That Time We Carried $20,000 Across The Border

by Guest Writer - Published November 24, 2017

international money map

[What up, what up! If you’ve ever considered transporting large amounts of cash across international borders, this post is for you ;) As told by Sarah Li Cain from High Fiving Dollars who hopes to never have to do this again! And if you’re reading this on Black Friday – good job. We’re running a site-wide sale today where everything’s 100% off :) Enjoy!]

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This is the true story of how we transported $20,000 in cash across international borders. I would have loved to been able to provide photographic evidence of this, but frankly I was scared out of my mind when my boyfriend (now husband) and I decided to actually go through with this.

Instead, here’s a photo of the two of us back in our youth:

sarah and husband

[please tell me why I thought those glasses were cool?]

Before I get into how we actually carried across all that money, let’s go over why we actually did it.

I lived in China for 8 years. I must have really liked it because that’s where I met my husband, got married and had a kid.

Among the cool things you get to do? Visit really crazy places. One of the most memorable places was a restaurant called “Modern Toilet” where you literally get served chocolate ice cream in toilet bowls. I’m not kidding.

modern toilet restaurant

[The food wasn’t bad!]

While there were many great things I loved about China, unfortunately the major drawback was their banking system. (It has gotten noticeably better over the years for expats, but at the time we were living there it was terribly frustrating)

Language barriers aside, doing any kind of international transactions was a pain in the ass. My husband and I each saved quite a bit of money in our accounts living there, and we both needed to transfer this money into our home country’s accounts to pay bills and for other reasons. This meant that every month or so, we had to go to the bank to do two wire transfers: one to my bank in Canada where I’m originally from, and another into my husband’s account in the U.S..

The rules in China, however, are that you’re only allowed to transfer a certain amount of money internationally every month. On top of that, whenever you wanted to make a transfer you not only needed your IDs, but a whole slew of paperwork as well. This included our work contracts, our Chinese tax returns, official declarations from the government about how much we made, and a stack of forms from the bank. There was also no online banking or instructions/bank tellers who spoke English there at the time (7 years ago), so we had to rely on Google Translate to figure everything out.

I waited at least two hours every time I went to the bank on a good day, and it wasn’t ever fun for the tellers either. They had to stamp every freaking piece of paper, get approval from the manager for every button they pressed on the computer, and all the while trying their best to speak broken English.

My husband didn’t fair any better during his visit either. In fact, he’d go multiple rounds trying to make the transfers happen while each time wasting two hours and then at the end being denied over and over!

We even tried giving Western Union a shot to see if it’d be any easier (and cheaper).

Nope.

We ended up paying almost 10% in fees alone and it was equally as frustrating.

Then one day my husband joked that we should just buy a briefcase and carry all our cash over when we both went home for the holidays.

I’m always up for a challenge, so why the heck not? What could go wrong?

It was about three months from the time we decided to bring cash across to the U.S. and Canada to when we actually did it. Our plan was to exchange our money into U.S. and Canadian currency first, hide it in our apartment, pack it all in a suitcase, and then deposit everything once we landed in our home countries.

We looked up the maximum amount we could each carry across the border, and it came out to $10,000 USD per family. Since my husband and I weren’t technically married yet, that meant we could each carry $10,000 across the border without raising any eyebrows (or so we hoped).

Unfortunately, once again our plan hit some road bumps.

When we tried to convert our Chinese currency (RMB) into U.S. and Canadian dollars at the bank, we were met with solid resistance. The manager would literally give us “a look” and then flat out refuse to speak to us. We later found a translator who told us that it was virtually impossible for even locals to get foreign currency, and that the amount we were requesting was unheard of.

After grilling a local friend for alternatives, we eventually decided to take out Chinese RMB in cash, and then take that directly to a currency exchange stand in order to convert it over. She warned us that these places are usually located in sketchy areas, however, and that not so reputable people hang out there (though I hear it’s not the case anymore). These places will also try to rip you off by giving you decent exchange rates, but then sneaking in counterfeit bills.

So off my husband and I went. We didn’t want to do too large a transaction at first just to be safe, so we started with $1,000 and found a place to exchange our money. My husband is six feet tall and I’m pretty sure that helped keep the loiters at bay. When we got our money, we hid around a corner to check each and every single bill to make sure they were legit, and then went on our merry way when it was good.

It took us about six weeks to exchange $10,000 each. You’re only allowed to exchange a certain amount each time, so we had to make multiple visits which was for the best as neither of us enjoys carrying around too much cash at one time.

During this time we hid the money around our apartments. I literally stuck hundred dollar bills under my mattress among other places as I was so paranoid about someone breaking in! We also hid money:

  • In jacket pockets
  • In shoes
  • In crockpots we barely used
  • And in tupperware

When it came time to go visit our families at Christmas, we gathered all our money in one place and planned how we were going to pack it all.

I don’t know about you, but seeing $20,000 in physical cash is A LOT. We had it stacked on my bed and it looked like a giant mountain to me. I looked at my husband and literally asked if I could swim in it. After all, it was a once in a lifetime experience!

Next thing we knew, we threw a bunch of bills up in the air and were frolicking around in money. There’s something about doing backstrokes on a bed with $20,000 that does it for you :)

money pool

Finally, We Carry The Cash Over

Now came the hard part: how do we actually carry all this cash? Without getting stopped at the border?

We crossed off the suitcase idea as that would just be way too suspicious, and eventually figured that dispersing our money was the way go to. The x-rays will show we had money, but at least there wouldn’t be huge stacks all in one place.

Here’s what my husband did:

  • Bought special cargo pants with multiple pockets so he could take the cash in and out when going through security
  • Sewed secret pockets in his laptop case
  • Rolled up t-shirts in his carry on luggage with money in it
  • Carried cash in his wallet

Here’s what I did:

  • Hid cash in my laptop case and purse
  • Stuffed some money in my bra (this was before those fancy machines at the TSA security check)
  • Stuffed money in my makeup case
  • Put bills in-between pages of the books I was “reading”

Keep in mind, we weren’t doing anything illegal although it sure as hell felt like we were. In hindsight we probably went a little crazy on hiding everything, but I wasn’t going to take any chances with people either stealing from us or being stopped at the border. Our track record up to this point hadn’t been that smooth.

Then off we went!

Step #1: Go through security in China and board the plane. Success! We stated we were carrying cash, but nobody asked us how much so we easily got our exit stamps.

Step #2: Relax on the plane. Fail. We could barely sleep, as we were just too paranoid the entire trip.

Step #3: Get across the U.S. border! (We made our first stop in my husband’s country before heading to Canada). My hands were shaking the entire time as I filled out the immigration form –  I felt like I was lying when the form asked if I was carrying more than $10,000 in cash, but I checked the “no” box.

Then it was the moment of truth…

I walked over to the customs agent, he looks at me and then down at the form, asks me where I’m staying (I manage to utter “my future in-laws”), looks back down again, and then stamps the passport and says, “have a nice time.”

And just like that it was over! WE DID IT!!

My husband had the same experience clearing customs, and it was a piece of cake getting the second half of our money into my Canadian bank as well.

Pretty anti-climactic, I know – sorry – but what a whirlwind getting to this point… I’m just super grateful I never have to deal with this again. Though I have to admit, it was pretty fun swimming in all that money for a few minutes!

Anyone else ever launder move large amounts of cash across the border? Any tips for anyone who may have to do it themselves one day?

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Sarah Li Cain is a financial storyteller who weaves practical tips and strategies into her work so that others trying to change their mindset can see themselves in the starring role. She loves answering reader questions on her blog, HighFivingDollars.com, and openly shares her financial struggles through different experiments she runs. Check out her “Ultimate Guide to Money Mindset Mastery!”

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{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

1 [email protected] November 24, 2017 at 5:38 am

This sounds familiar to me :). In 1997 my husband and I bought an apartment in Sofia, Bulgaria. We needed $10,000 deposit and the banking in Bulgaria was so bad that we had to take cash. We bought a bum bag (I think in the US this is known as ‘fanny bag’ but in British English this sounds weird), got out of our bank in the UK $10,000 and boarded the plane. Gosh, it was stressful. (I also had to carry approximately $15,000 cash around Bulgaria when I sold some land five years ago).

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2 Sarah Li Cain November 24, 2017 at 7:16 am

Yeah, I’m sure it was! Though in some way having all that cash was so badass of me ;)

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3 J. Money November 24, 2017 at 9:05 am

I bet it was stressful! I used to get my paychecks in full cash back in the day and that was only $1,500 or so and THAT was stressful to walk around with! Even just going from one physical bank to another – can’t imagine carrying $10’s of thousands around.

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4 Ms99to1percent November 24, 2017 at 5:58 am

Yes, I can relate. As a CPA, I have dealt with this from time to time. The Chinese government makes it really difficult to transfer money even between inter-companies. Like you said, they require a multitude of paperwork.

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5 Sarah Li Cain November 24, 2017 at 7:16 am

Good to know I’m not the only one!

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6 John C @ Action Economics November 24, 2017 at 8:18 am

I worked with a guy who ended up getting pulled over with $20K on him. He was arrested due to suspicion of the cash. In the end he didn’t get in any real trouble because they couldn’t prove anything, but they kept the cash! YIKES. He stopped working in our industry and I haven’t seen him since. I’m not sure what he was into, but it was certainly sketchy as hell…..

Another big briefcase full of cash issue: I grew up in a small town really close to Lake Michigan where Chicago people owned most of the property as “summer houses”. The place was a ghost town outside of the summer season. When we moved our next door neighbor offered to pay cash for the house, which I think we were selling for around $60K.

The guy calls my dad up a few days later and says that his lawyer gave him a bunch of pushback and highly recommends a cashiers check instead of cash, he told my dad he knew they made a deal for a cash offer, but wanted to see if there is any way he would take a cashiers check. My dad was dumbfounded. This guy was actually planning to bring a suitcase full of $100 bills to the closing table.

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7 J. Money November 24, 2017 at 9:02 am

That is baller, haha…

How did the cops in the first story get away with keeping the cash though?? I feel like some details are missing there… (if the guy didn’t fight for his money then you know for SURE it was shady!)

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8 John C @ Action Economics November 24, 2017 at 9:56 am

civil forfeiture laws. You don’t have to be found guilty or even charged with a crime for them to keep your stuff, they just have to suspect it was involved in a crime, then you have to prove that it was not illegally obtained. I think he did try to get it back, without success. Our gov’t took $4.5 BILLION in civil asset forfeiture in 2014 alone, and its growing at a massive rate.

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9 J. Money November 24, 2017 at 3:31 pm

WOW.

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10 writing2reality November 25, 2017 at 2:22 pm

John Oliver did a really great piece on this on Last Week Tonight. Essentially a revenue generator for law enforcement unfortunately.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3kEpZWGgJks

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11 Richard November 29, 2017 at 3:29 pm

you as a person have rights. Your car, money or anything else seized by the cops do not have rights. so its a real pain to get anything back.

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12 Sarah Li Cain November 24, 2017 at 8:58 am

Yeah, not surprised about all that. I was told cash transactions of a certain amount will get flagged by the IRS. Don’t take my word for it I’m not an expert.

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13 Ms. Frugal Asian Finance November 24, 2017 at 9:59 am

Hi Sarah, it’s great to see you here! I’m so amazed that you and your husband managed to carry so much cash without any problems when you went through security.

I personally know someone who tried to bring 20k into the US and got caught. Good thing the customs didn’t confiscate the money, but it was super stressful. >_<

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14 Sarah Li Cain November 24, 2017 at 10:31 am

We made sure to read the laws and regulations over and over again! We weren’t breaking any laws, but we were definitely paranoid.

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15 Joe November 24, 2017 at 10:40 am

I took $10,000 to Thailand many times for my parents. It’s easy because you can get hundred dollar bills in the US. It fits in one envelope.
I imagine it would have been easier and probably cheaper (less than exchange fee) to buy gold necklaces or something like that. Did you think about bringing in some gold instead?

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16 Sarah Li Cain November 24, 2017 at 10:47 am

Yes, but to actually get it stored somewhere was the issue. We weren’t able to purchase gold bars or anything like that in China on top of that. We could have technically have done that in Hong Kong, but rules for mainland China state we couldn’t carry more than $3,000 US (sometimes even less, depending on the border guard and what kind of mood they were in) dollars across to Hong Kong.

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17 [email protected] November 24, 2017 at 10:42 am

I keep imagining them swimming in money. Sounds like way more fun than getting trampled for a TV today.

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18 B.C Kowalski November 24, 2017 at 11:27 am

Ha – the bank experience reminded me of my first time in Japan.

I was convinced that, since things typically are more expensive at the airport than anywhere else, that I would only exchange a small amount of money at the airport and find a better deal inland. There were exchange machines at the hotel we stayed at in Narita, which had a slightly worse rate. Later, thinking I would have good luck at a bank, I learned my mistake: Worst exchange rate I found on the whole trip! In subsequent trips I did all my exchanging right at the airport.

Not only was the rate worse, but the sheer amount of paperwork involved in such a simple exchange was staggering. Couple that with my crappy Japanese at the time (it wasn’t until my third trip that my Japanese grew to “passable” level) made for a bad day for both myself and the poor woman trying to help me. It doesn’t help that in customer service employees will use the extremely polite form of speech, which is even harder to understand. We did both share a little exasperated laugh when we finally got through the whole thing!

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19 J. Money November 27, 2017 at 3:32 pm

I always thought that too about airport exchanges! I tend to just use them now as well for simplicity all around.

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20 Jeff @ Maximum Cents November 24, 2017 at 1:02 pm

Thanks for sharing this story. When you say you weren’t doing anything illegal I guess you mean from the US perspective. However, I’m willing to bet that it was illegal in China since you were getting around their banking transfer laws. You were really lucky not have the money confiscated or worse.

There has been a rise in people from China buying real estate in the US. I was wondering how do they get the money from China to the US? I can’t believe they’re stuffing all of it in jackets and crock pots.

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21 Sarah Li Cain November 24, 2017 at 9:16 pm

Nope, we did everything legally. We Were allowed to exchange money at those places at unlimited amounts and there were no rules or laws at the banks that said you couldn’t exchange money at all. They just wouldn’t let us. We asked locals, including legal folk and again, what we did was totally legal. Having all that cash in China is totally normal, they just don’t want expats to take it out of the country. There are no laws against taking cash across borders, no matter the currency.

As for the Chinese, there is so much to say that can’t fit into a comment. lots of them get tax numbers ( I think its called a ITIN )so they can make large financial transactions in the US. Remember, I had issues because I was an expat, not as a local.

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22 Accidental Fire November 24, 2017 at 1:12 pm

Awesome! In 2003 I tried carrying $500 across the border from Belize into Guatemala and it caused all kinds of problems. Only later did I find out that there’s a longstanding border dispute between the two countries… Lesson-learned, read up more about the geo-political issues before venturing off!

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23 Sarah Li Cain November 24, 2017 at 9:19 pm

Lol! Yea, in China there may not be any actually laws around certain issues but authorities will make them up if they want. There was a thing for a while that you got fined if you had an iPhone or ipad, even if you just had the one for personal use. No lie.

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24 Lily @ The Frugal Gene November 24, 2017 at 1:28 pm

Lol I have the boring version of that story. I had $20,000 in cash and made a detour at the mall because I was craving sushi.

I found a sushi buffet to eat alone in but I didn’t want to move far away from my shopping trolley. When I was getting food I saw the waiter push the trolley away and I freaked out. He said “I’m going to push it to the side so you can have more room to sit” and I was like “ohhh nooo, there’s lots of money in there, I want it close to me.”

I got superb service after that.

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25 J. Money November 24, 2017 at 3:36 pm

What were you doing with that much cash around? :)

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26 Lily @ The Frugal Gene November 25, 2017 at 6:26 pm

It was for my mom, she has that old school Chinese mentality where cash is always king. You should see what’s under their mattress ;(

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27 Sarah Li Cain November 26, 2017 at 8:55 am

lol it’s so true! I had a women I worked for in China briefly carry at least $5,000 USD on hand always for “emergencies”…

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28 Dave November 24, 2017 at 2:02 pm

Wow, that was an adventure. I am happy that you were able to pull that off. My biggest adventure with trying to get something across the border was a couple cohiba cigars. That was stressful enough.

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29 Louise November 24, 2017 at 6:50 pm

I was in China studying a short course at uni. The only way to pay my tuition (without ridiculous fees) was to arrive, withdraw money at the bank, hide it in my purse and catch the bus to uni. I was so nervous. 15,000 RMB looks like a lot of money!

I had a similar experience here in Australia buying a car. The seller was moving to the Middle East to be with her family. She requested cash. I totally understood having been through my own experience in China a few years earlier. I organised the money at a bank which they forgot about. Waited an agonising half an hour before sprinting to catch my long distance coach and following train to get there in time. $8500 looks like a lot of money when your largest note is a $100.

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30 J. Money November 27, 2017 at 3:34 pm

hell yeah it’s a lot of money! i remember meeting a guy with a briefcase full of cash to buy my old car as well – i think for around $18,000? I specifically made him meet me in the lobby of the bank for security reasons, and then also to make sure the money was legit and had him hand it right over to the teller to pay off the car loan haha…

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31 Finance For Geek November 24, 2017 at 10:00 pm

I can’t relate directly to that as I’ve never had such an amount of cash on me! But I would certainly freak out for every single trivial stuff if I had to do this. This can be a good test to see if someone’s paranoid hehe.

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32 ZJ Thorne November 25, 2017 at 9:34 am

Oh man, I’m pre-panicking because I am expecting the biggest check in my life (so far) soon. I can’t imagine how worried I would be in a foreign country, crossing borders with so much currency on me. I think my anxiety would forbid it.

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33 Semi Frugal Fal November 25, 2017 at 11:24 am

Oh man, this post is super timely for me. My husband and I are originally from Brazil and we’re trying to figure out the best way to bring over around $35k. Brazil is such q bureaucratic country and on top of that you have scammers everywhere. Walking around with so much money is almost guaranteed to be a recipe for disaster. Considering bitcoins right now or just making credit card purchases until the money runs out. Any thoughts?

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34 J. Money November 27, 2017 at 3:40 pm

see below :)

(although too risky for my blood)

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35 Jorge November 25, 2017 at 2:58 pm

I regularly cross borders with over $250,000. It’s easy and no sweat. And I never declare it. It’s called Bitcoin. It’s all secured with my brain-wallet, meaning as long as I can remember my 12-word secret key, I can securely access my funds anywhere in the universe.

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36 Go4itusa November 27, 2017 at 7:33 am

Ahhhh… the age old international problem! I did it a bit differently. I carried about $7k in cash and before I left I bought a lot of gold jewelry and diamonds… then sold it when I got to the states. For the WIN!

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37 J. Money November 27, 2017 at 3:38 pm

hah – clever! i wouldn’t have ever thought of that, even though I”m a coin collector and half my friends are collectors only for the gold & silver in the old coins! in theory you could just buy one rare one and then keep it in your pocket change :) (also would only need one buyer on the other end, although the junk silver/gold is much easier to convert on the other end and still retain a bulk of the value, which i’m sure is why you went the way you did?)

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38 Miguel (The Rich Miser) November 27, 2017 at 11:56 am

Wow, that’s an amazing story. I don’t think I’d have the gumption to go through with that!

As far as I know, it’s legal to transport any amount of cash in US airports, but you have to declare anything over $10,000. I’m not sure if it’s just a one-sentence “declaration”, or whether it prompts any sort of investigation, though.

With China, I’ve read that an emerging issue is the use of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin to get around limitations on transferring money abroad. That seems to be why they’ve recently cracked down in this area. It should be interesting to see how it develops.

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