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Tax-Free Shopping in Europe

A guide to VAT refunds for tourists from overseas.

Europe tax-free shopping VAT refunds

ABOVE: Loading up on French sailor outfits for the kids? Put some euros back in your pocket with the European tax-free shopping scheme.

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 who lives outside the EU, 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 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 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.)

Important:

  • Don't wait until you get home to think about VAT refunds. Learn how tax-free shopping works, request tax-free shopping cheques or VAT refund forms when you make your purchases, and have the cheques or forms stamped by a local customs official before you leave for home.
  • If you're like me, you may prefer to pay the tax, since you may someday reap the benefits. (I spent 18 days in a Rome hospital at the expense of Italy's taxpayers, and after that experience, I wouldn't dream of asking for a VAT refund.)

Next page: How much you'll save


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