Shipping, Border, Import Laws

Bringing Wine Back to Canada After an International Trip

This article summarizes the laws that apply when a person travels to another country and then brings wine for personal consumption back with them to their home province at the end of the trip. Please note that other articles apply for the following situations:

Bringing Wine Back Between Provinces After a Trip

Shipping Wine Between Provinces (i.e. not bringing it back with you)

So you are taking a vacation abroad? Maybe to a nice wine producing area like France, Italy or California. And you would like to bring some wine back with you?

Duty Free Allowance

How much can you bring back? Well, the duty-free allowance (following trips of 48 hours or more) for bringing wine back to Canada is only 1.5 litres per person which is a rather miserly 2 bottles. You are allowed to bring back 8.5 litres of beer but only 2 bottles of wine. See CBSA site for the limits. If you are within the duty-free allowance, you won\’t have to pay anything extra. Technically, there is zero duty-free allowance for alcohol for trips of less than 48 hours. If you are lucky and have a nice customs person (of which there are quite a few), you might be allowed to bring back more. 

Charges & Fees Above Duty Free Allowance (For Wine Accompanying Traveller – Not for Wine that is Shipped Separately)

If you are above the duty-free limit but within the import limit for your province (45 litres for BC), you will have to pay applicable taxes, markups and duties. In BC, those charges are more than 100% of the value of the wine – that will quickly negate any savings.

As an example, for BC only, here are the extra charges that you may have to pay on wine above your duty-free allowance. For each 750 ml of bottle, the fees are as follows:

Customs Duty: $0.00 on U.S. wine, $0.03 on most other wine
Excise Duty: $0.49

5% of (purchase price + customs duty + excise duty)

BC Liquor Board Markup: 85% of (purchase price + customs duty + excise duty) with a minimum fee of $1.83 and a maximum of $12.75
PST: 10%

Generally, the border fees will exceed the amount that you paid for the wine at retail. So, for example, on an $8.00 bottle of wine, you will pay almost an additional $10 at the border. Only 91 cents of that goes to the federal government. The rest are provincial fees, mostly Liquor Board markups and fees.

However, you should note that because the LDB markup/fee caps out a maximum of $12.75 per bottle, and depending upon the price of the bottle, the personal import of more expensive wine may be economic. It is important to have receipts for all wine that is imported in the manner set out above – particularly if you are picking up wine that you have ordered online.

IMPORTANT: the above charges are only valid in the \”traveller stream\” (i.e. for individuals returning from a trip with liquor accompanying them). They are not valid if you try to import the wine yourself without going on a trip or if you arrange to have it shipped to you while you are away. In these latter situations, the import process is very complicated and the charges may be even higher. At the present time, I do not recommend that any BC resident have wine shipped to BC from abroad.

Comparisons With Other Jurisdictions

By contrast, the United States allows 1 litre of wine for its residents to bring back duty-free (less than Canada!) but the duty and tax rates on anything over the limit are extremely low: 3% duty (not applicable for Canadian wine due to NAFTA) plus maybe some other IRS or state taxes if applicable. In addition, I am told that even these amounts are not often charged on reasonable amounts that are brought back.

For even greater contrast, look at the EU: for example, if you go over to France from England, you can apparently bring back up to 90 litres of wine without problem! See HM Customs page for wine import information .

Differences Between Provinces

The fees levied at the border within Canada vary depending upon what province you return into. As a result, your return point of entry may dramatically affect the fees: see this CBSA (Canada Customs) memorandum which sets out the details of border tax collection. For example, if you are a resident of BC but return to Canada via Alberta, you will be charged the Alberta markups when you re-enter Canada (this is because Canada Customs does not have the jurisdiction to levy fees from one province in a different one). The fees in BC are very high for low to moderately priced wine. By contrast, in Alberta there is a flat per bottle fee charged, around $3 per bottle.

For Ontario: import info is here on the LCBO site. For Quebec: import info is here on the SAQ site.

Legal Authority to Collect Border Charges

There is no doubt that CBSA (Canada Customs) has the authority to collect taxes and duties at the border when you return to Canada. However, the vast majority of the amounts charged on wine (and other alcohol) are not taxes or duties … they are liquor board markups. Liquor board markup is legally not valid as a tax (although all the revenue still goes to the relevant provincial government). It is imposed by the various liquor boards on the legal basis that they \”own\” the liquor in question and, as such, can levy whatever profits and fees they like on it. However, a small problem arises at the border because you, as the traveller, have already purchased the liquor (i.e. you own it) when you are bringing it back. In order to fix this, the liquor boards have created an artificial legal structure whereby they vest the customs officer with the power to act as an agent of the liquor board. The customs officer/liquor board agent then technically expropriates (seizes) your liquor from you (without compensating you) and will then release it back to you only when you pay all of the markups and fees. Don\’t believe me? Check out section 19 of the Liquor Distribution Act. There is also some federal legislation (which clearly relates only to tax), an \”order-in-council\” (which doesn\’t add much) and an agreement between the CBSA and the LDB.

Personally, I have some doubts as to the legal validity of this structure since the liquor board appears to be using its statutory monopoly power as a regulator to impose markups at levels which are excessive in order to discourage competition with its retail arm. For example, the markups discussed above are applied to the full retail price that you paid for the wine. Since markups are applied to the wholesale cost within BC and since the liquor board has no costs associated with your imported purchase, it seems punitive to impose this level of markup. In addition, since BC wine purchased directly from a winery has zero markup, it seems unfair (NAFTA? GATT?) to charge these levels of markup at the border when you purchase wine in exactly the same way from a winery in WA, OR or CA.

But until someone challenges it, that\’s the legal authority.


Retail and Distribution Laws

Private Transactions of Wine in BC

BC has extremely restrictive laws regarding the sale of wine (and all liquor). These laws stem from the prohibition era and may not make much sense to you.

Nevertheless, the end result of the law is that wine cannot be sold in BC unless it is sold under a license issued by the Liquor Control and Licensing Branch. There are no exemptions for private sales or for sales of wine through auction unless you go through the LDB. The relevant law (s.38 of the Liquor Control and Licensing Act ) reads as follows:

38  (1) Except as provided in this Act, the Liquor Distribution Act or the regulations made under those Acts, a person must not, personally or by his or her clerk, employee or agent, keep for sale, sell or, in consideration of the purchase or transfer of property or for other consideration, give liquor to another person.

(2) Despite subsection (1), a delivery service may purchase liquor on behalf of a customer during the days and hours for sale of liquor prescribed in that area and deliver the liquor to the customer, if the charge for the liquor is no more than the liquor store price plus the delivery service charge.

(3) A licensee must not sell liquor except

(a) liquor purchased from the Liquor Distribution Branch, and

(b) in accordance with this Act, the regulations and the terms and conditions of the licence.

As you will notice, this law is very broad in that, unless you are specifically permitted to do so by that statute or the Liquor Distribution Act, you cannot sell liquor, you cannot keep it for sale, you cannot give it to another person if you receive any "consideration" for the transfer. Of course, the two statutes that are mentioned basically only permit sales if you have a license from the LCLB. 

As a result, it is illegal in BC to sell liquor privately or to barter it or otherwise trade it for consideration. This applies even if you originally bought the liquor from a government source such as a BC Liquor Store. So you cannot legally sell or auction your old bottles of wine in BC. You can't legally trade them either. All you can do with them is drink them!

Latest News

Wine Labelling Laws: Lessons from CA

There is an interesting article on California\’s wine labelling laws in the San Francisco Chronicle today . It covers the issues and obstacles that the Napa Valley Vintners have had in dealing with new sub-appellations within the larger designated California appellations such as Napa and Sonoma. The article explains the problems that arose when a new sub-appellation was proposed for Calistoga which affected the winery, Calistoga Cellars, which buys most of its grapes from outside Napa.


Labelling and Content Laws

Content and Labelling Laws for BC (Detailed)

The Wines of Marked Quality Regulation is the guts of BC\’s new wine labelling and content regulation. It creates 2 categories of wine: 1) the familiar \”BC VQA\” wine category which is actually a slightly watered down version of the old one, and 2) a new lesser category, the \”BC Wine of Distinction\”. BC VQA wines must meet all the requirements of the BC Wine of Distinction plus some additional ones (the most contentious of which is a taste test).

Latest News

Costco Loses Rehearing in WA

Costco has lost its bid to have its arguments reheard by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington in a case involving restrictions on beer and wine pricing . Previously, the court had ruled that most of Washington's state rules controlling discounts on beer and wine were permissible. Costco sought to have the case reheard.

Labelling and Content Laws

Overview of Content and Labelling Laws for Wine in Canada

This article is currently not comprehensive and will be expanded as time permits me to do so. There is currently a patchwork of content and labelling laws in place in Canada with no consistent national standards (although there is an ongoing initiative to do this).

Relevant Federal Laws

Food and Drugs Act (Canada)

Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act (Canada)

Relevant British Columbia Laws

Wines of Marked Quality Regulation (made under the Agri-Food Choice and Quality Act )

Relevant Ontario Laws

Ontario Wine Content and Labelling Act

Explanation: BC Rules

This article provides a detailed overview of the wine content and labelling laws for BC .

In addition, the BC LDB (and other provincial liquor boards) require that any wine labels distributed in BC are approved by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. The CFIA has an online guide to their wine labelling requirements here (see chapter 10 particularly).

Please also be aware that if you intend to distribute your product outside Canada, there will likely be requirements in the destination country. For example, all wine sold in the U.S. must get label approval from the federal Alcohol Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau (TTB).