Buy America! Does import duty stop you from shopping online?

Money in hands

Ever spotted your dream product cheaper online from a US company, but hesitated to buy because of concerns it may get stuck in customs? Or worse, have you bought from the US and incurred unexpected costs?

Friends have told me that they’ve recently been tripped up by import duty after buying goods online from US companies. The charges can be even more irritating when you compare the customs limit for buying online from the US (£135) to the limit for when you fly home with goods from the States (£390).

The question is – have you also been affected and would you like to see the UK government act?

A few years ago my husband, who is an amateur musician, spotted a synthesiser from a small American seller on eBay. Three weeks after ordering it he received a note from customs asking for additional money to cover the duty plus the VAT, which he hadn’t realised wasn’t pre-paid with his order. This nearly doubled the cost of the synth so he never reclaimed it. He also never bought online from America again.

Customs delays and charges

A colleague, Alex, spotted a picture of high heel shoe protectors for her wedding guests on Pinterest and the link took her to a US website. They were just what she was after and appeared better value than the UK equivalents she found online.

After a couple of weeks the heel protectors hadn’t arrived, so she contacted the US company who said the parcel may have got stuck in customs (annoying that they didn’t mention this at point of purchase!). Sure enough, the next day a card arrived from Royal Mail saying she needed to pay a £30 customs charge to receive her package. She had no choice but to pay the charge. It added about 20% onto the cost of the original items and meant they were now more expensive than the heel protectors she could have purchased in the UK.

Finally, Sam in our Campaigns team is a cheerleader with a UK squad. And while cheer has massively grown as a sport in the UK, the good stuff still mainly happens in the US. Lots of US teams have amazing merchandise for sale – the top team athletes are like celebrities, or “cheerlebrities” – but Sam’s held back from ordering anything due to fear of customs delays and charges.

Have you had a similar experience of customs when ordering online goods from American companies? If so, please share your stories. Do you think the UK Government should make it easier, simpler and cheaper to buy from the US?

Should the UK Government raise the import duty threshold so Brits can buy more from America?

Yes (72%, 925 Votes)

No (18%, 236 Votes)

Don't know (9%, 120 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,281

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I bought and paid for some old Canadian stamps online (via eBay) costing just over £15. Postage was £3.50 from the US. I now have a card from the Post Office asking for 76p for import VAT (which is fine) and an £8 charge from the Post Office for collecting the 76p and remitting to Customs (What? Arggh!). Apparently going even 1p over the de-minimus limit (of £15) results in import VAT on the full £15.01 and a collection fee of £8.00. This feels crazy. We have a flat fee levy giving profit to the Post Office rather than a charge driven by associated costs plus an element of profit – the same £8 levy is charged on goods valued at £500 or £10,000. This is a ridiculous situation and works as an obvious barrier to trade (which the Post Office gains from!) In my view either the de-minimus limit should be raised or HMRC should provide a method of prepaying the import VAT at point of purchase (I’m happy to register online, tell them what I’ve bought and remit payments monthly – they can then check against anything noticed by Border Force as it goes through customs). HMRC should NOT be happy for such profits to be made on the collection of it’s taxes – after all they work for UK tax-payers (via the government). Needless to say I won’t be buying from abroad unless the purchase is so high that the £8 tax collection fee levied by the Post Office becomes negligible compared to the total transaction value. I cannot justify paying a 50% tax collection levy on this purchase so will do nothing and let the Post Office return the items after a 21 day wait. In the meantime I will ask the seller to split the stamps when returned into two consignments each of which will be under the £15 de-minimus limit. I will eventually have paid £3.50 x 3 but that is still cheaper than £12.76 and I get to stick two fingers up at the Post Office.


It costs the Post Office, and other couriers, just as much to remit your tax as a larger amount. A flat fee is the norm and, I believe, required by the EU. The terms of import charging are given on the HMRC website and the couriers list their charges.
“If you are receiving a package from overseas (unless it’s from another EU Country), please be aware that it may incur customs charges. Any package assessed as being liable for customs charges will also incur a Royal Mail handling fee of £8.”


The uk is so greedy, they are not working for the voters, they are takers, we are taxed around 60% by the time you work out every tax vat duty we pay on everything! austerity my ass they are stealing our tax money as if it’s their own money! nikes are 20 bucks on ebay usa and that’s about 14 quid, we are fools in the uk.


Some voters might think that fully taxing people who buy goods abroad is a good thing as it takes the pressure off the rest of the revenue base. They might also think that buying goods abroad is not such a good thing for UK manufacturers and retailers.

dieseltaylor says:
13 September 2016

I am not clear why the cost of Nikes in the US proves anything. Most of the US has no free health service so would you prefer cheap Nikes or the National Health?


Our NHS is not free, we all pay into it through one way or another. In America they have simplified it so you see where your money is going… Obama Care now means that healthcare is no longer only for the rich
Don’t get me wrong I love this country but they sure do know how to milk the working man!!


Are people complaining about the tax on imported goods [which is the equivalent of VAT on goods bought in UK shops], or to the charges made by the carriers for collecting the tax and remitting it to HMRC? Both are visible in advance to people who purchase goods from overseas suppliers. Suggestions that there is a form of double taxation are wide of the mark.

I’m not sure of its relevance to this question but Obamacare is about non-mandatory personal health insurance, not the US government’s provision of a comprehensive health service in any way comparable to the UK’s NHS which is free at the point of access. Obviously, the NHS has to be funded from universal taxation which is why there should be no evasion through the importation of goods.

Ricki Baran says:
30 July 2017

Yes I know where your coming from,but if the item is not made and sold in UK and only in America why does have to so damn complicated and expensive.


I cannot believe there are many goods sourced from America that are not available from an EU supplier where there are none of these complications and expenses. No doubt in due course we shall be able to import goods from the USA on more favourable terms, but at the same time goods from the EU might become more expensive.


America First John –and all that it implies. Its what you have to give to get a few “bargains ” is a short term view control of your local council is removal of British sovereignty and democracy . Dont you know they have never changed their cowboy “philosophy -a string of cheap beads to the real Americans in exchange for gold/silver /land just ask the Native Americans –I have and the old “arm motion ” (rude ) comes into play . How much did the land where New York is built Manhattan/Staten Island cost “the White man ” – 60 guilders in GOODS each . Yes John I have been in touch with US Indian reservation Native Americans and they are still not happy with their treatment ( read the REAL history of them and not the Hollywood pure Bull) it beggars belief too gory to post. Tell me straight John do you think a TTIP trade deal will be imposed on this country with all that it implies ?


We once stayed at the Navajo reservation in Monument Valley. Bizarrely, the reception had a TV showing old cowboy films where the Indians usually came off worse.

It was a dry area with no alcohol but they had a drink driving problem as the locals all drove across the border for a drink!!!


I am sorry Duncan, but I cannot see the connexion between what you have written and anything I have posted in this Conversation. This is about the present situation where import duties and other fees have to be levied on goods from outside the EU.

For what it’s worth, my guess is that a bilateral trade agreement with the USA will be set up for when we leave the European customs union if that happens. It will be the same with many other non-EU countries like Australia, Japan, Canada, Argentina, India and so on. If any such agreement is not advantageous to the UK I doubt that Parliament would approve it. If we have left the EU I don’t see how a TTIP could be imposed on us. Many of the EU States do not seem very keen on such a deal.


Time will tell John .


Alfa did you check where the American Indians were put in their reservations ? All the worst land available , lacking water, green grass , buffalo etc . Monument valley you speak of is a good example -desert climate/ cold winters/hot summers many died -empty sandy desert . Whereas the “white-man ” confiscated their original land for settlers. Forced marched off their land they owned for 1000 of years dying on the way . Why do they drink -no hope -no future- no life -no work-no “American Dream ” only an “American Nightmare ” . Just the same as the poor in the UK who are drug addicted but of coarse they are -“lazy ” “layabouts ” -“work-shy ” etc -right ?