T.J.’s Guide to Cross-Border Beer Buying
If you are Canadian and are curious about bringing back some of that great American craft beer over the border, this article is for you. For Canadians who want to pick up some craft brews from the States that are not available in their province, the only option is to travel there and pick them up yourself. Maybe you will be traveling there anyway, for a vacation, a wedding, on business, or a little Black Friday shopping. Maybe you are like me, a die-hard beer geek and, also like me, you have planned out a beer-themed road trip through the United States. Whatever the case may be, if you are curious about bringing back some beer across the border, there are a few things you should know.
For anyone who has looked into the laws about bringing beer from the US to Canada, you will know that the information currently available online is very limited. When planning my road trip to Dogfish Head brewery, I wanted to know exactly how much beer I could bring back and calculate how much tax I would have to pay if I went over the limit. On the Border Information Services website, I found the basic info that is recognizable to anyone who has ever had to fill out a Customs form at an airport. The website explains that [in Quebec] “Over 48 Hours: You may bring in up to $800 worth of goods which may cover a portion of your alcohol and tobacco expenditures. Exemption limits are: 24 times 355 ml (8.5 L) containers of beer” (check the website for other Provinces). Ok, but what if you want more?
For anyone who follows their favorite breweries on Facebook or Twitter, visits beer blogs, or reads reviews on Beer Advocate or Rate Beer, this exemption is just a tease! If you are interested in bringing home beer you have only ever read about, 24 bottles feels painfully limiting. I speak from experience; in my case, I was already paying for a rental car, hotels, gas, food, and everything else that goes into a fun road trip. If I want bragging rights, 8.5 litres is nothing!
Excess Limit and fees
What else is there? Well, if you keep reading through the very dense and very boring Border Information site like I did, you will eventually find this little tidbit: “Markups and Fees on Non-Commercial Importations of Intoxicating Liquor” (link here). This chart has information on the excess of duty-free entitlement. In other words, you are allowed bringing in more than the duty-free limit, but you need to pay excess fees for it.
This duty-free excess tax varies on both the cost and on the quantity, with charges varying widely, depending on where you live. How widely do they vary, you ask? Well, the cost ranges between $0.01/oz (Nova Scotia) all the way to $1.13/litre (British Columbia). The limits on quantity for duty-free excess range from a maximum of 9 litres (Quebec) to 45.45 litres (Alberta). Oh, and Manitoba has no limit. Yeah, you read that right. If you want to drive a beer truck from the States back to Canada you can, as long as you’re heading to the “glorious and free” province of Manitoba.
Alright, now we know how much we can bring back for free, what the total limit of beer is, and how much it will cost per litre after our entitlement. To recap that for Quebecers, you have 8.5L duty-free and another 9L at a cost of $0.40/litre. Unfortunately, that’s not all. There is another charge to consider that is levied on you when crossing the border. This charge is not mentioned on the Canadian Border Information Service website, and the only way to get it is to call Border Information Service: 1-800-461-9999. If you do that, they will tell you that you are also charged on your excess cost per bottle.
In other words, you are taxed twice: the first is displayed in the chart (link here) and varies per province (Quebec is $0.40/litre). The second is an “unknown” percentage based on the cost of each bottle. No, I am not making this up. Three different border agents told me that they could not tell me what the percentage was. They told me that they simply entered the information into their systems and the computer then told the guard how much to charge you.
Rule of Thumb for Excess Fees
While the Border Information Service cannot give you the percentage that they will charge you at the border, they can give you the exact total of your inventory over the phone. I made a rough estimate of your average beer prices for quality craft beers in different formats and then gave it to them for an average. Practically speaking, you can use these measurements for a quick calculation of what the excess fees will be on your imported beers at the border.
- Average small format beer bottle size: a 355 ml bottle of beer that costs $5 will have a $0.76 tax at the border per bottle
- Average large format beer bottle size: a 750 ml bottle of beer that costs $15 will have a $3 tax at the border per bottle
Now I can plan out a rough estimate of what my “souvenirs” will cost me at the border. Crossing the border from the U.S. back into Quebec, I would declare the maximum amount of beer allowed (8.5L duty-free exempt + 9L excess). At the border, I would declare a maximum 17.5L of beer and expect to pay the excess fees using the following formula: 25 bottles of beer (or roughly 9L) X $0.40/litre X $0.76 per bottle = $61.60 (see chart for quantity limits and cost per bottle in various provinces).
Keeping things in order
If you are planning on bringing back some craft beers across the border, I highly recommend keeping track of your purchases. Whenever crossing the border, you are obligated to show your receipts for all things purchased while on vacation anyway. What I have found is that handing over a list of my purchases with the cost and quantity of beer clearly written out makes my life a lot easier at the border. I simply printed out a tracking chart listing the names, quantity, and cost of the beer I bought and fill it out as I shop. This makes the border guard’s life easier and will speed up your stop as well. You can download the excel file beer tracker here; trust me, it’s a good idea.