A traveler's guide for items not to challenge Chinese Customs

Updated: 17 Oct 2011
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Fake DVDs confiscated by Chinesee Customs officers
So you’re fleeing the country, huh? Whether you’re just heading back to your home country for a visit or bidding “zaijian” to China forever, it’s important to know what you can – and can’t – take through Chinese customs. Granted, people get away with customs violations on a daily basis, but knowing (and following) the rules will ensure you don’t have to fidget nervously as the customs officials stare you down. Because trust me, they will…Here is a list of 10 things you should think twice before taking with you.
1) Multiple copies of DVD’s
If you’ve stayed in China for more than, say, oh, three days, chances are you’ve accumulated quite a stash of illegally copied DVD’s. While bringing back album after album of DVD’s isn’t going to win you tons of friends at the customs office, the only real problem you’ll run into is if you try and bring back multiple copies of the same disc. So if you’re looking for gifts for your friends and family, resist buying them all copies of “The Hangover II” – customs officials will assume you’re going to try to sell them.

2) Multiple copies of fake products
The idea that you’re leaving the country in order to try and sell all of China’s painstakingly handcrafted wares for a handsome profit also applies to anything “fake” – handbags, watches, wallets, scarves, etc. Pretty much anything and everything you can find at the fake markets. Again, a couple purses or belts aren’t going to get you in trouble – but if officials open up a suitcase and find it full of Jimmy Choo handbags, they’re going to assume the worst.

3) Narcotics/Drugs with a high potential for abuse
Prescription medicine is fine – but only pack enough for you and you alone. Drugs that are particularly prone to abuse (think Percocet, Vicodin, Valium, etc.) cannot exit the country in mass quantities. If you’re caught with an amount exceeding that for personal use, officials will assume that you’re going to sell them back in your home country. And given how cheap medication can be in China (and the fact that many medications that require a prescription can be gotten over-the-counter here), this isn’t an outrageous assumption. Even when bringing non-narcotics and medicines not deemed "high potential for abuse” out of the China, their value should never exceed 300 RMB.

4) Meat/Meaty products
Yes, meat in China is delicious. And yes, it’s possible to buy packages of cured bacon, legs of lamb, and racks of beef at practically every corner – and for quite cheap. But alas, you can’t take any of that deliciousness out of China with you. For various health reasons (remember that whole swine and bird flu kerfuffle?), meat of any sort and in any form – fresh, canned, or dried – must stay in the country.

5) Fresh fruits and vegetables can carry plant pests or diseases
On the same vein, fresh fruits and vegetables can carry various diseases and pests that would be particularly harmful if introduced to a new environment. The dried variety is perfectly fine, as the process of drying kills any bugs that could cause harm. So while durian wouldn’t make it through customs (never mind the smell that would give you away…), dried durian would be completely acceptable – if you’re into that sort of thing.

6) Media that is “harmful to China's politics, economy, culture, and morality”
OK, so this restriction sounds a bit like… well, like propaganda. And rest assured – it is. But the fact remains that you’re not allowed to bring out any material – whether print, film, audio, or computer files – that China deems inappropriate. And since that changes on a daily basis, I’d be extra careful not to have anything in my suitcases or carry on bags susceptible of raising the ire of a customs official who may or may not be having a particularly bad day.

7) Fireworks
This technically falls into that whole annoying “explosives” category, so as much fun as Chinese fireworks can be, unfortunately you can’t take any home to share with mom and dad. This just means, however, that you’ll be forced to set fire to all your fireworks before you leave the country, which is some consolation in itself…

8) The national currency of China (exceeding 6,000 RMB)
China’s extremely protective of its currency and doesn’t like it floating about all willy-nilly. Hence, you’re only allowed to carry a total of 6,000 RMB in to and out of the country per trip. This may be a problem if you’ve recently closed down your Chinese bank account and had quite a bit of pinkies left in there, so check with your bank about ways to transfer your money from your Chinese bank account to one in your home country. And remember – if you’re declaring more foreign currency when exiting than you did when entering China, you have to obtain a “Taking Foreign Currency out of the Customs Territory” warrant, issued by the China State Foreign Exchange Administration Bureau.

9) Endangered plants/seeds
Be careful when buying and bringing back seeds or plants of any kind from China – even those you think are harmless very well may be endangered. With over 4,000 varieties of plants on China’s endangered list (that’s 1/5 of the country’s entire plants species, folks), chances are you’ll come across at least a few during your stay. Many of the plants are commonly used in Chinese traditional medicine, such as ginkgo, ginseng, and nutmeg.

10) Antiques
In addition to its currency, China is also quite proud (as it should be) of its ancient relics and antiques. This is why any unauthorized antiques are not permitted to leave the country. So be sure that any antiques that you purchase have official appraisal marks, which are given by the Chinese Culture Administration Department, and that you’re given the legal export sales warrant, which means the item has been given permission to leave the country. You’ll also need to declare at customs the antiques you purchased so they can review the appraisal marks and sales warrant.
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