Dateline: Hong Kong

Some of these people needed a wheelbarrow for their money.

Even after being placed in the Premier line, I spent what seemed like a good part of the morning waiting in line at HSBC. Such is not abnormal as the Chinese Lunar New Year approaches and everyone in Hong Kong descends upon their local bank.

The idea is to exchange bank notes to give away as gifts. Basically, people are here to make change. And lots of it.

The guy in front of me withdrew what looked like about HK$150,000 – almost $20,000 – in $100 and $500 banknotes. The lady in front of him must have had a much larger gift list, because she took out so many stacks of $20 notes that my duffel bag might not have held them.

And in each of these cases, the biggest challenge for the customer was getting their cash through the window in the bulletproof glass. The second hardest part was waiting for the cash counting machines to tally up the loot.

Thank goodness a banker reminded me that my simple deposit could be made at an ATM or else I would have been standing there all morning.

The problem these people didn’t have was getting strange looks or having the police called on them. No forms were filed for their withdrawals or exchanges. No government bureaucracy was informed they were walking around with too much cash.

Hong Kong is one of the few remaining countries to abhor the War on Cash. Here, cash is acceptable. It’s good.

There is nothing illegal about possessing cash, nor does anyone care. You’re not a tax dodger just because you have it.

Of course, Hong Kong is one of the few places that thinks that way. I wrote just how easy cash was to handle here even two years ago.

However, Hong Kong is unique. Most countries, especially one as small as this, have currency restrictions and currency reporting requirements that require you to fill out forms and speak to hacks in the customs office to declare your cash.

These countries parrot the line that such cash reporting requirements are not capital controls, and I suppose they aren’t. Until some airport security guy or customs officer unilaterally decides that your cash must have been earned illegally… and takes it.

With western governments getting increasingly desperate, even an elderly Mexican restaurant owner in Iowa starts to look like a criminal – at least to those guys – for using cash.

Add in the lockdown status most western airports are in and the War on Cash is on full display in the world’s airports.

We compiled the currency reporting requirements for a number of countries to show you which countries are easy to carry cash in, and which are less forgiving. Make sure you note the local currencies used.

Currency reporting requirements around the world

Australia. Traveling in or out of Australia with AU$10,000 or more requires you file a form before travel. Not very easy to travel out of Australia without using an airport.

China. A country that requires forms for bringing in milk powder surely requires forms for currency. You can bring US$5,000 OR RMB 20,000 in or out. Remember that China has strict limits on the transfer of its renminbi currency. Gold and silver, even in necklace form, should be reported when exceeding 50 grams.

The European Union. An oral declaration is required for amounts of €10,000 or more when traveling between two EU countries, say from Germany to Italy. When travel involves a non-EU country, you are required to file a written currency reporting form.

India. Foreign currency of US$5,000 in cash or US$10,000 in travelers’ checks, or more, must be declared. It is illegal to import Indian rupees unless you’re a resident of India returning with pocket change. It’s basically illegal to leave with rupees, too.

Mexico. Mexico technically requires all foreign currency to be declared upon arrival, and only what’s left over to be taken out when you leave. Mexican pesos in the US dollar equivalent of up to $10,000 don’t have to be declared.

Switzerland. You may import or export any amount of Swiss francs or foreign currency without any reporting obligation.

Thailand. For a military dictatorship, Thailand’s exemption on traveling with cash is reasonable; you can take US$20,000 or its equivalent in or out without any obligation to report. Importing or exporting Thai baht is a bit different, with only THB 50,000 being allowed to transit unless you’re going to one of several ASEAN countries, in which country the limit is often higher. Of course, the imperious Thais made sure to insert this draconian clause for those who do report currency: “A person who reports currency has to answer truthfully any questions that a border services officer asks about the information required for the report.”

United Kingdom. While Great Britain is part of the European Union, it has slightly different currency reporting procedures. Travel from non-EU countries requires the same disclosures on €10,000 and up, but does not require an oral declaration for those traveling from other EU Member countries.

United States. The United States requires the reporting of $10,000 or more in financial instruments carried in or out of the country. Anyone with this amount or more must file Form FinCEN 105. People or family members traveling together can not “structure” their cash amongst each other to avoid individual reporting.

What currency to declare to customs

Keep in mind that the War on Cash also applies to carrying other financial instruments. And remember that the government claims that carrying such instruments in large quantities isn’t illegal or dutiable… just reportable.

Until, that is, some guy at a desk claims you must have received the money by committing a crime. This can happen even on domestic flights.

In addition to hard currency like coins and bills, you must also declare foreign currency, securities, stocks and bonds, travelers checks, money orders, promissory notes, payable interest coupons, and similar financial instruments.

It’s really all up to a customs officer’s interpretation, but assume the law mandates anything monetary. Precious metals are also subject to reporting.

For precious metals, I generally tend to believe that most countries want you to report based on the street value of any gold or other metals you’re carrying, not the cheeky argument of the face value printed on the mint coin.

Some countries like those in the European Union require you to report gems, which don’t carry a face value. It would be up to you to document their value and, I presume, bear the burden of proof at customs at avoid confiscation.

If you’re looking to avoid the watchful eye of government, you’re likely create as much of a paper trail carrying your cash through the airport as you are simply wiring it overseas.

For gold and silver, it can be shipped by logistics companies that handle all of the dirty work, which I highly recommend. Or, you could simply sell it at home and buy it back overseas for more privacy, since overseas gold stored in a private vault is non-reportable.

Of course, none of this should be construed as legal or professional advice. You often can’t trust these guys to interpret any law the same way twice.

Andrew Henderson
Last updated: Sep 25, 2020 at 10:58PM