not plan to declare goods when arriving in a foreign country. I would suggest against presenting a CBP 4455 upon entry, unless you are stopped at foreign customs and are having a hard time. The “official” U.S. stamp on the CBP 4455 can sometimes satisfy local custom officers, but once again, CBP 4455 are useless outside the U.S.
Just like a carnet, you must take this form to customs before you’re flight and have it stamped and signed. The customs officer will most likely ask to see a few items, but rarely do they go through your entire kit. The Customs Officer will then stamp your form, which is handed back to you. They typically do not make a copy. Hang onto your copy, and then re-present to customs when you arrive back in the U.S.
I typically add an extra page with a
list of all gear and serial numbers. Make sure
the customers office also stamps the additional page.
LOCAL PRODUCERS / FIXERS:
If you (or the production) is working with a local company, producer, or fixer, I'd highly suggest having the locals inquiry about the necessary customs protocol for arrivals. I had one of the smoothest customs experiences ever in Chennai, India earlier this year. While I have heard horror stories about bringing gear into India, we had our local producer meet with the Custom Officers before our arrival. When we landed, we knew exactly who to ask for, which made the process a breeze.
Another time when working in Panama, the production company hired a local “broker” to meet us at the airport. Once again, we walked right through customs with a ton of pelican cases with no issues. A local fixer, can really fix it.
Producers should really take care of all Carnet and paper work, but if you are a owner / operator, its in you’re best interest to be proactive and make sure all paper work is up to par. At the end of the day, its your gear on the line.
Carnet cost money, mostly in part because there is a bond associated with the Carnet. The fee for a carnet is roughly broken down as a flat fee for filing (usually a few hundred dollars) + an additional fee based on the value of gear. The last Carnet I used cost $650, which was to cover $65k of camera gear traveling to India. This cost is of course passed onto production, and should never come out of your rate or rental. While 4455s are only good for the US portion of customs, the flip side is they cost $0.
AT THE AIRPORTS:
There is a customs office in the departure / ticketing area of the international terminal (same office where you go for Global entry). You can take your 4455 or Carnet to that office. DO NOTE, not all international flights leave from the international terminal, so you may need to make a stop there first, and the go to your actual terminal.
JFK (BA terminal 7, Delta / International 4)
At JFK, (Terminals 4 & 7, not positive about the others) you need to go to arrivals, and essentially walk to where passengers come out of the arrivals. Walk up to the automatic doors and flag down a CBP officer (who should be just inside the door). DO NOT WALK past the automatic doors without catching the attention of a CBP officer first! They will then escort you to the “ships” office, who handle your paper work. There is also another customs window at Term 4 outside of the secure area, which sometimes can process Carnets. At Terminal 7 there is sometimes an airport staff that can assists you in calling customs.
Often times when flying to central or south America, you’ll have a domestic leg first, before you leave the country (LGA -> MIA -> South America for example.). Since your bags are checked through, you’ll need to do your customs paper work at the first airport. At LGA this can be a pain, since it’s not a true international airport with a 24-hour customs office. The best bet is to call ahead and make sure a customs offier will be on duty before you’re flight. You may also need to stop at the customs office (which is on the service road between Term A and Term B) to have your paper stamped. If you have an extremely early flight, sometimes you can get your paper work stamped the night before (without even showing the kit). The best bet is to call the customs office and see what they suggest.
A fully rigged out RED in the middle of
Bolivia, which equaled a lot of hard cases
at the airport on arrival.
UPON ARRIVAL BACK TO THE U.S.:
Don’t forget, you have to do your customs paper work at the first port of entry. So if you are flying back from Mexico with a layover in Houston en route to LGA, you’ll have to show your Carnet/4455 in Houston. It’s extremely important to make sure you schedule a long enough layover to get this done. While I have never had a customs officer take more then 10 minutes to look through my kit, I have had to wait in secondary line for up to 45 minutes for my turn.
If you forget to get your carnet stamped before leaving the US, its worthless. I heard a story about a film crew flying to India, they had a carnet but forgot to get it stamped. Upon entering India they had their gear seized and held for 48 hours before having it release.
Then there are the stories of cameramen being asked to put up 30% of the value of the gear, to ensure the camera gear is re-exported and not sold in the country. Imagine arriving to a foreign country and being asked to put up 30% on 100K in gear? Hope you have high credit limits on your credit cards!
To avoid the above, do your homework!
I never leave the US without a 4455, even if its just traveling with a small backpack worth of gear. Both Carnets & 4455s are fairly straight forward once you understand them, and the extra 30 to 60 minutes at check in can save major headaches upon entering a foreign country and returning to the U.S. Given that CBP US 4455 cost $0, there is no reason not to travel with one.
Working from a backpack, on a recent trip to Tanzania.
While I hate this method of working, sometimes its the
only way to get shoots done.