/ Money, Shopping, Travel & Leisure

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 have always known that if you buy goods from outside the European Union extra costs are incurred such as Duty and VAT. I have bought things from the USA, Canada and Argentina only because I could not find those items in the UK or the European Union … so in my calculations I had factored in my extra duty and VAT charges and expected any delays at customs. These are goods I wanted and could not get anywhere else. So … no shock…no surprises. Goods I have bought from Germany have arrived within two/three days and the price I saw was the price I paid and no customs.

Anyway … the price of goods you see in the USA is NEVER NEVER NEVER the price you eventually pay! NEVER! USA goods always show prices exclusive of taxes etc unlike countries in the European Union. So you are rarely getting a bargain. Buyer beware.

Jill says:
1 June 2014

>Anyway … the price of goods you see in the USA is NEVER NEVER NEVER the price you eventually pay! NEVER! USA goods always show prices exclusive of taxes etc unlike countries in the European Union.

Sales tax does not apply to American goods sold out of state, so this is not true in the situation we are talking about, buying stuff from American websites from the UK. You will pay the listed price, and the website will tell you the cost of shipping. The fees from UK customs are what make buying from the US unpredictable and expensive.

I dislike the US and Canadian custom of adding sales tax at the till, but it doesnt’ apply here.

US websites are designed to deal with sales tax; even if you enter an address in the state the company operates from (e.g. Washington for amazon.com), it will itemise the sales tax, show it on the screen before you click to make the purchase, and include it in the total.

Bill Richardson says:
1 June 2014

Very True I bought an expensive item from Texas but it actually came from Canada and by the time everyone had added “their bit” on it turned out a damn sight more expensive, Parcel force charged me £27 for collecting it from Heathrow another charge for delivery, HMRC charges and other bits tagged on here and there. Never again.

My ex boyfriend used to be a massive fan of Pokemon & for his birthday he wanted a Pikachu Onesie Kigurumi (Don’t ask), this was before Onesie’s were “cool” so the only place I could get it from was a japanese wesbsite for around £30.

£30 wasn’t to bad, but then Parcel Force sent a card asking for another £18 (I think it was £18 anyway) for charges. I didn’t agree with the charges. But paid them so he could have his birthday present.

I’m used to buying DVD’s from the US and never having to pay charges, so this was totally unexpected.

Colum McGuire says:
30 May 2014

I ordered some stuff from a clothing company in the US as there was a sale on so managed to get a good deal – they regularly ship to the UK and I paid a large but fair postage price and there was nothing on the website to suggest there would be any further costs when it arrived in the UK. I got a note from Royal Mail saying that my package had arrived and was at the local holding office for me to collect as there was excess costs to be paid. When I went to pick it up I had to pay additional £15 to collect my package which meant I hadn’t got a good deal after all! Had I have known that when ordering I would have thought twice about my purchase.

I like America but will not buy from America because of import charges.I bought something from USA once delivered by USPS guy said I have a package for you that will be £16.00 I think it was.He then said most people refuse to pay and Just say send it back.

Laura Baker says:
14 April 2016

Problem is the UK government adding the charges, not the American seller.

Mitch55 says:
30 May 2014

Buying from another country may incur extra charges, like VAT and duty. But the charge added by the post office is outrageous! £8.50, to pay a couple of quid!!!

There is no other option offered to be able to pay what is due, validly. There ought to be another way to pay this that does not involve the post office.

JB5 says:
7 June 2014

I agree about the Post Office. I ordered some health supplements from the USA at about half the price in the UK. I then had to pay £15 at the Post Office to pick them up – £5 VAT and £10 to the PO for the pleasure of taking my time and petrol to collect the item and for them to send out a bit of paper telling me to do just that!

TheElectricMouse says:
30 May 2014

The EU also does deals with companies to keep higher prices, when I tried to buy P****** Gold from the US I was told I couldn’t because I was in the UK – well ‘a famous river’ initially said it was not compatible with the UK Gameperson – so I said no problem, I have a US Gameperson, then they refused again so I asked why and they said they weren’t allowed to by ‘the Company who sold the creature games’, I complained to ‘the company’ and told them I was going to complain to my MP (Tony Blair was then on his high horse about rip-off Britain) ‘the company’ replied and were not placatory, and whilst not using these exact words, basically they said ‘get lost, we have a deal with the EU and your MP will do nothing’ – so I trawled around until I found a US company that would sell to me. Globalisation is for the bosses , not for us mere mortals, Governments want us to have low wages, them to have high taxes and companies to do what they like.

Jenny says:
31 May 2014

My son, who lives in USA, sent an iPod touch to uk for his daughters birthday but the import duty meant the iPod cost more than same product in uk. Of course I had to pay fee.

Eddy says:
31 May 2014

Last year I ordered two items from the USA with a total value of £136.40. The retailer was excellent to deal with & was able to get insured postage at an additional cost of £36. There was an additional charge of 20% VAT plus 2.7% Import Duty.The goods took 3 days to arrive in the UK, 2 days to clear Customs & sat 10 days in the Parcelforce hub because I didn’t pay for Express Delivery ( which would have cost an arm & a leg). So my final total cost was £208.80 compared to £260 I would have paid if bought locally in the UK.

SuperGran says:
31 May 2014

I think Which should conduct a campaign against import duty on modest gifts and against the exorbitant handling charge levied by Royal Mail. My daughter, who lives in Australia, sent me a nice but moderately-priced birthday present this year comprising a simple plastic stand for recipe books and a plastic cover for my phone. I had to pay £8.80 import duty and even worse, a handling charge of £10 to Royal Mail. Scandalous. My ‘gift’ cost me £18.80 and I even had to drive seven miles (and back) in order to collect it. The parcel arrived over a week late, even though it had been posted in good time for my birthday., no doubt because it had been held up going through Customs and then Royal Mail processing. In future, I shall drop a hint to my daughter that she buys presents for her parents online from J.Lewis. At least that way she will not incur charges for us and will know that presents are being delivered to our door.

HMRC information is:
“Gifts sent from outside the EU

If you’re sending or receiving a gift from outside the EU:
• Excise Duty is payable on any alcohol or tobacco products
• Customs Duty is payable if the value of the gift exceeds £135, but will be waived if the amount of duty is £9 or under
•import VAT is payable if the value of the gift exceeds £36”
This does not seem unreasonable and in my view covers “modest gifts”. Don’t you think so?

SuperGran says:
1 June 2014

You may have noticed that the Royal Mail handling charge exceeded the amount of duty I had to pay and indeed more than double the amount I was out of pocket. Perhaps £8.80 would have been reasonable; perhaps even a smaller amount as a handling charge to Royal Mail would have been reasonable too. But as I mentioned, I even had to make a fourteen mile round trip to collect the parcel as Royal Mail refused to deliver it – all in all, totally unreasonable, in my view.

Peter Wraith says:
6 June 2014

HM Revenue & Customs informed me that duty is levied on items in excess of £15, I recently purchased an item from USA and was levied a duty of £4.40 and £8.80 for the Royal Mail to process it. Crazy and outrageous!!!!

Ness says:
6 June 2014

It’s a gift! You shouldn’t have to pay to get it. The purchaser has already paid good money to purchase it, any fees or taxes in the country of purchase AND a postage fee which promises to deliver. (Australia post is expensive) My son’s godparents in Australia sent him a candle, you know a long thin wax candle for our Easter church service and a tshirt. It cost them over $50 to post and It cost ME £32 to get it released!!! Outrageous. I could have bought 5 candles for that here. It’s a complete rort and another way the government is making the little people pay. I bet big companies importing stuff all the time have loop holes to get out of paying. It’s a monopoly because there is no other option. Initially I refused to pay and when the godparents found out they were so offended because they’d paid a lot to get it sent which they wouldn’t get back if the parcel was returned. Fair enough so I had no choice in the end but to pay for things I didn’t initiate. Different story if I willingly imported products.

FROSTY says:
17 October 2014

You have that wrong………..its only £15! Any item bought outside the eu to the uk that is over £15 value will incur a customs fee! That £15 also includes the postage you paid in the us! So it is virtually impossible to order anything without having to pay when it gets here!

I can see a future where the whole of the UK is serviced from Amazon warehouses and imports direct from the US and China. Handy for the Royal Mail, DHL’s of this world but not much need for shops in the High St.

It has been in the Press about the failure of the UK to collect taxes on off-shore entities and this thread makes me wonder if perhaps Which? should actually advance other arguments other than cheapness.

I have bought A4 sized e-readers from Germany twice and software from the US and France,. In all cases they were the only suppliers.

John says:
31 May 2014

When I ordered a couple of art prints from a US company a few years ago I ended up paying a couple of pounds extra for import which was fair enough. The charges levied by Royal Mail for ‘handling’ however added an extra 10% to the total cost which I thought was well beyond any reasonable charge. It is only the second time I have ordered anything from America and tbh it’s the excessive charges from the likes of Royal Mail rather than any import duties that put me off doing so more often.

I am not clear about whether this intro suggests it is unfair to pay when importing, or whether the extra costs are difficult to work out? I think most people will know that importing goods yourself can incur duty and vat costs. It would have been useful if Which? had also included links to where information could be found on charges for anyone thinking of buying from abroad. If you put “import duty” into Google the HMRC have a link that gives clear information; dutycalculator.com will calculate duty and vat for a whole range of specific goods from many countries. The Post Office acts as an agent to collect monery for HMRC so some cost is justified.

Thanks so much for the helpful research malcolm.

I’ve added a linked to HMRC. Thanks Malcolm.

Apart from its all about raising revenue, can someone explain why the limits never seem to go up. iirc its about £18 before vat is due, and iirc it was about that 10 years ago.

Its nice that companies can make use of cheaper locations yet the UK population are hooked into paying whatever they want us to pay and the govt is doing very little to help.

William, my information is that vat is only due if the value of the goods exceeds £36.

william, thanks, it was a gift. For other goods the clause in the HMRC online document reads:
“If you order or send purchased goods other than alcohol, tobacco, perfume and toilet water from a country outside the EU then you:
• don’t have to pay Excise Duty
• may have to pay Customs Duty on goods with a value that exceeds £135
• will have to pay import VAT on goods with a value that exceeds £15

Note that on all goods from outside the EU, Customs Duty is waived if the amount of duty calculated is £9 or under.”
Is this up to date?

“up to date” I know its a government website, and therefore could well be old. If the updated status at the top is to be believed it was accurate as at HMRC Reference:Notice 143 (February 2014)

And yes I’m surprised by that too.

William T says:
1 June 2014

I used to travel to the US a lot, and have some things I love, but can only get in the US. Unfortunately the vendors won’t ship to the UK. Has anyone used a consolidation service like MyUS.com?

ak says:
1 June 2014

I’ve used MyUS just once to buy a pair of sandals from the US. I wouldn’t recommend due to my experience – the person who inputted the value of my package made an error and input a far higher figure so obviously this end I was charged more VAT & duty! I was shocked that this happened as attention to detail in this business is paramount. Yet, when I complained, I was told both via email and via the online chat service that it was my responsibility to make sure the value was correct not theirs. Huh?! And I thought American customer service was exemplary. I eventually wrote a complaint to the CEO and received a refund of the difference I had had to pay. However, this was first debited to my account with them for a future purchase before I complained once again, and was debited not the £ amount I had paid extra incorrectly but the £ amount converted to $ then paid into my bank account in $ and converted by my bank into £. I lost out of course. All in all a very very stressful experience and the practicalities of MyUS do not match the hype.

I have little sympathy with those who ordered goods from outside the European Union without thinking about customs limits and procedures. What about those who accompany goods that exceed customs limits? Are they similarly innocent? I don’t think so.

However, the customs limits are way too low. Compare the UK’s customs limits for unaccompanied goods (e.g. online ordering) to those of Australia, which is well known for strict customs controls. Residents of Australia can receive goods up to AUD 1,000 (GBP 555) without paying anything in import duty or tax. We need a similarly sensible limit in the UK.

T Gordon says:
2 June 2014

Interesting range of comments. My two personal observations:
(1) the phrase ‘customs charges’ used by delivery companies often has nothing to do with duty, its a handling/clearance surcharge applied by them to make more money from delivering your goods.
(2) import VAT at 20% for UK is the real cost multiplyer, not duty, regardless of what the duty threshold ends up at.

renniemac says:
3 June 2014

I make cards for charity, and always bought from American craft site Cricut , as I have a Cricut cutting machine ands their cartridges were cheaper than UK. I always knew I would automatically pay duty if the cost was over £100.00. as was explained to me by customs when I queried a charge
but last year they had a sale on cartridges and instead of paying £60/70.00 per cartridge I bought them at £30/40 .00 they were sent separately and I found I was charged duty on each.
I then contacted P.O. who said it was customs, then I phoned customs, gentleman there told me it wasn’t anything to do with them, as they would automatically charge me for items over a certain price. they told me it was the P.O. who were making the charges on the pretence of checking on random parcels. I told the gent at customs that the charge was working out dearer than the cartridges cost me.
I was so angry. I have since stopped buying from US. I think the P.O. is using this random parcel check as a money spinner. shame on them.

Have not really considered buying from the US because have never come across that many US websites willing to ship abroad. However the price would have to be considerably cheaper to tempt me or be a product I was desperate to get hold of and not available in the UK/EU.

Bassetear says:
6 June 2014

30 Years ago I used to buy fabric from Hong Kong. Sometimes I was charged duty, sometimes not. 20 years ago I used to buy reeds for a musical instrument from Germany, a small charge was often added. Recently I had a gift sent from the US and had to pay £25 to release it from customs. I also bought 2 pairs of socks @ $5 from the US and was charged about £25 to receive them. The most expensive socks in the hstory of mankind! Never again.

Brian Hastings says:
6 June 2014

As others have pointed out the Post Office charge iniquitous charges but so too do other courier carriers. You rarely have a choice of carrier when ordering from the USA. The parcel arrives and you are delighted. This is followed up with an invoice for all manner of charges from the courier company. The equivalent here would be paying to post a letter and then the recipient is billed later. There is seemingly no control over how these costs are levied.