Importing Alcoholic Beverages For Personal Or Household Use
A summary of the law on bringing alcoholic beverages into California.
Adults (persons age 21 or older) who bring alcoholic beverages into California for commercial or business purposes must be licensed by the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC).
Adults who bring alcoholic beverages into California for personal or household use do not need an alcoholic beverage license; however, some restrictions do apply, as explained below (Section 23661 Business and Professions Code).
Returning from a Foreign Country
Alcoholic beverages must accompany the returning traveler and may not be shipped to California at a later date.
Travel by Steamship or Airplane
Adults traveling into California from a foreign country by steamship or airplane may bring with them a reasonable amount of alcoholic beverages for personal or household use. A reasonable amount is not more than 60 liters (approximately five cases). (ABC agreement with U.S. Customs)
Returning from Mexico
Section 23661 of the CA Business and Professions Code limits the quantity of alcohol brought into California from Mexico for personal or household use as follows:
- A pedestrian crossing the international border on foot may bring in only the amount of alcoholic beverages which are exempt from payment of duty in accordance with the existing provision of federal law (currently, this is one-liter every 31 days). Note: This limit applies to all persons regardless of state or country of residence. No waivers are available.
- A California resident crossing the international border in a vehicle that is not a common carrier may bring in only the amount of alcoholic beverages which are exempt from payment of duty in accordance with the existing provisions of federal law (currently, this is one-liter every 31 days).
- Non-California residents crossing the international border in a vehicle that is not a common carrier can bring with them a reasonable quantity of alcoholic beverages (up to five cases or 60 liters) provided the beverages are for personal or household use.
A California resident or any other person crossing the international border via common carrier may bring in a reasonable quantity of alcoholic beverages (up to five cases or 60 liters) provided the beverages are for personal or household use.
- No person under 21 years of age may bring in any quantity of alcoholic beverages.
For the purpose of Section 23661 “common carriers” are steamship companies and railroads, or any persons who hold themselves out to the general public to transport in interstate or foreign commerce any class or classes of passengers or property, or both, for compensation by air or highway, who actually engage in such transportation, and who hold an interstate alcoholic beverage transporter’s permit as required by Section 32109 of the Revenue and Taxation Code.
Persons who transport only property owned or consigned to themselves shall not be deemed to be common carriers within the meaning of this section.
It should be noted that “common carriers” do not include taxicabs or sightseeing buses crossing the international border.
New California Residents
An adult who is moving to California after an extended stay in a foreign country may bring alcoholic beverages through U.S. Customs if all of the following conditions are met:
- The alcoholic beverages are shipped via common carrier (i.e., steamship, airplane, or railroad);
- The alcoholic beverages are for personal or household use only (and not for sale);
- The alcoholic beverages are a reasonable quantity by U.S. Customs’ standards;
- The alcoholic beverages are with the person’s unaccompanied household effects; and
- The person could not physically accompany the shipment of household effects to the United States.
Note: U.S. Customs is not obligated in any way to clear every shipment in these situations. It may exercise its own discretion on a case-by-case basis and may deny approval when justified.
Out-of-State Residents Traveling Through California
Out-of-state adult residents, who enter California from a foreign country, may arrange for their baggage containing alcoholic beverages to be continuously transported through California via common carrier. The traveler may not use the alcoholic beverages within California’s borders. (Section 23109 Business and Professions Code)
When a service member relocates his or her household effects from a foreign country to California as part of a permanent change of duty station, he or she may include alcoholic beverages only if they are for personal or household use. The Department has no objection if the alcoholic beverages are physically included with other household effects, such as clothing and furniture, or if they are shipped separately.
Note: There is no federal limit on the amount of alcohol someone 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 Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer could require you to obtain a federal import license before releasing the shipment. If so, the corresponding state license(s) would also be required. CBP is not obligated in any way to clear every shipment. It may exercise its own discretion on a case-by-case basis and deny entry when justified. If you intend to have a large quantity of alcohol shipped to you for personal use, CBP suggests that you contact the entry branch of the port where your shipment will be entering the United States to discuss your situation in advance. You should also contact the nearest office of the Department to determine whether your circumstances may require a state license.
An adult member of the United States Armed Forces, who was or is serving outside of the United States, may ship to California the duty-free amount of four liters (three liters of which must have been manufactured or bottled within the United States).
However, when unaccompanied, the alcoholic beverages must be shipped via common carrier and consigned to a California licensed importer. (A list of licensed importers is available from ABC Headquarters in Sacramento.)
The service member may then claim the alcoholic beverages by going to the consignee’s premises and showing satisfactory military identification.
Foreign diplomatic personnel and members of their staffs (includes majors or above of the Military Committee of NATO) may import duty-free alcoholic beverages from suppliers outside California if the shipments are sent directly to the foreign diplomat or his/her staff member. Foreign trade zones are considered to be outside California.
For more information contact your local office of the State of California, Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
Frequently Asked Questions
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