/ Money, Shopping, Travel & Leisure

Your view: are importing fees too steep?

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Import duty was the big debate of the week, with your experiences of buying from abroad being shared en masse. Do you think it should be easier, simpler and cheaper to buy from the US?

Jenny paid twice for an iPod:

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

Woodgreener is always ready for import fees:

‘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.’

NFH thinks customs limits in the UK are too low:

‘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.’

Extra post office handling charges

John bemoans the handling costs added by Royal Mail:

‘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.’

Graham, who shared his views on our Facebook page, criticised similar charges:

‘The import duty is not the problem as it is a percentage you can calculate. The problem is the ridiculous post office handling fee for which there is apparently no method to avoid. Surely you should be able to pay the duty so you purchase can make it straight to you and avoid a grossly unfair handling charge for them doing nothing.’

Paying for your birthday gift

SuperGran, who gets our Comment of the Week, shares her birthday experience:

‘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 John Lewis. At least that way she will not incur charges for us and will know that presents are being delivered to our door.’

Have you had a similar experience of customs when ordering online goods 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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Duty and VAT are reasonable taxes, and HMRC (HM Revenue & Customs) do not charge an additional fee for collecting them – so small items enter without charge because the tax is not worth the effort. But when duty/VAT is charged carriers (the Post Office, Fedex, UPS, etc.) can and do charge a fee which is out of all proportion to the work entailed, simply because they can, and the recipient has no redress.

It would be a sensible campaign for Which to press for for HMRC to pay the carrier a reasonable fee from the tax collected and prohibit any charges by the carrier to the recipient.

If HMRC were to pay a fee for tax collected on their behalf, imagine the clamour from the 2.5 MILLION VAT registered business’s who spend hours every month collecting and accounting for it, with only complaint and criticism from clipboard carrying jobsworths as a reward.

Bill B says:
6 June 2014

Retailers are not allowed to make a charge for collecting VAT so why is the Post Office? How would it be if you went and bought a new toaster and the retailer said “And I want £8 more for collecting the VAT from you”.

The cost of tax collection, whether vat, paye, or whatever, is already factored into the overhead costs of any business – so the purchaser pays in the price charged.

Why must we have so many goods imported anyway? A great many innovations and designs started in thsi country but we don’t support our own manufacturers and producers. We prefer to put our own gratification first.
Why not think about supporting British industries, designers, manufacturers and in the process give our young people more work opportunities ????????????

Mike.W says:
2 January 2015

It is because the manufacturers and retailers only sell what they think will make them a good profit and if they don’t have it, we have to look elsewhere. Also the quality of manufacture is not always of a good standard and a lot of manufacturers they call themselves are actual importers using Chinese/Indian etc. cheap labour. The question arises who are we actually supporting when we make a purchase, and why are we paying UK prices for shoddy manufactured goods. Answer: Capital Greed. Something the UK in particular is good at.

I wish I could buy locally. But the specialised electronic parts that I need to make the control system that I design cost more than twelve time as much here as they do in China. If I bought them here my control systems would be unaffordable. They were designed here, but not enough are needed here for it to be economic for local manufacture. One manufacturer makes enough for the whole World.

India tried to prohibit imports of things that could be made locally, but not at an economic price, and set it economy back for decades by doing so.

Thank you very much for your comment. It is certainly food for thought for those of us who don’t work in production. I intend sending these comments to my MP and to the Tory Party.
Thanks and good luck with your work.

I would suspect that there is quite a lot of “manual” work involved in collecting import duty & VAT on imports.
Each one is an individual transaction which has to be tracked, matched and accounted for, so maybe the fixed £10 fee or whatever is realistic.
If the system is/was fully automated then the fee should be much smaller, but it is always going to be dis-proportionate for 1 off low value items.

Oscar Rilde says:
17 October 2014

what happened to FREE TRADE, a system that is supposed to be supported by our fine country, yet adopting an unfair tax levy on goods over the price of £15 is banal.

free trade is dead.

Mike.W says:
2 January 2015

I purchased an item from abroad because I couldn’t get a particular colour in this country. The item was exactly the same price as in the UK. Postage Free. ($214 US) the carrier delivered it to the door and informed me a charge of £80 was required for me to get the parcel. That was well over half the price of the object . You can guess what I told him. What worried me was that it was an arbitrary figure with no invoice or authority he just stated it was a customs and Excise charge and I had to pay. No I didn’t. He went away with the package. I got in touch with the Manufacturer and he refunded the purchase. I am deeply suspicious that a carrier can pick figures out of the air and that HM customs and Government allows this to happen. (it was an alloy frame for a model which weighed 30g) and boxed 6*6*2 inches.)

Mike.W says:
15 January 2015

I bought an item online from abroad price 145 US dollars it arrived by courier they said I will have to pay GBP equivalent to 127 US Dollars I said no I wont and did not sign for it. Got in touch with supplier abroad. They refunded the purchase price. They said re-order and they will use a different courier. The item arrived at my door a few days later and the extra cost was GBP equivalent to 5 US dollars which I paid gladly, It appears the couriers can charge what they like without impunity.

I’m sure I remember a Which? campaign to reduce the rip-off charges of Royal Mail and other couriers to collect customs charges, but I can’t now find any details on the Which? website. I have just received advice from Royal Mail of a customs charge of £3.33 plus an £8 handling fee! Was the Which? campaign a failure?

The collection of cash or other forms of payment by the Post Office is quite time consuming, and therefore expensive. The Post Office also has to present the package to Customs (as we used to be called). This too has a cost, and the cost of production to Customs is borne by the importer. Add in the record keeping and accounting procedures, and you get an idea of how the costs mount up. I am not saying that the delivery charge is pitched at the right level: I do not have the data to calculate that.
What I did find interesting was MikeW’s example two posts above. I presume that there was no VAT involved (20%), and the apparent tax rate seems a bit low. I doubt it was in fact tax.
But I bought some very cheap watches a couple of years ago and wondered how they could send them from China for the price. I came across the answer a few weeks ago in a newspaper referring to concessionary rates of postage available to the Chinese sellers. The implication of the article was that the Post Office played some part in fixing the charge. Strange, but possibly true. So maybe subsidised in some way by the Post Office?
There was (is?) a company in the Channel Isles that supplied pharmaceuticals by post, but without VAT. I did read of some bother with my former colleagues, but my recollection is that the UK backed down. With postal collection charges it would almost certainly have destroyed the business. No doubt High Street competitors paying the VAT would have good grounds for objection, but the effect on the Channel Island concerned may have been a relevant policy issue.
For my own part I buy at as low a cost as I can, but do not put myself in the position of being liable for Customs charges due to the collection charge. I decline to buy from the sort of supplier who says they will make a false declaration to reduce charges.

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Like others I too can tolerate HMRC raising appropriate Duty and VAT, although the trigger limits seem low. But I get incensed by the Parcelforce (and others) fees for paying the HMRC costs ‘on my behalf’.

I was asked to pay a fee of $16 for a HMRC fee of £8 on goods that were valued at £8 (the HMRC fee taking the shipping cost into account) needless to say I told Parcelforce were they could stick their demand for payment. The supplier resent the goods with free postage meaning the tax threshold was not triggered.

My understanding is ALL inwards international parcels are presented for HMRC evaluation. So the costs associated with HMRC inspection / valuations should be the same for ALL parcels, whether duty is raised or not.

It’s only if HMRC raise a charge that courier companies can pass the ‘cost’ of the presentation to the recipient as the law does not allow them to charge for processing unless Duty/VAT is due. They are allowed to charge a “reasonable cost” but no one monitors that. It cannot be a reasonable cost if it is more than the cost of shipping a parcel across the world or twice the cost of Duty and VAT due!

The relationship between HMRC and the courier companies is far too cosy. Courier companies probably facilitate the HMRC inspectors by providing facilities and process systems and HMRC allow the courier companies to raise costs unchallenged as the HMRC are not allowed to charge for Tax collection themselves.

As ALL parcels should go through the inspection process courier companies should spread the cost of operating this across this across ALL parcels not just those with Duty/Tax due. In other words it should be a base cost included when they work out their operating cost of doing business.

The current arrangements mean that recipients of parcels, on which Duty and VAT have been raised, are heavily subsidising the processing costs associated for other parcels where no Duty/VAT is due.

The whole system is unfair needs to be opened up for scrutiny and change.

In this day and age, and looking forward to additional costs post Brexit, it should be possible for the HMRC to have an IT system in place so that recipients of parcels can pay the Duty/Tax online which then releases the parcel to the courier company to deliver – which is what the courier company have already been paid for by the sender.

If nothing is done I foresee a post Brexit cash bonanza for courier companies as many more parcels will likely be liable for additional HMRC Duty/VAT once we loose our VAT exemption for being part of the EU.

Come on Consumers Association, act for the benefit of your members and start a campaign with HMRC and MP’s to get the whole system modernised and made equitable. People say “but is a small fee” maybe, but there are thousands of parcels per day and people affected and that represents a large sum of money falling into the hands of courier companies.

Currently I consider it to be a legalised rort, skewed against the consumer and facilitated by HMRC, that needs to be curtailed.

Yes I have previously read those documents which explain “the rort”

ALL parcels are inspected but HMRC and Royal Mail have agreed that the overall cost of that inspection process will be recovered from those parcels on which Duty/Tax is due. It’s a sort of socialist mail policy – the ‘wealthy’ parcels have to pay for the ‘poorer’ parcels.

HRMC are clear they have no control over the ‘reasonable’ recovery cost and Royal Mail avoid clarity in justifying that cost.

If two private companies set up such a system it could, in my view, well be considered a criminal conspiracy.

It seems fair that if a parcel incurs a charge for duty and vat it should carry the cost (£8) that Royal Mail/Parcelforce require. I don’t see why parcels not subject to any taxes should be subject to a charge as little if any work is involved other than reading a declaration certificate on the package.

As far as I understand exactly the same physical handling/work (by Parcelforce) applies to parcels whether subject to duty / tax or not. All parcels are presented (or should be) to HMRC and HMRC will hold back those that HMRC believe charges should apply to.

Therefore the only extra ‘work’ is a computer transaction for payment – as this will be handled electronically it does not justify the high handling fee Parcelforce apply.

The mess stems from the International Postal agreements which I understand ban additional charges for parcels where no duty / tax is due. So rather than make the base cost for parcel delivery adequate to cover ALL delivery and handling costs for ALL packages Royal Mail (Owners of Parcelforce) choose to levy a inflated charge on ‘wealthier’ parcels.

The system is skewed and inequitable, Royal Mail used their status to have the Laws changed to allow these inflated charges probably as they claimed they would be disadvantaged in the run up to privatisation if they could not generate these gouged profits.

Some very clever copywriters have been spinning the story lines to make it all seem reasonable and fair – which where spin is involved generally indicates its the complete opposite.

I have had discussions with Parcelforce and they REFUSE point blank to disclose how the cost is established and what ‘extra’ work they do – I can only conclude its a ‘as much as we can get away with’ calculation.

The old system of paying the delivery man was not fit for purpose because of the need for cash/cheque handling. However it should now be possible for HMRC to send the Duty/VAT invoice to the parcel recipient (instead of to Parcelforce) and for the recipient to pay that electronically to the HMRC (they have systems for this in place already) and then the HMRC just release the parcel for delivery – Why won’t that work??

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Be it Boarder Force, as agents of HRMC, or HRMC directly they are both government departments and should not be charging additional costs for processing of International Mail. The Duty/Tax is due to the HRMC and in this electronic funds transfer age could be collected directly from the recipient – i.e. cut Royal Mail / Parcelforce out of the arrangement.

Where International Mail is concerned (as opposed to courier parcels) I understand that, because of International Agreements, customs clearance fees cannot be levied in addition to postage delivery costs. That is the difference between Royal Mail (i.e. Parcelforce) and private courier organisations – Royal Mail are still the official UK Mail Service in terms of International postage agreements. It is how it used to work when it was only the Royal Mail, the man turned up at the door with the parcel and ‘Duty to pay’ or ‘Excess postage to pay’ invoice – you paid the invoice and the parcel was handed over.

The arrangements between HMRC / Boarder Force / Royal Mail (Parcelforce) seem far to cosy and are far from transparent. For example where does all this inspection take place? and by whose staff? Are Boarder Force staff actually examining every parcel, as we are led to believe, or do Parcelforce staff just push a selection of parcels towards the Boarder Force staff?

I am happy to pay Duty and VAT as appropriate to the cost of the goods but I detest the inequity of having to pay an extortionate payment handling fee to the Royal Mail organisation which has already been paid by the parcel sender for delivery.

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I used to buy quite a lot of stuff from the US and was happy to allow for duty & tax in the days before ‘handling charges’. Many parcels got through without additional charges.

I vaguely remember 2 things that happened….

I was charged for handling as a parcel had to be opened and inspected. It came with some sort of sticker explaining the charge. The parcel was actually intact and had not been opened, but it gave the handlers (Royal Mail?) an excuse to charge for the privilege.

An order was split into 2 parcels and I got charged for 2 lots of handling and taxes making it a very expensive purchase.

I stopped buying from the USA.

My feeling is that import duty and tax used to be handled by the government (HMRC?) who did not make an additional handling charge.

Then something changed and I think Royal Mail got in on the act ……. Was charging for opening parcels for inspection the first step in the current charges? Whatever, it has turned into a nice little earner.

Since there are two informed persons, who support the current situation in regards to the level of additional handling fees, here can they inform us what is likely to happen after Brexit when we are out of the Customs Union/.

Presumably the number of parcels subject to Duty/VAT will increase exponentially as the ‘Free movement of goods withing the EU’ conditions will not exist. A big increase in Royal Mail / Parcelforce profits on the cards?

I have just had some spare parts sent from Japan.

The order was started on 10th Jan.
The parcel arrived at Coventry Parcelforce and was presented to customs on 13th Jan.
The parcel was returned from customs on 15th Jan.
The parcel was being processed at the delivery office on 15th Jan.
The parcel was held at the delivery office on 16th Jan.

Friday 17th Jan Parcelforce inform me that if I want my parcel the following day, it will cost me another £12. Luckily I can wait until next week.

The days of the rip-off charges of Parcelforce should be numbered.

My parcel was electronically registered with full details of contents and fully tracked from Japan so there was very little for Parcelforce to do other than notify me of the import VAT that could just as easily have been done by customs electronically at the point of inspection.

The terminal dues system covers delivery costs in the UK, so the £12 handling charge by Parcelforce is a 100% rip-off.

Kevni says:
18 January 2020

I’ve had the same problem with Parcelforce, £24 this month so far in these charges, not including the VAT, which was about the same, so a disproportionate cost.

Seems to me this is a bit like wheel clampers – they’re holding your property to ransom for a fee, over and above duty and VAT due.

Since goods coming into the UK have to be cleared thro customs, this is a predictable cost for the carrier and as such should be included as part of the shipping costs paid up front.

If you pay the duty and VAT online to release your property, the marginal cost for the carrier must be close to zero. If you collect it and pay at that point you are actually saving them money since they don’t have to physically deliver the goods.

So it seems like extortion of an unjustified ‘invented’ cost to pad their profit margins, which the recipient typically hasn’t agreed to at the point of puchase (I’ve only ever seen duty and VAT referred to on a vendors site). Is there a legal remedy for this, or any action from Which?

Did you pay at a collection office Kevin?

I paid Parcelforce online. It seems very inefficient for them to collect money for customs when customs could be paid direct. The letter requesting the money was sent from a local depot

I tried to find out how much customs pay Parcelforce for the privilege of ripping us off but couldn’t find anything.

Parcelforce’s fees, and reasons, are given here:

Duty is often low or not applied. 20% vat (generally) is payable on the value of the goods plus delivery charges, just as in the UK. Parelforce’s fee for providing a customs inspection facility, handling the goods importation, the paperwork and remitting the vat and duty on the importer’s behalf is £12.

I know all that malcolm. 🙂

Now, how do Parcelforce get paid for handling all the parcels below the threshold or from the EU where no duty or VAT is payable? They will all need the same border checks coming into the UK.

They must handle millions of parcels where they cannot levy charges on the recipient.

So, don’t you think the Government might already pay them to carry out these checks on behalf of HM Revenue and Customs?

Parcelforce charges are to cover:
– additional handling: this parcel has to pay fees, mark it for holding until fees are paid. Parcel is then sent to delivery office along with all other parcels.
– administration: this parcel has to pay fees, enter details into a computer max time 5 minutes, send out a letter.
– collection of monies: I paid mine electronically, so Parcelforce have had to nothing except collate all money to hand over to HMRC which would be computerised.
– provision of facilities for Customs clearance packages: Parcelforce will have had my parcel for 7 days which is their fault for holding onto it when in this day and age I should have been able to log in to tracking and pay HMRC direct. Instead I have to wait for a letter and pay Parcelforce.

Actual delivery of the parcel is covered by terminal dues and as Kevin said, if you go to the delivery office to pay and collect your parcel you are saving them money.

Parcelforce don’t do a lot for their £12 except what they conjure up for themselves into a nice little earner.

Perhaps Which? would like to do a freedom of information request to find out how much the Government pays Parcelforce for Customs handling.

Another issue is that the recipient has no say in the choice of carrier; that is determined by the consignor presumably. Other carriers might offer lower fees for these semi-automated functions.

The government collects VAT on the handling charges – perhaps a portion of that is waived in return for a small amount of administrative activity.

I think people who buy from abroad realise there will be some extra costs over and above the purchase price, and have probably read up on the terms & conditions, but question the round number chosen as the fee – why is it not £9.84 for example [or even less] to represent the actual or marginal cost of undertaking these functions not covered by the routine despatch and delivery functions? To me it certainly seems to be lacking in transparency and justification and appears to be a profit centre in its own right.

The £12 Clearance Fee is zero rated for VAT John, but whatever, HMRC are going to pay something to Parcelforce for administration.

If you read my post on 27th April 2018, we didn’t used to pay any admin charges until one day when ParcelForce charged me handling for opening and inspecting a parcel that was still intact. That was probably the only thing they could charge you for at the time but somehow they have managed to escalate those charges (a bit like unfair parking penalties).

The VAT payable was very close to my estimate based on the exchange rate on the day of my order which is fair enough. But the £12 fee from Parcelforce is very close to extortion if they are also being paid by HMRC as they will not let you have your parcel until you pay them.

Thanks for the clarification, Alfa.

All other income received by Parcelforce and other carriers for collection, handling and delivery is liable to VAT which must amount to a sizeable sum. As you suggest, somewhere in all that there is probably an offset to allow for custom clearance processes.

The whole process could probably be automated and made much more efficient but that would only benefit the recipient so there are no incentives for the carriers or the HMRC to change their ways as they can continue to tap a captive [and largely uncomplaining] market.

What is interesting in your link malcolm is in the last part:
Customs clearance fees
The shipping provider may charge a customs clearance fee or customs handling fee for processing the import declaration, an advancement fee for paying the duty and VAT on behalf of the recipient, an airline handling fee for loading and unloading the goods, a security fee for screening or x-raying the goods and a fee for preparing the customs declaration.

These charges will vary from company to company.

When goods are brought into the European Union by postal operators such additional charges are limited to the costs of the customs clearance procedure.

Member States cannot impose charges related to customs clearance higher than the actual costs incurred.

Is Parcelforce acting illegally? They charge a flat rate of £12, but not all parcels will receive equal treatment. There are those that just get charged, then there are others that might need x-rays or opening for further investigation.

Straight notification and collection that I would expect for my parcel is not going to cost them £12 to process.

I had a look at Germany, France and Spain to see how their imports are handled.

Germany levy no processing fees.

It looks like France only charge for additional verification or testing of imported goods.

Spain on the other hand, looks an absolute nightmare. Recipients are given 3 days to pay extortionate fees, but authorities don’t answer phones or emails making it impossible to pay. The authorities are then free to auction off parcel contents.

We have had discussions on clearance fees many times. When a delivery company handles the paperwork and remits money to customs on a receiver’s behalf it incurs cost, and should be reimbursed. However, the cost, I would suggest, is the point at issue.

Deutsche Post AG certainly appear to make no charge; however their website says that couriers may well “Any duties that are payable and courier service company’s charges are usually collected by the delivery agent.” As far as I can see they are part of DHL and the UK arm charges a minimum flat fee of £11. DHL Netherlands makes no mention of a courier charge

As you say, this is a bit of minefield. I’d suggest, in view of the criticisms made over a long period of Convos, this is a topic that Which? could investigate more closely than we can. It could look at HMRC import charges (vat and duty, and what they apply too such as carriage), limits and exemptions, pre-paying vat, and for the “service charge” what cost is incurred by HMRC representatives in clearing a package and justify the courier charge. It could look at what other EU countries charge, how charges differ between post office/courier companies. I doubt we will see any changes but it would at least make us all better informed.

bobthehopeful says:
9 January 2021

I have no issue with hmrc tax and customs fees. that makes sense to me and I understand the work that goes into checking post etc. the £8 Royal Mail handling fee is disgusting. the package is sent from the customs to Royal Mail. all Royal Mail do is deliver the product; like they would any other package!! if it costs me 70p to send a parcel it should cost 70p to receive a parcel regardless of if its from abroad. I will never understand the £8 handling fee and the fact its a universal set price just further proves its unneeded as if the price carried I might believe it actually means something. its an excuse for the now private corporation Royal Mail to make money. disgusting and I now pay a little more and get things delivered via Fedex who cover all the fees.