Tax-Free Shopping in Europe
by Durant Imboden
In Europe, most prices include a value-added tax or VAT that can be as high as 25 percent. This is like a sales tax, except that it's built into the price you pay instead of being added at the cash register.
If you're a tourist from another country, you may be able to claim a VAT refund. You can do this in several ways:
1. Use the store's refund affiliate, which can be identified by a decal such as "Tax Free Shopping" or "Premier Tax Free" in the store window.
This is the easiest and most reliable method by far: The store gives you a "tax-free shopping cheque" that you present to customs when you leave the country or the European Union. You then take your stamped cheques to the refund service's airport desk or border kiosk for an immediate refund, drop them in a special box, or mail them to the refund service's nearest office after you get home. You can have refunds credited to your Visa, MasterCard, or other credit card in your own currency.
Global Blue (formerly Global Refund) is the biggest VAT refund service; it represents more than 270,000 merchants in 37 countries. (See page 3 for a link to the Global Blue Web site.) Another firm, Premier Tax Free, represents 75,000 merchants in 21 countries.
Please note: You don't decide what service to use. The retailer does, so you'll need to process each "tax-free shopping cheque" with the company indicated on the cheque (usually, but not always, Global Blue).
Request a VAT refund form, have it stamped by a customs official when you leave the country or the European Union, then mail the stamped form back to the store (assuming that the shop is willing to handle refunds this way).
Note: For smaller transactions, the cost of cashing a foreign-currency check may exceed the amount of the refund. However, it's worth considering for large purchases or if the merchant will credit the refund to your credit-card account instead of mailing you a check. In the latter case, your credit-card company will automatically convert the refund to your local currency.
3. Charge your purchase with a credit card and ask the shop to make two charge slips: one for the amount of the sale after deduction of the VAT, and the other for the amount of the VAT.
The store will post the larger transaction but set the VAT charge slip aside. After you've had your VAT refund form stamped by customs, mail it back to the store, and the merchant will destroy the VAT charge slip without submitting it. (Not all merchants will go along with this method, and it works best in stores that handle credit-card transactions manually.)
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