Consumer rights on goods bought from the EU after Brexit 

4 min read
February 04, 2021

Buying from the EU is now more taxing…

If you’ve been down to the post office lately only to discover a costly surprise waiting for you, you’re not alone. 

I’ve been swamped by people contacting me with questions about VAT and other charges on goods bought from the EU. Everyone has been caught by surprise – including the Government which stated its guidance was ‘out of date’ last week. 

There are many things still being clarified as EU businesses (and UK ones sending goods to the EU) have tried to adapt their systems to reflect if VAT was being taken at point of sale, if double VAT was being taken (VAT at EU and UK sources) and most controversially if goods would not be sent to the UK (or worse, if some retailers in the UK would stop posting to Northern Ireland). 

Here’s a very general overview of the current situation. The simple advice? Get confirmation in advance about the tax treatment before you shop. 

What’s going on?

As of 01 January 2021, goods coming into the UK from the EU qualify for VAT – either at point of sale or as they come into the country. That means the business you buy from has to apply VAT at the till. If it doesn’t you could be hit with a bill for ‘import VAT’ as it comes into the country. 

But that’s not all. As some people may have experienced with non-EU purchases in the past, if VAT hasn’t been taken you can be hit with customs charges. 

Many people have complained about charges of £100 or more on top of innocent looking purchases made from the EU. Some have argued they didn’t realise that these charges would apply. Others have said they never would have made the purchase had they known. Many businesses have been caught by surprise too. 

And if you purchased before Christmas, you’re not safe. The import VAT is being applied where applicable when the goods arrive in the UK if they get here in 2021.

So when do I have to pay? 

If you receive the goods and the tax has not been paid, then you have to pay up to release the parcel from purgatory: 

  • VAT (import) at 20%;
  • Customs / excise duty; and
  • Some couriers are charging extra ‘administration fees’ too. 

The rules are complicated and involve all kinds of caveats and exemptions, but as a general rule you pay if: 

  • You bought the goods or received them as a gift;
  • The goods are new or used (so no general second-hand exemption); and
  • You are keeping the goods or selling them on. 

What are the charges? 

  • Goods under £135 in value are not subject to import VAT or customs duty;
  • Goods sent as a gift worth more than £39 are subject to customs duty and over £135 are subject to income tax;
  • Booze, cigarettes and perfume have their own tax treatment.

But my goods cost £99?

The Government says that for goods under £135 the VAT should be taken at the point of sale. One of the big questions we’re scrabbling to understand is what happens if the business doesn’t apply this or doesn’t realise. 

Many EU businesses will also be applying VAT at the EU level – so you could be paying some tax (15% minimum with variance between the 27 member states) but not the right UK tax (20%). Some people are saying they’ve been hit with tax and charges for items that cost less than £30. 

Can I refuse to accept the parcel? 

In theory, you can refuse to accept a parcel if you haven’t been informed about the ‘true’ cost of the goods, even if it’s innocent. However, the laws that govern shopping and returns are not going to be necessarily the same as for the UK, and some businesses might insist that you pay postage or charges for returned items. It makes sense to make a formal complaint about this to the company in writing to avoid any problems further down the line. 

Tips for how to avoid the charges

These days, we all need to be savvy shoppers, regardless of where we buy goods from. Before you click here’s what to do:

  • Don’t shop spontaneously. Do a bit of research on the retailer first. Just because it says ‘UK’ in the shop name doesn’t mean it’s based here. 
  • Check the ‘contact us’ and ‘complaints’ pages. If something goes wrong, you don’t want a chat bot or a rubbish online form. Look for phone numbers, email addresses and UK addresses. 
  • Look for the returns policy. Sometimes the returns policy can be too expensive to make the purchase worthwhile. 
  • Buying abroad? Ask about the tax treatment in advance. Check if UK VAT is being debited and ask if EU VAT is part of the quoted price. Get any confirmation in writing. 
  • We love a surprise but check with a loved one in advance if they’re sending you gifts – and check the guidance online. Sending multiple items in a box can be an expensive mistake. Make sure the customs declaration is clear too. 


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