Currency Local banks usually offer better rates of exchange than hotels, restaurants, or stores. Rates are often posted in windows. Above all, avoid private currency transactions. In some countries, you risk more than being swindled or stuck with counterfeit currency _ you risk arrest. Avoid the black market --- learn and obey the local currency laws, wherever you go. Shopping Mail Small Items When you purchase small items, it is a good idea to mail them personally to your home or to carry them in your luggage. This will help prevent misdirected packages, no receipt of merchandise, or receipt of wrong merchandise. When you mail purchases, be sure to ask about insurance. American embassies and consulates abroad cannot serve as post offices. They cannot accept, hold, or forward mail for U.S. citizens abroad. Items mailed home are not eligible for your $400 personal exemption. If the item that you are mailing home is less than $200, duty will be waived. Be sure to write on the outside of the package that it contains goods for personal use. Value Added Tax (VAT) Some European and Asian countries levy a value added tax (VAT) on the items that you buy. In some places, if you ship your purchases home, the VAT can be waived. Other places may require you to pay the VAT, but have a system to refund all of it or part of it to you by mail. You can ask the store clerk for an application to apply for the refund. The VAT refund is only for items that you can ship or carry with you. It does not apply to food, hotel bills, or other services. Because the rules for VAT refunds vary from country to country, you should check with the country's tourist office to learn the local requirements. Beware When Making the Following Purchases: Wildlife Souvenirs Be careful when you buy articles made from animals and plants or when you purchase live, wild animals to bring back as pets. Some items, such as those made from elephant ivory, sea turtles, crocodile leather, or fur from endangered cats, and many species of live animals cannot be brought legally into the United States. Your wildlife souvenirs could be confiscated by government inspectors, and you could face other penalties for attempting to bring them into the United States. Do not buy wildlife or wildlife products unless you are certain that they are legal for import into the United States. Glazed Ceramics Beware of purchasing glazed ceramic ware abroad. It is possible to suffer lead poisoning, if you consume food or beverages that are stored or served in improperly glazed ceramics. Unless the ceramics are made by a firm with an international reputation, there is no immediate way to be certain that a particular item is safe. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends that ceramic tableware purchased abroad be tested for lead release by a commercial laboratory on your return or be used for decorative purposes only. Antiques Certain countries consider antiques to be national treasures and the "inalienable property of the nation." In some countries, customs authorities seize illegally purchased antiques without compensation, and they may also levy fines on the purchaser. Americans have been arrested and prosecuted for purchasing antiques without a permit. Americans have even been arrested for purchasing reproductions of antiques from street vendors because a local authority believed the purchase was a national treasure. Protect yourself. In countries where antiques are important, document your purchases as reproductions, if that is the case, or, if they are authentic, secure the necessary export permit. The documentation or export permit may be available through the country's national museum. A reputable dealer may provide the export permit or information on how to secure one. If you have questions about purchasing antiques, the country's tourist office can guide you. If you still have doubts, consult the Consular Section of the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate. In places where Americans have had problems because of purchasing antiques, the Consular Section is usually well aware of such situations. Consular officers can inform you about the local laws and the correct procedures to follow. Customs It is important that you keep all receipts for items you buy overseas. They will be helpful in making your U.S. Customs declaration when you return.