Tag: hongbao

Two red envelopes with Chinese characters on them and stuffed with U.S. dollars.

Why some Chinese travel with cash leading to airport seizures

One question I face from most Americans when I tell them that our customs law firm helps people recover from money after customs money seizure is, “Why would anyone travel with all that money?”

Two red envelopes (hongbao) with Chinese characters on them and stuffed with U.S. dollars.
Some Chinese bring money in red envelopes (hongbao) for the Chinese new year celebration to give to family

It’s a good question.The answer? Many foreign governments, China in particular, restrict the amount and method that its citizens can take from the country via capital-controls; when the economy tanks or the currency is devalued, it increases the desire to move the money into another country before the market gets worse.

A few years ago the Wall Street Journal did a story about rich Chinese trying to get their money out of China, in the form of cash, that illustrates this point. The story is Chinese Fly Cash West, by the Suitcase and it provides some insight into why people travel with Cash from China, and why Customs seizes this money from them at airports:

China restricts private citizens from taking out more than $50,000 per individual per year. While it is hard to enforce these restrictions, Chinese authorities are scrutinizing outgoing private cash amid a broad anticorruption drive and as worry grows over the risks of capital flight.

The money seized at airports represents just a sliver of private Chinese money pouring out, but highlights that Chinese citizens are turning to one of the oldest and simplest methods to evade those controls: taking cash out in a suitcase.

The articles goes on to say:

From 2009 to 2011, U.S. airport customs officers seized over $5 million in undeclared cash from Chinese citizens, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. That is 8.4% of the total seized and more than double the nearest amount for another nationality.

Transporting large amounts of cash isn’t necessarily illegal. Travelers must declare cash over $10,000 when they land in Canada or the U.S. Most undeclared cash is temporarily seized and subject to fines. If customs agents believe the cash comes from illegal activities, the onus is on the traveler to prove otherwise before it is returned.

I would correct this final paragraph with a few legal subtleties. If any amount of money is undeclared to customs, all of the money transported may be seized and, if legitimate source and use are not proven to Customs, will be forfeited forever (i.e., lost). This burden is on the traveler whether or not Customs believe the cash comes from illegal activities. It must always be proven.

Moving cash from China subjects a person to fines in China:

In China, violators of Beijing’s rules on moving out cash are also subject to fines. From 2007 to 2011, China’s State Administration of Foreign Exchange levied such fines totaling 1.27 billion yuan ($202 million), according to the most recent data available.

The story goes on to state that seizures from 2009 to 2011 dramatically increased at airports in Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Houston and San Francisco for money seized by Customs from Chinese nationals. But the numbers seized by U.S. Customs were smaller than that seized by Canadian customs. Apparently because property rules rules and investor visas are easier to obtain.

The New York Times also published a story we tweeted about:

I’m sure the cash is flooding the U.S. market now for the same reasons. Customs will seize unreported money from any Chinese traveler or immigrant at any U.S. airport if they catch them.

Targeted Enforcement for Customs Money Seizure

How does customs target people for money seizures?

There are certain groups of people who are more likely to be transporting large amounts of money through airport customs. For example, people who come from largely cash based economies and people who for cultural reasons, do not trust banks or prefer to pay with and keep cash on hand. Walking around with more than $10,000 in cash is hard for a lot of Americans to understand because credit is easy and we are notoriously bad savers. I suspect many American’s would not think twice about having a $10,000 balance on their credit card, but those same people would be shocked to hear about someone walking around with $10,000 in cash.

Another example of people who are more likely to be transporting large amounts of money through customs are those travelling to the U.S. for an extended vacation or are staying for a long time to attend a university, work an internship, or immigrate from China, Korea, Iran or Indonesia, for example, and make a permanent residence in the United States . They might be carrying money with them to pay for tuition (which usually cannot be paid by credit card), books, expenses related to renting an apartment, buying car, purchasing health insurance, etc.

Why does customs target certain groups for money seizures?

From the perspective of customs, targeted enforcement of the more than $10,000 currency reporting requirement makes sense and any diligent customs officer who wants to make sure the currency reporting laws are enforced is going to target certain people de-planing from flights from certain countries or parts of the world.

Extended vacationers are easy to target by customs. Customs may review your itinerary (e.g., one way or return flight) and ask about the purpose of your visit to the United States. So when a customs officer asks, “How long are you staying in the United States?” and the response is, “A month,” one of the next few questions likely to be asked is going be, “And so how much money are you travelling with?” If you look nervous, or if they just do not believe you, there are likely going to search you and your luggage in a secondary inspection to verify whatever you tell them about how much money you are transporting.

What’s an example of a group targeted by customs for currency reporting purposes?

The Chinese New Year is coming up (1/31 to 2/6) and traditionally, Chinese people visit relatives and give cash gifts in red envelopes, called hongbao, during this holiday. You can read more about

Red Envelope (hongbao) Customs Money Seizure
Cash Filled Hongbao – Red Envelopes

this interesting cultural practice at Wikipedia. Chinese people living in the United States also celebrate the Chinese New Year. Chinese nationals travel to the United States to visit their family living here and bring with them hongbao red envelopes stuffed with cash from relatives back in China. It might be in certain “lucky” denominations, it might be for a wedding, a new baby, or just to help a young family out.

As a result, Customs might target flights from China for enhanced enforcement of the currency reporting requirement near and during the Chinese New Year and seize money for failure to report, bulk cash smuggling, or structuring violations (multiple red envelopes being transported on behalf of multiple relatives). Chinese nationals coming to the United States during the Chinese New year celebrations are probably going to be targeted by customs to make sure that they are reporting any amount over $10,000 in currency they are transporting into the United States, or if they fail to report, customs will seize their money and tell them to file a petition to get it back.

Customs seized my money! What do I do now?

If you have had money seized by customs please make use of the other information available on this website or call our office at (734) 855-4999 to speak to a customs lawyer, or e-mail us through our contact page. We are able to assist with cash seized by customs around the country, including Chicago, Atlanta, New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Orlando and many other places, and not just locally in Detroit.

Please read these other articles from our customs law blog:

  1. Seizure of currency and monetary instruments by U.S. Customs
  2. Seizure for bulk cash smuggling into or out of the U.S.
  3. Structuring currency imports and exports
  4. Is it $10,000 per person?  Under what circumstances is filing a report with Customs for transporting more than $10,000 required?
  5. Criminal & civil penalties for failing to report monetary instrument transportation
  6. Is only cash currency subject to seizure by Customs?
  7. Responding to a Customs currency seizure
  8. How do I get my seized money back?
  9. Getting money seized by U.S. Customs back while staying overseas
  10. How long does it take Customs to decide a petition for a currency/monetary instrument seizure?


Currency Seizures by U.S. Customs Increase on the Holidays

The holidays always seem to be ripe for currency seizures by U.S. Customs & Border Protection because of the increased amount of travel that invariably happens during the holidays. And when I say holidays, I do not mean those national and international holidays, too.

Whether you’re crossing the U.S.-Canadian border to participate in the the holiday festivities with your family, or you’re a Chinese national returning from China with a bagful of red envelopes (hongbao) from surprisingly generous relatives, or simply trying to get some money back to your family in Syria or Egypt who face a grave humanitarian crisis, we can help you get your seized money returned to you. If you have had currency seized and are contemplating what to do next, please make use of the other information I make available on this website or call my office at (734) 855-4999 or e-mail us through our contact page. Read about responding to a customs currency seizure.

So, it is no surprise that there will be an up-tick in currency seizures during this Fourth of July weekend. This news story was released yesterday and occurred on June 30, where CBP Officers Seizure $39,000 in Unreported Funds. It will probably be just the first in a string of currency seizures in the news.

Phoenix, Ariz. — A local man attempted to smuggle $39,100 in unreported U.S. currency into the United States from Angola.

On Sunday afternoon, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers assigned to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport were conducting inspections of arriving passengers on a British Airways flight referred a 67-year-old man for further inspection. During the search of the man’s luggage, officers found envelopes containing the large volume of unreported currency. The cash was processed for seizure.

The man was turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations.

Individuals arrested may be charged by complaint, the method by which a person is charged with criminal activity, which raises no inference of guilt. An individual is presumed innocent unless and until competent evidence is presented to a jury that establishes guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

CBP’s Office of Field Operations is the primary organization within Homeland Security tasked with an anti-terrorism mission at our nation’s ports. CBP officers screen all people, vehicles and goods entering the United States while facilitating the flow of legitimate trade and travel. Their mission also includes carrying out border-related duties, including narcotics interdiction, enforcing immigration and trade laws, and protecting the nation’s food supply and agriculture industry from pests and diseases.

We are able to assist with currency seizures around the country, including Chicago, Atlanta, New York, Los Angeles, Orlando and many other places, and not just locally in Detroit. Call (734) 855-4999 today.