Have you ever tried to ship something across an ocean before? Being able to do this cheaply is a relatively modern miracle, and odds are that if you haven’t yet, you’re going to want to do it at some point. When you do, you’ll probably realize the same thing I did: shipping a package internationally is fraught with more complexity and bureaucracy than is strictly necessary.
I know. Shocking, isn’t it?
A while back, I decided to ship a package from the USA to Europe. At the time, there wasn’t a comprehensive introduction on what options you have to avoid unnecessary duty and tax charges, or how you may be able ship to Europe without requiring the recipient to pay duty charges at all. (If you don’t know what “duty” is yet, I’ll explain it in a second. For now, imagine that if you sent a gift to your poor grandmother in… Spain, let’s say, she couldn’t even receive the package until she paid a percentage of the gift’s value. This happens, often right when it arrives at the front door.)
So today, I’m going to write the article I wish had existed when I was doing my initial research back then. I’ll spoil the ending: There IS a way to send a package without paying duty tax, but I first had to do some legwork to find out: I made a preliminary trip to my local post office. If anyone knew what would be required to send my small parcel to Europe, they would.
There, I learned 2 key facts:
- All packages sent to outside the US require you to fill out a short customs form that’s affixed to the package.
- The person receiving the package may have to pay duty.
As I soon realized, “duty” is the name for the tax applied to goods coming into a country, which means that the recipient of the package will have to pay the postal service some money (aka. “charged duties”) before they can receive their package. Keep in mind, this is after you have already paid to ship the item to them. If you’ve never shipped a package internationally before, I can understand if you’re confused. Here’s a snippet of the conversation I had with the attendant at the Post Office:
“Well, how much is duty? What if this is a gift? Would they charge for that?”, I asked.
“Sometimes a country charges even if the package is a gift. I don’t know how much duty tax would be because I don’t work for US Customs. Perhaps you should do an internet search,” she replied.
So, I did some digging.
What it takes to be Duty-Free
I spent hours scouring the net, learning as much as I could, and I found many conflicting stories about how much European duty tax (if any) my recipient would have to pay.
I finally found some solid answers when I discovered the Exemptions for Sending Gifts page on Export.gov which states that zero duty and taxes is applied to a package if it’s a gift and the value of the gift is less than 45 Euros. (At the time of this writing, that converts to $60.88 USD.)
That meant that if the value of the contents of my package were under about $60, my recipient wouldn’t have to pay to receive their package!
I felt relieved.
UPDATE: Keep in mind that this does vary from country to country within Europe. The link that lists exemptions doesn’t cover all European countries. Be sure to lookup specific info if your country isn’t in the list in the link above.
(Also, for up-to-date currency conversions, I recommend XE.com. Also, be aware that Export.gov has been known to change its site’s address-structure before, which means that this link may break. If it does, please let me know. And then go to the Logistics page and search around for “import fee” or “gift”.)
Some Other Things to Keep in Mind
Through my research, I also collected some additional info that you should keep in mind when shipping to Europe. I’ve summarized them below:
- It’s easier and faster to get a package to a large city than a small village.
- Keep the time difference in mind (for instance, Chicago’s time is currently 7 hours earlier than Paris).
- Most European countries do not deliver on Saturdays.
- Expect the unexpected. Europeans have many holidays and many offices close around Christmas and New Years.
- Europeans usually have at least 4 weeks of vacation time so check that your recipient isn’t on vacation.
- Certain items such as alcohol and perfume have more duty restrictions.
- If you’re sending something less specific, you can avoid duty altogether by using a gift company based in the EU.
Controversy, Contradictions, & Debates around Duty Tax
I also came across some firsthand accounts of people’s experiences with shipping to Europe, especially when sending gifts. As with most research, I came across contradicting stories. And some, such as Jean-Francois Dufour on this photography forum, claim that the stated value of the package doesn’t matter as much as the stated contents of the package.
But what if your package isn’t a gift, or it’s valued over 45 Euros?
Some information about how much you can expect to pay if your package is valued over 45 Euros can be found on this thread. Although the original poster is in Germany, the thread applies to all of the European Union since Germany is a member of the EU.
Beyond the Seas
I was lucky. What I was sending had a value less than $60, so I knew my recipient wouldn’t need to pay just to receive their package. And as I was filling out the customs form and addressing the package, I imagined the journey this little package would take, over land and through the air, utilizing many modern-miracles as it made its way to a land… beyond the seas.