Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, one of the one of the great duty-free shopping destinations in the Caribbean. (Bob Coates Photography)
Q: We recently returned from a trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands. Why did we have to go through Customs to board our return flight when we never left U.S. territory?
— Denise Ruthenberg, Mentor
A: To answer Ruthenberg’s question, I contacted U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Public affairs officer Jeffrey Quinones provided some history:
“What is seldom known is that the U.S. Virgin Islands is outside what is called ‘Customs territory.’ Since the acquisition of the Virgin Islands by the U.S. from Denmark [in 1916], by treaty, customs fees are assessed using local law.
When traveling to one of the U.S. insular possessions, such as the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa or Guam, you are required to clear Customs and Border Protection and are entitled to a $1,600 duty-free exemption, as long as you are there for 48 hours or more.”
The duty-free allotment of $1,600 in the Virgin Islands is twice as much as nearby Caribbean countries. In other words, you may want to pack an extra bag for tax-free purchases the next time you head to this tropical paradise. (For more information on duty-free rules in the Caribbean: tinyurl.com/dutyfreecaribbean.)
In a follow-up email, Ruthenberg included a common misunderstanding about traveling to the U.S. Virgin Islands: You don’t need a passport to travel to there.
Yes, a passport is the gold standard of travel identification – by all means, take it if you have one. But a government-issued photo ID is sufficient, according to Quinones.
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