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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Customs Can't Touch Your $10,000

VedomostiPassengers at Sheremetyevo waiting to go through the green channel customs line.
Editor's note: This is the first of two articles about taking money out of Russia.

This year Russians and foreigners can go abroad with more foreign currency cash than fits comfortably in the average wallet, and no risk of confiscation at customs. New rules, which are the most liberal in Soviet and post-Soviet history, have been applied at customs checkpoints since March, when an amendment to the law on currency regulation and control came into force.

Cash sums of up to $10,000 can now be carried out of Russia by writing the sum into a simple declaration, which is handed to customs at the airport or border crossing. Sums of up to $3,000 do not even have to be declared. Sergei Amelchenko, deputy head of the press office at the State Customs Committee, said that declaration of sums from $3,000 to $10,000 is purely for statistical records, and forgetful travelers who are caught with no customs declaration could expect indulgence.

"If someone is found to be carrying up to $10,000 without a declaration, he can simply agree with the customs officer what the sum is and fill out a declaration accordingly," Amelchenko said.

However, Margarita Petrova, a lawyer with the Moscow legal firm Vash Peverenny pointed out that the law permits a fine of 50 percent to 200 percent of the value of whatever should have been declared and/or its confiscation. Applied to cash, that is a maximum loss of $30,000, which could be avoided by spending 30 seconds filling out a customs form.

People who regularly come and go from Russia should also know the rules for carrying rubles across the border. A 1996 Central Bank letter with legal status sets a limit for cash ruble export by individuals at 500 times the average minimum monthly wage, which is currently calculated as 100 rubles.

The new rules for travelers with hard currency cash ended a particularly dark period for foreigners. From 1999 to 2003, nonresidents could not take out any foreign currency cash unless they had a stamped declaration to prove they brought it in themselves or a form to prove that it was transferred from abroad and paid out to them at a Russian bank.

"I used to go out with zero money, and I couldn't even make a phone call till I got to an ATM abroad, so it was part of my planning when I got to Amsterdam or New York either to find a machine at the airport or find a cab driver who would trust me for the ride to town," said Gerald Gaige, real estate partner at Ernst & Young in Moscow.

ATMs made the old cash-carrying rules absurd as a means of currency control, since money held on hard currency bank accounts in Russia could be freely withdrawn abroad using a plastic card without even breaking Russian law.

"Legislation on the issue and use of bank cards sets no limits on cash sums that can be withdrawn using such cards," Petrova said.

Nevertheless, customs officers were serious about enforcement. Gaige, who has been based in Russia for 10 years, said that he was asked to show the content of his wallet and pockets at customs on three occasions in that time, leaving the country about eight times a year.

The previous system was also discriminatory, since Russians were allowed to take out $500 and then later $1,500 without any documentation to justify ownership of the sum. That inequality is now a thing of the past.

"Residents and nonresident individuals now have absolutely equal rights as regards import and export of foreign currency cash," SCC's Amelchenko said.

Travelers who need to carry more than $10,000 in cash should beware: the only acceptable justification is a stamped customs declaration showing that the money was previously carried into Russia in cash. However, the stamped declaration is only needed to account for any sum in excess of the $10,000 threshold.

According to the deputy chairman of the State Duma budget committee Mikhail Zadornov, interviewed by Ekho Moskvy in October, Central Bank statistics show that sums under $3,000 represent about 80 percent of all cash currency being carried out of Russia.

The old system encouraged travelers to tempt fate by sneaking a few hundred extra dollars past customs. A law school graduate, who asked not to be named, was stopped at Sheremetyevo customs last year with a friend who was carrying $2,500 and lacked necessary documentation. (The limit then was $1,500.)

"We offered 10 percent of the total sum to the officer and nothing more said, but he wanted a third, which was greedy, so we refused and they confiscated the whole lot, saying that we had to pay a 100 percent fine for the excess," she said.

The graduate badgered Sheremetyevo customs until they provided paperwork to justify the confiscation, and then used her legal training to find fault with the papers in court, eventually getting the whole $2,500 back.

"They tangled with the wrong girl," she said.