If you are are traveling to see people, whether for business or pleasure, you may want to bring some gifts with you. In Japanese culture, this tradition is called omiyage, and it is essentially mandatory, even for foreign visitors. In other places, it may be called a hostess gift. Offering a small gift makes people aware that you were thinking of them, looking forward to seeing them, and hoping to please them.
Good gifts for a traveler to bring are small, easily transported, from your home area, and not readily available in your destination.
Bring or buy locally
Sometimes, you want to bring something from your home country, and if you are visiting Japan, this is definitely the right thing to do. In fact, the right thing to do, if you can manage it, is to live next door to a master chocolatier, so that you can bring a small number of picture-perfect chocolates gorgeously wrapped in a fancy presentation box, itself nestled inside a gift bag, and present it (with both hands) with the quiet remark that it is only a small gift from your own neighborhood.
More generally, anything that is small, not so expensive that it could create a feeling of obligation, and represents a part of your culture will usually be appropriate. Avoid bringing gifts that can be easily purchased locally. There is no point in bringing beer to Germany, sparkling wine to France, whisky to Scotland, vodka to Russia, etc.
In other cases, the right thing to do is to buy the gift locally. This is necessary if you are giving something perishable, such as fresh flowers, or if you were not expecting the invitation. It may also be appropriate if you have a particular treat in mind, and it is one of the categories that is difficult to import, such as fresh fruit or meat. Even if you are buying something originally made in your country, it may be easier to buy it locally from a store that has handled all of the importing paperwork than to bring it into the country yourself.
If you know that you are visiting a home with children, then you might consider bringing a small gift for the children. It can be helpful to know the age of the children, as well as how many of them there are. Parents or other family members may be happy to advise you.
Younger children might like a small toy, such as a small toy car or a small doll. For slightly older children, art supplies can be a popular and flexible option. Consider colored pencils, decorative stationery, or fancy crayons. Books are often appreciated, but language can be a barrier. To work around that, look for picture books that contain no (or very few) written words, bilingual books, and activity books that don't require reading, such as paper dolls, stickers, or mazes. School-age children might like a picture postcard from your hometown. For a visit with a larger family or a family reunion, a game or puzzle that is suitable for a wide age range might let all the young cousins play together. Most children are happy to see and try candy or other sweet treats from another country, and they are often interested in unfamiliar-looking money. One each of the coins from your home country can make an inexpensive and educational gift for many children.
For teenagers, consider a gift related to a favorite university or sports team from your country. A bag of sweets that they can share with their friends or classmates might also be popular.
If you are visiting family who have immigrated away from you, then both parents and children might appreciate a "taste of home", in the form of food that is difficult to source in their new home. Consider treats that rank high in terms of nostalgia, even if they are just everyday items in your home country.
Religious and cultural issues
Jews and Muslims do not eat pork or other forbidden animals, and Hindus do not eat beef or use anything made of leather. Muslims, Sikhs, and members of some Christian sects, including Latter-Day Saints (also called Mormons), Assemblies of God, Seventh Day Adventists and others, do not drink alcohol, and Jews only drink certified kosher wine. Some groups extend this to other substances that contain alcohol, such as vanilla extract or perfumes, and the complex Jewish rules about wine mean that you should avoid any fruit juices and any grape-flavored or grape-based food or drink (including many liqueurs), except the raw, fresh, unprocessed grapes themselves, unless you are intimately familiar with all of the rules. Latter-Day Saints additionally ban tobacco and "hot drinks" (coffee, tea, and hot cocoa).
Leaving food aside, Muslim men do not wear gold (including white gold) or silk, so these are appropriate gifts only for women. Dogs are considered unclean in several religions and cultures, so dog-themed gifts are inappropriate. Religious principles in favor of modesty and against idolatry can make some gifts, such as statues of a nude Greek or Roman goddess, be doubly inappropriate.
Some cultural practices are very widespread, though the details may vary. Things associated with funerals, such as the colors black or white and handkerchiefs, are often considered poor gifts around the world. Flowers are commonly a sign of joy and life, but some colors or types are associated with funerals and should be avoided. Others, especially red roses, are associated with romantic love. If you want to bring or send flowers to your host, then you can explain the situation to the flower seller, who will know things like whether it's better for the bouquet to have an odd number of flowers (Europe) or an even number (much of Asia) and can steer you away from colors and types that are associated with funerals locally (chrysanthemums in France and Italy, lilies in Germany and Colombia, frangipanis in India, etc.)
The symbolism of some gifts is considered inappropriate in most cultures. One example of this is giving a knife or other sharp-edged item. This may be perceived as a suggestion that you want to cut the relationship or that you want harm to come to the recipient. Another is to bring food for the meal when you have been invited to dinner (unless you have been specifically asked), as it might suggest that you do not trust your host's hospitality.
Africa and the Middle East
Be aware of religious sensibilities. Even a person who is not an observant Jew or Muslim may not wish to be given a box of chocolate-covered bacon. In religiously or ethnically diverse countries, asking after someone's religion or ethnicity can make them uncomfortable. However, if you know that a person is devout, then that opens up other gift options, such as a compass for a Muslim person.
For business travelers, much of this region is very sensitive to any hint of bribery, and you should consider gifts that are smaller or less flashy than you might otherwise.
In Turkey, you are unlikely to be giving or receiving business-related gifts – unless you are invited to someone's home. A hostess gift will be expected if you are entertained at someone's home; flowers, a box of chocolates, or a tray of pastries are common choices. A more substantial gift is typical if you stay overnight in their home. Something that can be used or displayed later will be appreciated, such as a beautiful candy dish or vase. Be prepared with a small gift for the children.
In Iraq, as in most Muslim countries, gifts are presented with the right hand or with both hands (the left hand is considered religiously unclean in Islam), and they should not be inappropriate for any devout Muslim (e.g., no alcohol, no pork, no dogs). In business arrangements, scrupulously avoid any gift that could draw accusations of a bribe.
In Israel, there is a wide variety of gift-giving styles, from extravagant to nothing. One result is that some businesses prohibit their employees from giving or accepting any gifts at all, or may accept only inconsequential items. After you know your business associates and their practices, you can follow their lead. A thematically appropriate gift sent during Jewish holidays, such as a fruit basket or a jar of honey for Rosh Hashanah, might be preferred and seem more sensitive than a gift delivered at your first meeting. If you are invited to Shabbat dinner in someone's home, you may only bring flowers if you arrive well before sundown, as "planting" flowers after Shabbat begins is not acceptable. It is also acceptable and normal to bring or send flowers much earlier in the day, hours before your arrival for the Shabbat meal.
In Egypt, avoid expensive gifts and anything that might be inappropriate for an observant Muslim, including alcoholic beverages, perfumes, and anything related to pigs or dogs. Do not present a gift only from the left hand; do present your gift with a smile, while making direct eye contact.
In the United Arab Emirates, expect your gift to be opened immediately, examined minutely, and praised extensively, as a sign of gratitude and respect. Consequently, it is best to buy a small item of very high quality, rather than a larger everyday item.
In Nigeria, small gifts are welcome in social settings, such as fruit, nuts, or candy if you go to someone's home, or something for the children. Expensive gifts are usually inappropriate, and in a business setting, might cause offense by implying a bribe. Men must never give gifts to unrelated women; instead, any gift must be presented with a statement that it is from his wife, mother, sister, or other female relative. Gifts are presented and received always with the right hand, which matches the etiquette for presenting and receiving business cards in this large country.
In Kenya, business partners should never offer an expensive gift. A token gift, such as a pen with a corporate logo, is much more likely to be received equably than something valuable, like a wristwatch. Although largely a Christian country, many Kenyans would prefer not to receive pork or alcohol as gifts.
In South Africa, it is not usual to present a gift upon meeting a business partner. When a relationship is established, a gift may be appropriate. Token gifts, such as an inexpensive ink pen with your corporate logo, are more appropriate for ancillary workers than for your primary contact. You might give the ink pen to someone who does you a small service, but a personalized gift to your primary business associate. The usual hostess gifts (e.g., a box of chocolates) are expected at a dinner party.
The US and Canada mostly follow the European traditions, but often less strictly. Flowers, candy, or a bottle of wine are usually welcome, although keep in mind that about 30% of adults in the US don't drink alcohol. If you are going to a party in someone's home, you might get in touch earlier that day and ask whether there is anything you can pick up from the store for them. In some cases, your host might appreciate a last-minute bag of ice cubes (sold at almost all US grocery stores for about US$5) instead of a more typical hostess gift. Consider a special treat from your home area, such as a popular snack food.
If you are staying in someone's home, it is acceptable to send a gift after you leave, with a note thanking them for their hospitality. This can be something for the home, such as decorative towels or a potted plant, or something to remind them of your visit, such as a framed photo from your visit. It can also be a bigger version of a traditional hostess gift, such a beautiful candy dish with candy to go inside. If your visit is more than a few days, your host might also hope that you will take them to dinner at a local restaurant.
In a business context, to stay in compliance with anti-bribery and tax laws, many American employees are prohibited from accepting gifts in connection with their work that cost more than about $25 or $50. The most common gifts include ink pens, coffee mugs, T-shirts, reusable bags, pads of notepaper, and other small items emblazoned with your company's logo. Fresh flowers are considered more appropriate to a personal relationship than to a business one, although sometimes a flowering plant might be sent to a smaller workplace. In some businesses, especially in the healthcare industry, employees may be prohibited by organizational policy from accepting any gifts at all from a current or potential business contact. This policy should be respected if you are informed of it, and you should send an effusive thank-you note after you return home instead of trying to find a way around it.
In most of Latin America, the culture tries to balance their gratitude with their desire not to appear greedy. This means that gifts may not be opened while you are watching, and that you may hear immense thanks – or you may hear very little directly, for fear that more thanks might sound like begging for another gift. Another common characteristic is taking joy in the happiness of children, so gifts to children are welcome and appreciated.
It is helpful to know what industries the country is famous for, and to avoid giving gifts that might appear to compete with those. For example, avoid giving silver to your hosts in Mexico, as it is unlikely to be superior to Mexican silver. Colombia is known for its coffee and beer, Argentina for its beef, Aruba for aloe vera, the Bahamas for conches, Ecuador for orchids and cut flowers, Cuba for cigars and rum – whatever the local specialty is, it's better to bring something else as a gift.
In Mexico, small gifts are welcome but not expected for dinner. Avoid giving yellow or red flowers, and avoid expensive gifts. Above all, do not ask directly what sort of gift the person would like to receive.
In Brazil, the best gift in a business context may be an offer to take the person out for lunch. Personal gifts, such as clothing, are only appropriate for family relationships.
In Asia, the provenance of your gift is important. The gift should be made in your own country, not imported to your country from Asia. Gifts made near your home are especially appreciated, as people enjoy experiencing things that they can't buy locally. Candy, cookies, snack foods, name-brand liquor and other alcoholic beverages are common gifts. Consumable items, such as fancy soaps, are generally more appreciated than decorative objects. Gifts should usually be wrapped or packaged nicely. Red is a lucky color; avoid black or white.
If you work for a multinational business, you may be able to ask a colleague or the travel office for advice on the size or type of gift that would be appropriate for the different people you will meet. You might be advised, for example, to bring a bag of individually wrapped candy for the office to share, plus one small box of chocolates for each of the six customers you will be meeting, and perhaps a bag of roasted coffee beans from your local coffee shop for the sales manager, who happens to be a coffee aficionado. Every person at the same social level (e.g., staff vs. customers vs. managers) should receive the same level of gift. Each person in a single group should ideally receive identical gifts at the same time. In Japan, you can put the gifts for each group into a single gift bag, and then privately ask one of your Japanese colleagues to share your gifts with the rest of the group. Foreigners are expected to participate in the tradition of omiyage to the best of their ability, but they are not expected to have mastered the full skill set, and people are generally happy to help.
People will not open your gifts in front of you, for fear that their first reaction will not be sufficiently delighted to please you. Similarly, when you are given a gift, you should receive it in both hands and express your thanks, but you are not expected to open it.
In China's business climate, people do not want to risk being accused of bribery. Expect gifts to be politely refused three times; upon your fourth offer, they will accept, and you should say how pleased you are that they have allowed you to give them a small token of your friendship. You may upset people if any gifts are offered before all business deals are completed. This contrasts with the approach in Japan and Indonesia, where you will be expected to present a small gift during your first in-person meeting.
Avoid giving alcoholic beverages to anyone whom you believe is Muslim or Sikh. This is nearly everyone in western and central Asia, and almost half of people in south Asia.
In most of Europe, if you are invited to dinner at someone's home, you are expected to bring a small bouquet of fresh flowers, or a treat for your hosts to enjoy later. If you are bringing flowers, do not bring chrysanthemums (which are for funerals), and mixed colors are safest, as they won't be mistaken as symbolizing anything in particular. Remove the wrappings before presenting the flowers (unless it has been specially wrapped up as a gift). Other popular options for a dinner invitation include a box of high-quality chocolates or a bottle of wine. Expect your hosts to set your gift aside for another day. In France, it might be safer to bring a liqueur or (real) Champagne than a bottle of wine; you would not want your hosts to think that you distrusted their choice of wine for dinner. In some parts of Europe, such as Italy, prestigious brands are valued, but ostentatious or expensive gifts are still considered inappropriate.
For a more significant invitation, such as staying in someone's home, you should bring a more substantial gift, such as a piece of handmade pottery, a wooden box, or another item made by an artisan in your community. A book showing pictures your home area might be appreciated. If you are visiting in December, you could consider a special Christmas tree ornament.
Gifts are not frequently given to a business associate. When they are given, they are small and usually not personal. A lover might give perfume or clothing to a lady, but a business partner will bring something impersonal or obviously business-oriented, like a gift with your company's logo on it.
Russians take a more enthusiastic approach to gift-giving, and it is a good idea to bring a few extra gifts, just in case you discover that you need them. Bring or send a gift for every social event; the minimum is a box of candy for a dinner in someone's home. Whatever you give is likely to be eaten that night, so bring something you would be happy to eat. Flowers are appropriate and common gifts to women, but are not usually given to men. Things that are hard to find or expensive in Russia (e.g., Reese's Peanut Butter Cups from the US, maple syrup from Canada) are particularly appreciated. If you stay overnight in someone's home, then a more personal gift, such as perfume, a wristwatch, or clothing, will be acceptable. Your gift will be opened in front of you, and the recipient is hoping to be stunned by your generosity.