International travelers are often worried about being asked to pay duty when they pass their laptop computers through customs. Although many people never have problems, there are many who do, according to the Los Angeles office of the U.S. Customs Service. Consequently, it's best to take some precautions.

With a few hundred countries in the world, you can be sure that there are an equal number of separate customs regulations. Yet when it comes to assuring a customs agent that a computer is not a very recent purchase, the procedure should be largely the same the world round. We'll use the U.S. as our example because in all immigration and customs matters it can be one of the more difficult countries in the world.

If you originate your trip in the U.S., generally no one really cares what you carry out of the country for your personal use on your trip, laptop included. But when you return, you may be asked to prove that you started your trip with the computer and didn't purchase it while out of the country. It is ironic that one often has more trouble bringing one's laptop home again than taking the computer into a foreign country in the first place.

"You'd be surprised how many people get asked," says an LA customs official.

According to the U.S. Customs Service, there are essentially two ways to protect yourself. First, you can take along some sort of proof of purchase or ownership. "Foreign-made personal articles taken abroad are dutiable each time they are brought in to our country," the Customs Service writes, "unless you have acceptable proof of prior possession." Documents that describe the article, such as a bill of sale, insurance policy, jeweler's appraisal, or receipt for purchase, may be considered reasonable proof of prior possession.

The second alternative is to register your laptop with the Customs Service prior to departure: "Items ? which may be readily identified by serial number or permanently affixed markings may be taken to the Customs office nearest you and registered before your departure."

This Certificate of Registration, accomplished with Form CF 4455, will merely contain a brief description of your computer and list appropriate serial numbers. There is no charge for the certificate, and it is good for as "long as it remains legible."

View a sample form

Form CF 4455 can be downloaded from the Web at Unfortunately, though, there's no way to register by phone, online, or in any way short of showing up at a Customs office in person together with your computer equipment.

The Customs Service's various Web sites all seem to recommend that you present yourself at a main Customs office, mostly located downtown in major U.S. cities. Such sites are extremely inconvenient for most people. Tracking down Customs officials at the airport from which you are about to hop on an international flight is usually more practical. But you are on your own when it comes to finding out where in each airport Customs officials may be located and during which hours they are available.

Best advice is to phone ahead.

Also, leave yourself some extra time. While the form is rather simple, you may have to queue up. And although the form is fairly routine, travelers report that officials often appear less than enthusiastic about offering the necessary stamps and signatures to validate the certificate.

Taking along the receipt for the purchase of the computer sounds like a good option, but is not always practical. First of all, it is often not you, but your company, that has purchased the computer, and the receipt is safely filed away in the accounting department. Even if you have access to the receipt, you may still prefer to keep it safe for accounting purposes. You could take a photocopy, but nowhere does the Customs Service actually say that a photocopy is acceptable proof.

In the end, a Form CF 4455 is your only sure proof that a foreign-made computer was purchased in the U.S. prior to your departure. Sooner or later you're going to find yourself with a long layover at a major U.S. airport, so make good use of your time by tracking down the Customs office. If you never wish to be hassled, make it sooner rather than later.

Until you pick up a Form CF 4455, be sure to travel with some ammunition. A photocopy of a receipt is not sure proof, but it will help you talk your way past an inquisitive Customs Agent, as will an appropriate letter from your employer and anything else you might dream up that establishes your computer's pretrip purchase.

One last thing: Be sure not to forget about significant peripherals, such as a printer, that you might take along. They, too, may be questioned.

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