[Last updated February 2015]
In this section we discuss how to move your physical precious metals around the world. By this we mean coins and bars already in your direct possession and part of your personal effects or belongings.
With few exceptions it’s perfectly legal to transport your precious metals across international borders. However, customs rules on whether you must declare or not declare them are vague and variable. This is where problems arise. Is your 1oz gold bar a “monetary instrument”? Is your legal tender 1oz gold Britannia coin with £100 face value considered cash?
Your experience at the border will depend on whichever official is on duty when you and/or your metals depart and arrive. If travelling personally with metals we recommend you treat them as cash equivalents and, if so required, declare them at market value. In preparation for any questioning you should educate yourself on the cash-carrying rules and requirements in your departure and arrival countries. Some border officials are hazy on the rules and requirements and it helps if you can remind them.
You can have a professional service transport your metals for you. Or you can do-it-yourself carrying your metals personally across international borders. We cover both options below.
In this section
Professional shipping services
Except for trivial amounts you shouldn’t use basic postal services to ship precious metals. In fact many national post offices explicitly prohibit it. For global door-to-door delivery this leaves us with insured courier services such as Fedex and specialty transport companies such as Loomis (formerly VIA MAT) or Brinks.
For very large portfolios of metals companies like Loomis and Malca-Amit are commonly employed. This is because they can act like a bailment service by transporting to/from secure vaults and storage facilities around the globe, including places like Zurich airport tax-free zone and Singapore Freeport. Full insurance can be arranged and paperwork and customs clearance is taken care of (don’t underestimate the benefits of this). For serious high rollers, Malca-Amit even have a precious metal division that can source and ship bullion on your behalf from refinery to vault.
If your portfolio of metals doesn’t stretch into the thousands of ounces then companies like Fedex and UPS can be relied upon to deliver smaller consignments. For some unknown reason Fedex is preferred in the jewelry and diamond trade, although we have used UPS without problems. DHL is the only courier we’re aware of who refuses to ship precious metals.
There are some considerations before entrusting your precious metals to a courier service:
- Insurance above $1,000 is typically not offered, so you may want to take out 3rd party insurance or take the risk yourself. Another way to lessen the risk is to ship your metals in several tranches;
- You must fill out a custom form(s) describing the goods, their value and fill in the Harmonized System (HS) code. You can find the relevant set of HS codes from World Customs Organization or from here (paid service). Monetary gold is code 7108.20. Non-industrial precious metals are exempt from duties in most countries, so it is in your best interests to include the correct codes;
- You are responsible for complying with custom rules. Get confirmation (via invoice or email) from your courier company about the paperwork and reporting requirements for your shipment and how they intend to comply with them.
Finally, a word of caution when exporting by courier. Many countries have obscure export laws relating to commercial goods. In the US for example, the Census Bureau requires you make a Shipper’s Export Declaration (SED) when you export some commercial commodities above a certain value threshold. See here. Ask your courier if you need an export licence. You shouldn’t as they’re personal not commercial goods, but it doesn’t hurt to check.
For smaller portfolios a series of personal visits to your target country(s) will likely suffice. Some of our best holidays have included personally transporting precious metals to and from foreign destinations.
There are no consistent rules governing the personal transportation of precious metals across international borders. Rules vary by country. For example, in the US at present it is not illegal – except for special embargoes on Sudan, Iran etc. – to travel with any quantity of precious metals on your person. The problem is that precious metals fall into a grey area because depending on the border, the day and the official you deal with they may or may not consider your metals as cash. And large sums of cash almost always must be declared at international borders.
Strictly speaking declaring your metals is required only insofar that gold and silver are explicitly described as “monetary instruments” or such like on any customs forms you must fill out. Often you’ll see public notices requesting reporting of precious metals or valuable commodities at security checks before departure, or at customs areas upon arrival.
In the US, this recent guidance from Customs and Border Protection states that for reporting purposes “negotiable monetary instruments” specifically includes gold coins, medals and bullion. Although this older ruling from the US Treasury Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) suggests precious metals in general are not considered a “currency” or “monetary instrument”. Meanwhile in the EU, the photo below is a typical sign requesting travelers with “commodities of exceptional value” in excess of EUR10,000 to declare them.
(click to enlarge)
Confused yet? Welcome to the awkward relationship between officialdom and precious metals.
For worry-free travel (at time of writing) we suggest the following when travelling between countries where the risk of encountering corrupt border officials is essentially zero. This means North America, EU, UK, Australia, Hong Kong etc.:
- Err on the side of caution. Do not carry more than a market value of 10,000 dollars, euros or pounds or whatever the local declaration equivalent is. Large sums of cash or valuable items always invite suspicion and inspection;
- If you must travel with metals with market value in excess of the declaration limit consider them as “valuables” or “monetary instruments” etc. and declare them. This includes any FinCEN form in the US such as Form 105 regardless of the ruling linked to above;
- Do some basic homework on customs rules in your departure and arrival countries before you leave. Learn the current rules and be able to reply confidently to questioning;
- If you can, bring receipts or other evidence that your metals are personal property and not commercial goods. Commercial goods may attract custom duties or confiscation due to not having an import/export licence. Personal property carried in your personal baggage should not.
If you are not 100% certain of the market / melt value of the gold items you are carrying use a valuer app for your Android or iOS device. (For silver Android or iOS). Having something like this to show to the customs officer demonstrates you’ve planned ahead and know the rules.
Opting to not declare – legal tender argument
If you would rather not declare, you can adopt the view that some gold and silver coins are legal tender. Therefore technically under legal tender laws their face value is their market value. American Eagles and British Britannias fall into this category as do Austrian Philharmonics and some other European coins.
In this way you can for example carry up to 199 x 1oz American Eagle gold coins through US customs and not declare them on the basis that they have only a $9,950 legal tender value. We know travelers do this successfully when travelling between US, Canada and Mexico. However, one traveler did have some trouble which you can read about here.
Nevertheless, we would rather play safe and value the 199 coins at market value and declare them. Transporting “monetary instruments” greater than $10,000 from/to US territory is perfectly legal but not declaring them on FinCen Form 105 could land you in a lot of trouble (and a similar situation exists in most other countries). For example, it could invite suspicion of money laundering or other criminal activities. Before going through US customs you should read about the FinCen Form 105 (find it here). Make sure you have filled it out correctly and have your facts straight should you be questioned. Having a print out of the FinCEN ruling linked to above wouldn’t hurt either.
Customs duty & import taxes
Generally speaking, duty and taxes are not payable when you take your precious metal coins and bars across international borders, as long as they are deemed to be part of your personal possessions – like the cash in your wallet, your clothes, laptop etc. Of course there is always the risk of running afoul of some exception, allowance or limit, obscure rule or definitional issue regarding your particular items at a particular border so you should check before leaving home.
Problems arise if your items are deemed to be “goods imported” or goods of a commercial nature. If this happens you will fall under a different set of rules. For example if you haven’t already paid VAT somewhere else then, in those countries that charge VAT (most of eurozone) a local VAT charge could be applied. Similarly, if you’re deemed to be “importing” items into Canada or Australia you may be required to pay the federal sales taxes on those items. Allowances, reliefs and special exceptions may or may not apply.
Check out these rules by Australian Customs on transporting gold coins and whether they’ll assess them as “personal effects”, a “normal importation”, or “not subject to assessment”.
Also see here for a useful online import duty and taxes calculator.