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October 2019    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 45, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Bringing Underwater Camera Gear to Dive in Mexico?

it just may cost you

from the October, 2019 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

If you travel to Baja California with lots of camera gear, you better have a pocketful of cash. Mexican Customs and Immigration officials are slamming divers with a tax on their photo gear when they pass through Los Cabos Airport Customs, and most likely elsewhere. Undercurrent published a letter by Rene Cote (Richmond, VA) about it in July.

The latest victim is subscriber Mary Anne Pedoto (Hamilton, OH), who told us, "my Pelican case was searched at immigration in August, and they pulled everything out that looked like camera gear, including my small drone. They wanted to know what the value of these things was, before informing me that there is now a 60 percent tax on all camera gear and drones.

"I was taken into another room, and there were two other women who had been tagged as well. I was tapped for $192; the others had smaller equipment and got by with less. They did give me a piece of paper [recibo or factura -- receipt] that said my camera gear is covered for [re-entry] for a year. Since I have another trip in February, I hope this is true, but I don't trust that piece of paper. They only got me for my Nauticam GH5 housing and the drone. The Panasonic Lumix GH5, four Sola lights and Olympus lens were hidden in my backpack.

"Several people mentioned that some Chinese pros got taken for thousands. Others in our group [she was in a group led by David Haas, master photographer] got taken. They said it's a new rule."

So, we wondered, is this a new rule, or just customs officials on the take, since they want only cash?

As it turns out, it is a rule -- though it may have been improperly enforced against Mary Anne -- and has been on the books for some time.

The Rule

You are allowed to temporarily import up to two cameras or two video cameras (or combination of the two) for personal use. A GoPro or similar POV camera counts as one. Drones over 4 pounds require a permit and license and cannot be flown in protected areas or natural parks without a permit obtained in advance.

In addition, you may bring a laptop, notebook, omnibook or similar; a portable copier or printer; a CD burner and a portable projector, with its accessories.

Any more than that, and you will be hit with a stiff tax.

Enforcement Began This Year

Jenny Collister of Reef & Rainforest told Undercurrent that since last April, Mexico Customs has been hassling some tourists bringing cameras in, taxing some of her clients for their cameras.

Why since April? Let us speculate. While Mexico loves American tourism, the government does not love Donald Trump's tariffs or his border policies, so enforcing existing customs laws is one way to raise cash in response. Welcome to the trade and immigration wars.

Luke Inman, of Cortez Expeditions, La Paz, told Undercurrent, "We had a customer try to enter the country with two DSLR bodies, a drone and a GoPro, and they charged 16 percent tax on the price paid for GoPro but they would not allow the drone through."

Customs officials word-wide have discretion and some may bend the rules or waive the duty, sometimes if they simply like you. However, these days, it appears Mexican agents are less forgiving and are toughening enforcement of their customs laws (just as American custom agents collect duty on foreign travelers at our airports). To try to get a better bead on the policy, we contacted the Department of Tourism in Tijuana, but a tight-lipped official said he could not comment on decisions by Mexican Customs officials.

Inman suggests that some underwater photographers demonstrate a sense of entitlement that can cause problems, as can their assumption that Mexican officials are automatically corrupt. Playing that card will only get you in deeper trouble.

Traveling with your camera installed inside its underwater housing can avoid mistakes, in that an official might think the housing is also a camera. To avoid an arbitrary or excessive evaluation for your equipment, carry original dated receipts showing when and what you originally paid for your camera equipment. Furthermore, a working knowledge of Spanish can help, especially if you keep that undisclosed at first.

Most importantly, carry a copy of the website info below (in Spanish) to show you've done your research and help you avoid the over-zealous agent who ignores the three or more camera rule and tries to hit you for everything. But, you'll have to speak up, be gracious and persistent. Keep in mind, they have the last word, which might be confiscation, a trip to the hoosegow, or a ticket on the next flight home.

Long-time Undercurrent subscriber David Haas (Stow, OH) gave us what he calls some "old guy's" advice for traveling with cameras:

"I pack my stuff in a plain Jane plastic suitcase. I've done this for decades with full-sized SLR systems, multiple strobes, etc., and my case never drew attention that it might contain photo gear or anything valuable.

"If I do get inspected, I'm polite but do things to not make it easy to get taken advantage of. I'll ask lots of questions, say I don't understand ("no habla"), and if asked about the value of my photo gear my response is 'Oh, I can't remember what I paid. It's so old and likely not worth anything.'

"I'll ask for a supervisor if they keep insisting on some payment, I'll need a receipt, I don't have spare cash, what's your badge number and name so I can claim it when I get home with my insurance, etc."

Lastly, he says he doesn't dress in an opulent manner so that he looks like he's willing to part with spare dollars.

His ad advice is applicable world-wide, especially in Third World countries where officials can be arbitrary or even corrupt when collecting duty. But, bear in mind that you are "playing away" and that the rules of the country you visit supersede those of your own country.

And these days, it seems like the duty rules of Mexico, at least at the Cabo airport, apply to your camera gear, and you'd better just go with the flow.

For more information on what will be taxed when you enter Mexico, go to:

For further guidance for traveling to Mexico from the U.S. and Canada, use this toll-free number: 1 877 44 88 728.

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