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Buying Beer, Wine, and Spirits Online

Buying alcohol at a retail store or restaurant is a unique purchase. You and the business must follow alcohol sales laws, such as showing your driver's license or ID card to prove your age. Federal and state regulations also set distinct rules for buying alcohol online.

Online orders of alcohol differ from brick-and-mortar purchases in a few ways. Know what to expect before checking out your online shopping cart with a winery, brewery, or distributor.

Note that this article explains laws about buying beer, wine, and spirits for personal use. Commercial alcohol orders and deliveries involve different legal considerations.

Is Buying Alcohol Online Legal?

Online liquor sales are legal in most of the United States but not everywhere. Some state and local laws ban online alcohol deliveries.

The rules for buying alcohol in person depend on where you live or purchase it; the same applies to online orders. Shipping alcohol nationwide is complex because these laws vary in each area.

Why States Have Different Alcohol Laws

When federal Prohibition ended in the 1930s, states were free to create their own liquor laws. As a result, the U.S. has a patchwork of different alcohol laws. Some states decided to ban the sale of alcohol on Sundays or in regular grocery stores. Other states set up government-run liquor stores to closely tax and control alcohol sales.

States updated their laws as businesses wanted to sell alcohol online. Online sales became illegal in some “no-ship" states. Alabama had one of the country's last statewide bans on online consumer alcohol deliveries, but its Alcoholic Beverage Control Board (ABC) repealed it in 2021.

Common State Laws for Online Alcohol Sales

State laws often impose alcohol regulations like the following:

  • You can only buy alcohol online from businesses with a valid liquor license.
  • The amount of alcohol you order must not exceed a given limit, usually per person, day, or year.
  • Shippers can't leave packages containing alcohol in a mailbox or on the doorstep.
  • The customer must show the delivery agent a valid ID and provide a signature when receiving their package.

States might set different rules for various types of alcohol. The laws may also change based on the purpose of your order, such as whether the alcohol is for business or personal consumption.

Check your state and local laws before ordering alcohol online. In general, the restrictions are less strict than a century ago, but there are still limits you should know as a customer.

Age Restrictions

The usual age restrictions for buying alcohol still apply online. Online customers must be at least 21 years of age to buy beer, wine, and spirits legally.

Breweries, wineries, and distilleries must verify their customers aren't underage. Ignoring age limit laws when selling alcohol online could cost their retail license.

Checklist: Before You Buy Alcohol Online

Protect yourself against consumer law issues by confirming the following details:

  • Your order is within the legal limits or restrictions where you live
  • You have a valid ID that will prove you're 21 or older
  • You understand the alcohol manufacturer or seller's return and refund policies
  • You can check out with a secure online payment method
  • You are willing to pay the additional tax, shipping, and service fees
  • If you're ordering a wine club subscription, you know the terms of renewal and cancelation
  • Whether the seller will send your order to a nearby warehouse or distributor versus your home

Despite higher regulations, alcohol purchases can risk the same problems as other online orders. Issues like shipping delays and data breaches can sour the experience. Learning about consumer protection laws can help you navigate these problems.

Can I Order Alcohol From Another State?

In general, you can order out-of-state alcohol if your state allows the online sale of beer, wine, and spirits. If your state bans or limits online liquor sales and deliveries, you can't dodge the rules by ordering from a retailer in another state.

This rule for shipping alcohol across U.S. states comes from a 2005 Supreme Court case, Granholm v. Heald. The Court ruled that states can't prohibit out-of-state wineries from shipping products to customers while letting in-state wineries do so. Favoring in-state businesses with different shipping laws would violate the Commerce Clause.

Mississippi was an example of stricter alcohol sales laws than most other states. Customers couldn't bring outside alcohol into its borders through direct orders. Like many other states, Mississippi updated its online wine sale laws during the coronavirus pandemic. The update allows customers to order from U.S. wineries for pickup at a local package store, but they still can't buy direct shipments of alcohol to their homes.

Sending Alcohol in the Mail

A bottle of wine is a classic gift, but you can't send the bottle you picked up at the store to the recipient through public mail.

Federal law prohibits the United States Postal Service from carrying “all spirituous, vinous, malted, fermented, or other intoxicating liquors of any kind." The Postal Service will check if it suspects a package contains alcohol. If it does, it will confiscate your parcel and won't have to pay you for the lost value.

Private carriers such as FedEx and UPS can ship and deliver alcohol. Carriers must report shipping information for alcohol deliveries according to state laws. You might need to fill out a form to declare you are shipping alcohol. Company policies require deliverers to verify the legal age of recipients of alcohol shipments.

Buying Alcohol Abroad

Consumers receiving international alcohol shipments face U.S. Customs restrictions. You must also follow state laws for importing alcohol.

In general, you can bring one liter per person into the country duty-free. Any more than that will be subject to duty.

Alcohol and Constitutional Law

Few products make it into the U.S. Constitution. Alcohol is one of them.

The Eighteenth Amendment banned the manufacture, sale, and transport of “intoxicating liquors" nationwide during Prohibition. The Twenty-First Amendment later repealed those rules, but it didn't prohibit states from restricting alcohol sales.

Getting Legal Help

Alcohol orders can be expensive, and shipping regulations can complicate your purchase. If you run into trouble with the process or the alcohol you bought, it might be time to explore your legal options. A consumer law attorney can help you examine the federal, state, and local laws that impact your online order.

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