Can Minors Cross the Border to Buy Alcohol?
Posted: February 8, 2023
Many American teens and young adults eagerly wait for their 21st birthdays to be allowed to buy alcohol legally. Those who live close to an international border, however, are often tempted by another option. While Americans have to wait until 21, the drinking age in Mexico and Canada is lower.
Before hopping in the car and heading to your nearest border crossing, however, it’s important to know whether or not you can get into legal trouble by trying to take advantage of another country’s lower drinking age.
The Drinking Age in Mexico
America’s neighbors to both the north and the south allow alcohol to be purchased by people younger than 21. The minimum legal drinking age in Mexico is 18 in all of the country’s 31 states and Mexico City. While the law states that any person attempting to buy alcohol must show valid photo identification, it is commonly assumed that laws governing the drinking age in Mexico are less strictly enforced than they are in the United States.
The Drinking Age in Canada
To the north, the drinking age in Canada varies by province or territory. Even so, the legal drinking age in all provinces is between 18 and 19, so Americans just short of the legal drinking age in their state may be able to purchase alcohol in the Great White North. While three provinces (Quebec, Manitoba, and Alberta) that share a border with the US have the same drinking age as Mexico, alcohol laws are generally more strictly enforced in Canada than they are south of the border.
Crossing the Border with Alcohol
US citizens under the age of 21 can travel across the border to purchase alcohol, but bringing it back into the United States is a different story. Although U.S. state and federal governments may not be able to control what people do outside of their jurisdiction, attempting to bring alcohol (or any other controlled substance) back into the U.S. is subject to state and federal laws.
According to US Customs and Border Patrol (USCBP), if you have traveled outside of the country, you are only allowed to bring back alcohol provided that you meet three criteria:
You are at least 21 years old.
The alcohol you have is intended exclusively for your own personal use.
Importing alcohol does not violate the laws of the state in which you arrive.
Depending on how much you want to bring back, alcohol brought into the U.S. under these rules may also be subject to taxes and duties. The federal government makes an allowance for up to only one liter of alcohol duty-free, and anything beyond that is subject to customs duty, as well as any applicable state import taxes.
Penalties for Trying to Bring Alcohol Back Illegally
Attempting to circumvent these laws can result in a number of legal consequences. In the most lenient of cases, agents will simply confiscate the alcohol, but fines and jail time are both very real possibilities as well. Additionally, being caught attempting to smuggle anything over the border will usually result in your passport being flagged by USCBP, meaning that you are far more likely to be searched every time you attempt to cross the border after that.
Americans who travel across the border and get drunk are also still bound by public intoxication laws once they come back stateside. This means that even if someone underage can prove that they purchased any alcohol they consumed legally, being drunk in any public place may still result in arrest and penalties.
Know the Laws with BookLawyer
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Neal Nagely is the founder and CEO of BookLawyer, a free legal information site for individuals and small businesses. Neal practiced law in Dallas, Texas for 10 years before creating BookLawyer to help people get answers to their legal questions and have affordable access to a lawyer when necessary.
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