Here's What Happens if You Travel With More Than $10,000 in Cash

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KEY POINTS

  • You're required to file a form with U.S. Customs and Border Protection when entering or departing the United States with more than $10,000.
  • Failure to report this could lead to legal penalties, including seizure of your money.
  • Although you can travel with as much money as you want, it's safer not to carry large amounts of cash.

Travelers who don't follow reporting rules risk having their money confiscated.

Most people don't travel with more than $10,000 in cash all too often, but there are exceptions. You might need a large amount of money on your trip and figure the convenient option is to take it with you. Or, if you've been working internationally, you may want to bring back the money you've saved to the United States. Whatever the reason, if you're traveling with this much money, here's what you should know first.

You need to declare it when traveling internationally

It's legal to travel with more than $10,000 in the United States and abroad. You have the right to travel with as much money as you want.

However, during international travel, you need to report currency and monetary instruments in excess of $10,000. When entering or departing the United States with this much money, you're required to file FinCen Form 105 with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. You can file this form in advance online or while traveling by asking a CBP officer for a paper copy.

Many other countries have similar reporting requirements. For example, the European Union requires you to make a cash declaration if you're carrying 10,000 euros or more, or its cash equivalent. Make sure to review the laws for any country you're planning to visit.

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There are some important details to remember here. The ones below apply to entering and departing the United States with over $10,000, but other countries may have similar rules:

  • It's the combined value of all your currency and monetary instruments that matters. For example, if you have $7,000 and 5,000 euros, you would need to report that, because that's over $10,000 in value. The same is true if you have $5,000 and a $6,000 money order.
  • Members of a family residing in one household must declare if the members are collectively carrying over $10,000. If you and your wife are each carrying $6,000, you'd need to report that.
  • Pocket change matters if you're close to the limit. Let's say you have exactly $10,000 in your carryon. That's not more than $10,000, so you wouldn't need to report it -- unless you also have any other money on you, like $5 in your wallet.

If you don't report it, your money could be confiscated

Federal law on importing and exporting money is strict. If you break the law, whether knowingly or unknowingly, your money could be confiscated and forfeited. Even if the source of that money is completely legal, it may still be extremely difficult to get back.

The reason why is the controversial subject of civil forfeiture. Civil forfeiture allows law enforcement to seize and keep any money or property they suspect is involved in illegal activity. The owner doesn't need to be convicted of a crime or even arrested for law enforcement to do this.

But does this actually happen to people while traveling? Absolutely. From 2000 to 2016, U.S. law enforcement conducted over 30,000 seizures and took over $2 billion, according to the Institute for Justice. The most common reason for seizures was traveling internationally with more than $10,000 and failing to report it.

You can hire a lawyer and fight to get your money back. But lawyers aren't cheap, and fighting civil forfeiture is often a lengthy battle.

There are always risks to traveling with large amounts of cash

The most common scenario where traveling with over $10,000 could get you into trouble is if you don't declare it during international travel. That isn't the only risk, though.

While it's technically legal to travel domestically with this kind of money, it can arouse suspicion from law enforcement. And to reiterate, if law enforcement suspects your money is tied to illegal activity, they can seize it. People have had this happen to them, even while flying domestically within the United States.

Carrying lots of cash is also very risky from a personal finance perspective. Unfortunately, robberies can happen at any time. Even if it's unlikely, all it takes is one worst-case scenario, and you'll lose a significant amount of money.

Given the risks involved, and the reporting requirements when traveling internationally, it's better not to travel with over $10,000 or anywhere near it. It's much safer to just bring along a good travel credit card and use that for your travel spending. If you need cash in the local currency, you can likely get it at an ATM with your debit card. Or you can wire money to yourself from your bank account. Try to avoid carrying too much cash, and you'll save yourself a lot of stress.

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