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Tax-Free Shopping in Europe
A guide to VAT refunds for tourists from overseas.
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.
(formerly Global Refund) is the biggest VAT refund service; it represents more than 270,000 merchants in 37 countries. Another firm, , also handles refunds for stores around the world.
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).
2. Get a refund directly from the shop where you make your purchase.
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.)
How much you'll save:
VAT rates vary from country to country and, in some cases, according to the nature of the merchandise. (Luxury items may be taxed at a higher rate than food or books, for example.) Also, you're required to spend a minimum amount in a store to apply for a refund, and this minimum is different for each country.
The table below shows the most common VAT rates in selected European countries when we last checked. Rates can and do change, so this table should be used only as a general guide:
Notes and tips:
Eligibility for VAT refunds:
For more information on tax-free shopping, visit the Web sites of the two major VAT refund companies, and direct any questions to them. (We're writers, not tax experts, and the refund companies have control over when, whether, and how you get your VAT refund. We have no connection to Global Blue or Planet.)
VAT refund services:
Planet (formerly Premier Tax Free)
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