No one wants to do paperwork during a vacation abroad, but you might change your mind for the prize your efforts can earn you: money back. Dozens of countries tack a value-added tax onto purchases and then turn around and refund the amount to the foreign traveler.
To understand the fee, and how to recover your dinero (argent, dinheiro, Geld, etc.), we contacted experts on both sides of the Atlantic. On this side, we consulted Anne Banas, executive editor of Boston-based Smarter Travel; John Townsend, a AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman; and Tim Husted, senior director of Traveler Services Support at Carlson Wagonlit Travel in Minneapolis. In Europe, we heard from Joni Smeenk, chief executive of Vatfree.com in the Netherlands, and Marie Bergfelt, a spokeswoman at Global Blue, a Swiss company that assists travelers with tax-free shopping and refunds.
Here’s a deep look into the VAT.
What is the VAT?
The VAT, or value-added tax, is a charge added to goods and services purchased abroad, with some exceptions — restaurant meals and hotel stays, for instance. To qualify for a refund, the transaction must fulfill a few requirements: The retailer must participate in the refund program, and the amount of the per-store purchase must meet the country’s minimum value. For example, France requires a minimum purchase of 175 euros; Ireland has no threshold. In addition, the merchandise must be unused, so no wearing that fancy Italian leather jacket home.
The VAT is added to the net price. For example, if the VAT rate is 20 percent and the total price tag of a frock is 100 euros (83.50 + 20 percent tax = 100), the tax (and subsequent refund) equals 16.50 euros — or $22.56 after the currency conversion.
Which countries charge a VAT? Does the percentage vary per country?
Dozens of countries charge a VAT, including all European Union countries, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Singapore, etc. Percentages vary by country. The range is 8 to 27 percent, but many E.U. nations — the United Kingdom, France, Austria, Estonia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Slovakia — charge 20 percent. For an E.U. list, see www.vatfree.com/en/
How does an American traveler apply for a refund?
First, locate a tax-free store (not to be confused with a duty-free store). Look for signs at the entrance or the checkout counters, or ask for a tax-free form when paying. Global Blue, Premier Tax Free and Vatfree.com, among other companies, compile abbreviated lists of participating stores. Check their online directories.
Next, fill out the form, including the items purchased, the total cost and the refund amount, plus such personal info as passport number, home address, etc. Then attach the receipt to the form. In a few instances, you can receive the refund before you leave the shop. “Some countries provide tax-free companies to exempt the VAT in the store at the moment of purchase,” Smeenk explained, adding that you will still need to obtain a customs stamp and return the receipt to the store or processing firm. “Otherwise the VAT will be charged via the traveler’s credit card.”
When leaving the country, set aside some pre-flight time to visit the customs office at the airport or border crossing. The official there will affix an export validation stamp to the form. Keep your new treasures in their original packaging and within arm’s reach, in case the officer wishes to see the goods.
You can process the refund on your own or rely on an agent like Vatfree.com or a company such as Global Blue. The businesses, which do the grunt work for the consumer, charge a handling fee. Vatfree.com, for instance, takes 5 percent of the purchase amount, excluding the tax. Play around on their online calculators for refund estimates.
How is the refund paid back?
The refund comes in a variety of forms: as cash, a refund to your credit card, a bank deposit or a check, a PayPal deposit, even a donation to a friend or charity. Depending on the store-issued form, you can receive the refund immediately as cash from a refund booth, or after several weeks or months via the merchant or assisting company. Global Blue, which has more than 200 refund offices at major airports and border crossings, offers customers who come in person cash (in the country’s currency) or a credit to their charge card (in the card’s currency). Individuals who mail the form to Global Blue receive a credit card refund or a bank check sent to their home address.
If you don’t receive the refund, how can you track your submission?
The refund companies offer their customers tracking tools. For example, with Global Blue, you can check the status of your refund on the Web site (www.globalblue.com) or contact the customer service department. Vatfree.com e-mails the traveler a notification with a status update. If you work directly with the vendor, contact the store. But before you make the call, check your credit card statement for two or three billing cycles to see if the refund appears.
Is it worth the hassle?
“Yes,” says Banas, “especially for expensive purchases. And it’s not a huge hassle if you remember to stay organized from the beginning.”
Adds Smeenk: “Two billion euros are left unclaimed in the E.U. each year. If everyone would reclaim the VAT and donate it to a good cause, think of the impact it would have.”
Banas can’t emphasize enough: Get the customs stamp before you leave the country. For the greatest refund windfall, Townsend suggests binge-
buying at one store — say, bulk up on Irish fisherman sweaters from one Killarney merchant. He adds that for a multi-country shopping spree in the E.U., wait until the final destination to process your forms. (Just make sure you know the E.U. members; Switzerland is not one.) Finally, Bergfelt recommends signing up for the free Global Blue card, which automates the paperwork process — freeing up your time for more shopping.