You’ve shopped, you’ve toured, you’ve had a great time and now you’re on the way home. Today we’re going to talk about VAT refunds and customs forms; this is the last of the travel paperwork series. Let’s get to it, shall we?
Customs Form for Returning US Residents
Let’s start with the easiest of these, the Customs form. As with all government paperwork, this one has a number (6059B) Unlike a lot of government paperwork, this one is fairly straightforward. Like with the landing card at the beginning of your trip, just make sure you have the pertinent information handy.
Basically it asks for all the same information as a landing card – name, address, passport number, etc. It asks for the airline and flight you are arriving on. It asks you to list all the countries you have visited on that specific trip.
It also asks a number of questions about what you are bringing in and if you have spent time with farm animals. Seriously. I found this rather amusing on first blush, then realized that it was deadly serious stuff. These are protections against a number of diseases. Still fairly amusing, at least to me, to be asked if I have been in close proximity of farm animals.
Anyway. You will also be asked to list everything you have purchased and brought back to the U.S. You are given an $800 standard duty exemption, which is plenty for most people. Unless you are purchasing an entirely new wardrobe, or really big ticket items (art, jewelry, etc.) it is highly unlikely you will be bringing back more than $800 in merchandise.
Before you bring back any foodstuffs, please make sure that they are legal for entry into the US. I’ve heard enough horror stories about things being confiscated at the border – expensive things – that I want to make sure it doesn’t happen to you.
And that’s about it. Sign the form, date it and wait your turn in line.
You Have How Much Chocolate?
Speaking of bringing food back…travel story time – on my second trip to Europe I was in Bruges, Belgium. There is a shop in Bruges, Dumon Chocolates, that make perhaps the best chocolates I have ever tasted. My friend Bruce had turned me on to the place with the caveat that I bring him a box.
These were seriously amazing chocolates, so I bought several boxes to give as gifts, as you do when you travel. I must have had a dozen boxes of chocolate just from Dumon. I also picked up some chocolate from another shop that another friend asked for, and then a couple of more little bags of chocolates for yet another friend.
All told I had close to $150 in just chocolate. Which, for me, is a lot to spend on gifts for a trip; honestly I wasn’t even aware I had spent that much. It sort of came home to me in the tallying of receipts when doing my budget. Still, I dutifully listed all of the chocolate that I was bringing back. I then realized that by far the bulk of my foreign purchases on that trip were chocolates.
I wait my turn to for the customs inspection on my return and the very nice customs officer at JFK looks at my form and gives me a very serious look. “You do know the restrictions on bringing foreign food products into this country, ma’am?” he asks.
I nearly panicked. I stammered something that was vaguely affirmative.
“Yes. Well. I’m afraid I am going to have to sample several of these chocolates, just to make sure they’re legal…”fortunately he couldn’t keep a straight face and started to laugh. He mentioned that this was a fairly common occurrence for people returning from Belgium and Switzerland. Apparently for him, the joke never got old.
I have to admit, it made me laugh!
VAT – To Claim or Not to Claim.
Value Added Tax, or VAT, is one of the most confusing concepts ever in the history of consumer taxes. If you have a few hours to kill or suffer from insomnia, try researching just what exactly VAT is. You will either fall asleep or find yourself thoroughly confused. I spent two hours on this subject and can honestly say that I am less sure of what it is now than I was when I started.
Think of VAT as a sales tax. You pay VAT on the items you purchase. In some countries you can file a form to get a refund on some of the VAT you paid during your visit there. In some countries this is true for businesses only, but in Europe non-residents can apply for a VAT refund as long as the purchase price is above a certain amount.
Here’s the thing, if you are going to file a VAT refund, you will need to do a number of things.
You will need to make sure that the store you are patronizing is one that participates in the VAT refund program. There will generally be a notice in the window or at the point of purchase to indicate this.
You will need to ask for the VAT form and fill it out before you leave the store with your purchase. In theory you can indeed fill it out later, but if you do it in the store there is less chance of you missing critical information.
You will need to make sure that the receipt for your purchase is attached to the form.
You will need to get all of the documents stamped at customs before you leave that country. This means you will have to find the local customs office, something that can be difficult if you are not flying out of the country.
You will need to mail the form to the proper authority (the information will be on the form) and then wait for your refund to arrive. There are also services that will process the forms for you that can save you some hassle; as you would expect, they will charge a fee or commission for this.
Be aware, you may never see that refund. Forms get lost or it may just be denied. Like all government paperwork, there is a fair amount of red tape and sometimes this means you missed one thing or there is some exception or Mercury was in retrograde.
So the big question is whether it is worth the work. Again, if you are buying big ticket items, it may very well be worth it. If, however, your major purchase is $150 in chocolate, the answer is probably not.
I have never filed a VAT refund. I don’t know that I have ever purchased the minimum amount in one shop (with the exception of chocolate) to qualify.
I don’t advocate either way. Do what works for you. Just be sure to know the rules and keep track of everything.
And with that we are done with the series on travel paperwork. I think the bottom line for all of these is that while a lot of it sounds confusing, the key is being prepared, having the knowledge before hand, and not getting rattled. If you are unsure, ask for help as there is always someone who is both able and willing to help you.