Borders and Customs: Do You Need to Declare Your Crypto?

When arriving in the United States – and most other countries – customs officials often ask that travelers fill out a form to declare various items. Most of this is to try and catch various contraband items, unapproved foods, and exotic (dangerous to native ecosystems) animals from entering the country. However, these forms also ask about carrying certain amounts of money. This begs the question: if you have a mobile client or a hardware wallet, do you need to claim it? What if you simply memorized your private keys? Wouldn’t this just be treated like a debit card? 

Do I need to declare?

Many travelers have already had to fill these forms out. In the United States, Customs asks if travelers are carrying more than US$10,000 or its equivalent on them in cash. This is largely to prevent money-laundering and other nefarious activity.

But those who have more than ten grand in their bank accounts need not claim their debit cards on these customs forms. Wouldn’t the same apply to having over US$10,000 in cryptocurrency on a mobile wallet, hardware wallet, or in an account for which the individual has memorized his or her seed phrase or private keys?

Probably not, I would argue. Bank accounts are exempt because these can be controlled and frozen. Essentially, having money in a bank means the account holder has given up control of that money; they’ve given over custodianship of these funds to a third party. While the third party should be beholden to its customer, there is always the possibility that it won’t keep the customer in mind. The money stays in the bank, and the account holder requests that they be granted access to their money when using their debit card or withdrawing cash.

Cash, or money over which an individual has full control is really what’s being targeted here. Crypto acts similarly to cash (but is far more secure) in that whoever holds the ability to spend it is the one who owns it. So it is likely that in the future we will see customs require individuals to claim their cryptocurrency holdings, including those that are stored in mobile or hardware wallets, as well as those for which individuals memorize the associated private keys.

I know what many of you are thinking, because was thinking it too: “What if I just don’t tell them?” It would be hard for them to follow up, and most customs agents have no idea what cryptocurrency is. Wouldn’t it be too much of a hassle to explain that knowing a phrase or an app on a phone can have access to funds which may be worth  more than $10K? Perhaps, but it’s about to get way worse if one were to withhold that information.

S.1241, also known as the Combating Money Laundering, Terrorist Financing, and Counterfeiting Act of 2017, might – among other things – make withholding information about one’s cryptocurrency holdings a felony. Private keys are also under attack in this bill, which shows how scary truly private money is to public institutions.

However, it doesn’t need to be scary to them. They should see crypto as something that can enhance the lives of their citizenry. I’ll be reaching out to my representative and senator to express this opinion, and to express my displeasure with the aforementioned bill.