Shopping with VAT rebate - import, export & duty free shopping around the EU

Pay less taxes as a tourist!

Pay less taxes as a tourist!

As a traveller, you can use some opportunities for shopping with less taxes – VAT refunds or duty free shoppping. It may require some prior research in bureaucracy of the country, the price level and VAT levels, but on the bright side you can expect a rebate of up to 25% on the store price when buying smart while you travel over one of the invisible borders in the world of tax refunds and tax excemption.

Saving taxes – what is possible?

There are five ways of saving VAT and other taxes:

  1. When you cross borders in and out of the EU, or borders between many other countries that don’t have a toll union, you may claim back VAT in the country of origin (or just pay much less VAT for many interesting goods). Border crossing is of particular interest between EU countries and EFTA countries (Norway, Iceland, Switzerland), Turkey or the non-member states of the Balkans region.
  2. On international ferries and cruiseships, you can shop duty-free while in international waters or special toll zones. Drinks are cheaper in the duty free shop than in the bar.
  3. On airplanes, the airline may sell you goods without the ground taxes. Check for yourself if you actually get something cheaper while in the air. Same holds for airports. Unless you’re on your way to Scandinavia, duty free alcohol is rarely worth the money, price wise (with the possible exception of Zurich).
  4. Countries such as Switzerland and Luxembourg put much lower taxes on gas, resulting in dramatically lower prices for a refill. Grab the opportunity when you pass a gas station!
  5. Some areas are special tax and toll zones with reduced taxes, e.g. a certain island in the Caribbean which is both owned by France and The Netherlands (Question for your next pub quiz: What is the name of a town where France has a common border with The Netherlands? Bonus question: Name at least one conference series with renowned proceedings that had a conference on the island!).

However, often there are limits on the amounts of certain products (tobacco, alcohol), and on the maximum value transferable without customs declaration. Check with your customs authorities! If you’re hopping & shopping over EU borders, read the the EU customs rules for travellers!

How you get the money back.

Getting VAT back is done in one of two ways:

    Global Refund logo shown on participating shop doors

    Global Refund logo shown on participating shop doors.

  • Through one of the many “tax free refund ” clearance systems that cooperate with shops. When you buy in a shop (often with a minimum bill amounting to approx. 100€), the shop can issue a tax refund voucher. You need to find the tax free agency office on the airport, show your goods, and get an instant cash refund. If you export your goods by train, or through an airport without an agent for the tax refund company, then you need to go to the customs agent and get the voucher stamped by customs. The stamped voucher then is send to the tax refund company, which will transfer to your account or credit card. You can expect approx. 40-70% of the VAT, as the company takes a share for its services.
  • Through an official tax office VAT refund form. Many countries’ tax authorities, such as Austria (export form “U 34″), Germany, The Netherlands or Norway, provide a form for foreign travelers. The merchant must fill in the form, attach the receipt to it, and bill you for the whole amount including VAT. Upon export, get the form stamped at customs, and then send it back to the merchant, who then will transfer you the VAT. Some merchants of expensive goods, e.g. SLR cameras or jewelery, are aware of the procedure and stock the form, while others might have no idea what you’re talking about. If you’re planing ahead, you might get hold of the forms from the internet, and present it to the merchant. Please consider limitations for private import to the target countries, as you might need to declare and pay tax at your destination.

Check for price and tax levels before you travel!

If you use a good search engine, you will find all kinds of portals, e.g. for the purpose of comparing prices in airport shops, or the listing of Vodka rates on all ferries connected to Sweden that have a duty free shop on board. For an overview over VAT levels in Europe, consult the Wikipedia “Tax rates of Europe” page. Even without a Non-european passport, the VAT or sales tax levels are considerably different inside the EU – waiting for you to strike a deal.

And possibly, if you’re a holder of a passport with a place of living that doesn’t qualify, maybe the nice person from another continent you’ve met on the conference is ready to make you a gift, and you’ll give a gift back on the next conference?

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