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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Please kelly says:
24 August 2017

It’s outrageous…I buy my Stetsons from the states (you can’t buy a decent cowboy hat in UK) and the amount of import duty is nothing short of robbery
A friend of mine bought a steel resonator guitar … had to pay almost £350 before they’d let him have it
It’s a scam


Expensive, but a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.

The Lone Ranger might sort it out but avoid the Loan Arranger.



Authentic Stetsons are very expensive in the States so the percentage import duty payable reflects that. The thing to do is go there to buy it and come back wearing it, together with the bandana, weskit ‘n’ chaps; breaks the ice at security.

When I was about eleven I had to make do with a Davy Crockett hat when I wanted a decent cowboy hat. It was British-made with simulated fur.


Import duty is often not very much, but you have to pay UK vat on the purchase price and the shipping costs, just as you would if you bought in the UK. You can check the rates with HMRC but I believe duty may be 2.7% and vat 20%.

Etaoin Shrdlu says:
25 August 2017

I very rarely buy from the United States because of the outrageous import duty. They even charge it when the item is a Gift, which they did not do until recently.

I just bought a car part for about $7.00 from the U.S., because the part is no longer available here in the U.K. I was charged 26.01 pounds by Customs, even though there was no declared amount on the parcel. I am about to complain to Customs about this, but they make it hard to find them. I found a complaint form, but it says that it is only for items that came through Royal Mail or Parcel Force. My parcel came through the notoriously bad U.P.S., but I will use the Customs form that I found. It will have to do.

Another major reason why I don’t buy much from the U.S. is that they did away with surface mail out of the U.S. about 10 years ago. Everything comes by airmail. This is ridiculous. Many items (especially large ones) are not urgent, and the four-week surface mail delivery time was not a problem. As an example, if you buy a used vinyl LP for, say, $10, the postage is about $21, which usually means that I don’t buy it.


… we have to have some common sense. If I’m buying from another country it is my responsibility to do my homework. Why should a shop in America be familiar with UK law and tax, particularly if they do not know where you are buying from until after the purchase.

That said it should be a lot easier to arrange for this in advance. Often the cost of the post office in dealing with the VAT etc… is more then the VAT and I am yet to find a way to ‘pay in advance’ to avoid this!

Jack says:
5 February 2018

Normally I’m OK ordering from the US because I buy from companies that are cleared to pay import VAT directly so the cost is up-front and there’s no hassle down the line. I did get caught out recently though buying some small decorative items (which I later found were going to be sold in the UK a few months later for a very similar base cost, oops!) which had a total carriage weight of 200g. The basic shipping charge was around £40, more than the value of the items I was buying and the carrier was licenced to pay VAT. So to my surprise a few weeks later I get an invoice for £4.52 import VAT and a £12 handling fee. The flat rate handling fee does make buying small items rather unattractive, especially when you have a case of paying through the nose at both ends for greatly inflated shipping costs (I had similar goods shipped for less than four dollars in the same week) and then the fees on delivery is a joke.

Izzy says:
5 March 2018

Hi sorry I dont know if you can help me or not but I figured it was worth a shot! Basically to sum up – I’m a business owner who does lots of importing and exporting in goods. Basically I’ve been having some trouble with foreign currency exchange and getting the best deals but obviously its really important for the business that we’re getting the best deal possible. I’ve been reading lots around the subject online but I’d be lying if I said I’d got my head around it. What’s the best option for businesses when it comes to foreign exchange? I came across a business called Clear Treasury and they seem to deal with this type of thing. Am I best going with a company like this rather than doing everything independently? Is that the recommended course of action? I just want to make sure I’m getting the best deal – so any advice would be massively appreciated! Like I said I don’t know if anyone will be able to help me but thought I’d give it a try! Thanks everyone!

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