Christmas shoppers must obey Customs on-line

Out-Law News | 02 Dec 2004 | 12:00 am | 2 min. read

British surfers hoping to exploit a weak US dollar this Christmas mustn't forget that their purchases from US web sites can attract both VAT and customs duty, which can quickly chill any savings made on current exchange rates.

In most cases you will have to pay duty, VAT and, for some goods such as alcohol and tobacco, Excise duty as well. HM Customs and Excise (HMCE) has produced a table that provides a list of the more commonly imported goods via the internet. It contains details of the likely VAT and duty rate plus an indication of where Excise duty may also be due.

There are a number of surprising differences among similar products.

For instance, all cameras attract VAT; but digital cameras are duty free, while a camcorder attracts duty at up to 14% and a film camera attracts duty at 4.9%. A laptop is duty free; but a PDA attracts 3.7% duty. And duty on a plasma or LCD screen is 14% if you can use it to watch TV, but duty free if it only takes a computer signal.

Customs duty is not payable on goods bought from countries within the EU. However, VAT generally is payable (if due) either in the EU country of purchase, or in the UK if the EU supplier is UK VAT registered.


When dispatching goods, an overseas trader has to make a Customs declaration on a form – which will normally be attached to the package. The declaration includes a description of the goods, their value and whether they are gifts or commercial items.

According to HMCE, the Post Office may charge you for clearing your package through Customs. They handle packages for Customs examination and, if required, open and re-pack them. The Post Office will also store packages if Customs need to make enquiries, for example, when the contents have not been declared properly by the sender. The Post Office fees are collected at the same time as Customs charges but are completely separate and Customs cannot reply to queries about them.

Usually the Post Office will collect charges on delivery. A charge label will be affixed to the package at the Customs Postal Depot. This will show the amount of Customs charges to pay as well as any Royal Mail fee applicable.

Sometimes you may be sent a declaration form, which you must complete and return to the Depot before a Customs package can be delivered.

HMCE also warns against unscrupulous overseas suppliers who openly advertise on their web sites that they will deliberately either misdescribe items or under-declare their value to evade customs charges.

Be aware, says HMCE, that although the foreign sender may have completed the customs declaration form on the parcel, you are regarded in law as the importer of the goods and you are responsible for the information on the declaration and any customs charges that may be due.

This means that if you purchase goods from these suppliers and the declaration is found to be false or misleading you may be liable to financial penalties or criminal prosecution.