Buying and leasing

Used cars from abroad – is a direct import worth it?

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It is often cheaper to buy used cars from neighbouring countries – but is it worth the effort? Source: iStock.com / hedgehog94

The price of used cars is usually cheaper in countries neighbouring Switzerland. But you need to add custom duties, VAT and multiple fees to that price. And it takes time. Is a direct import worth your time and effort? We break down the cost of purchasing a VW Golf from Germany.

You can use our example to find out when it’s really worth going through the import process, what mistakes to avoid, and what else you should watch out for – so that importing a car really does turn out to be a bargain. And there’s plenty to watch out for. The devil is in the details. Let's take a look at a specific example.  

VW Golf more than 15 per cent cheaper?

In the car marketplace at comparis.ch, we like the look of a VW Golf 1.4 TSI from 2015. It has a petrol engine with 150 hp and 33,000 kilometres on the clock. It's not an overly luxurious model – no metallic paint, for example – but it does have sat nav. A Swiss dealer is selling it for 19,900 francs. Comparis gives the price a rating of 5.0, as it is 300 francs below the market price of 20,200 francs.  

Can we find a Golf like this abroad for a better price? The search engine AutoUncle is useful for comparing prices in different European countries. For Germany, we perform our search at autouncle.de – and find two cars with similar specifications.

Always go to a dealer for exports

One of the cars is located in Stuttgart. The seller wants 16,350 francs for it. AutoUncle thinks that's a great price and gives it five stars. What’s more, this Golf has only driven 27,000 kilometres. The thing is, the seller is a private individual. You can often get a better deal from a private seller than a dealer – but when the car needs to be exported, this is not a good idea. This is because private sellers cannot refund VAT. Only dealers can do this.  

Seat Regensburg has a similar Golf on offer with almost identical specifications. At 16,770 euros, it costs a little more. AutoUncle also finds this a great price. But if you deduct German VAT of 19 per cent, that gives a net price of just 14,100 euros. From a Swiss perspective, that is suddenly a much more attractive option than the private sale. Given a euro exchange rate of 1.17 francs (as at March 2018), the resulting price is just shy of 16,500 francs.  

3,400 francs cheaper than in Switzerland. In this case, a direct import may well be worth it. But is it really? Let’s do the sums.    

Swiss customs duties and tax

You will always have to pay the import duties levied by the government at the border. A minimum of three fees are always charged:  

Vehicle duty: There is a special tax for motor vehicles in Switzerland. It is 4 per cent for imports. We would be charged 660 francs for our Golf.  

Inspection report fees: This report is required for registration with the Road Traffic Office. Customs will provide you with the report, which costs a standard price of 20 francs.

VAT: VAT is applicable to imported cars, just like any other product imported into Switzerland. Since the beginning of 2018, VAT has been charged at 7.7 per cent. This is not just based on the net price – the vehicle duty and fees are included too. This works out at 1,322 francs for our Golf,  

making a total of around 2,000 francs. So, after import duties and charges, our Golf now costs 18,500 francs – only 1,400 francs cheaper than the used car in Switzerland.    

Possible additional duties

For our Golf, that was it: no further government charges apply. But for vehicles that are not as clean, there is a CO2 tax. And for imports from other countries, there are additional customs duties.  

CO2 tax: Our Golf meets the Euro 6 emissions requirements and is under the limit of 122.55 grams of CO2 per kilometre. This means the CO2 tax is 0 francs. For other cars, you can calculate the CO2 penalty at the Swiss Federal Office of Energy website (tool available in German, French and Italian only).  

Customs duties: Cars imported from the EU are exempt from customs duties. For those purchased from other countries, a duty of 12 to 15 francs per 100 kilograms of the vehicle's weight is levied. N.B.: We need to prove that the vehicle is from the EU. For this, we need form EUR 1, which we obtain from our dealer.  

How to get through customs

We let the German dealer take care of the export declaration for German customs. Cost: 100 euros. This is worth it. The dealer knows the electronic system better than we do. In any case, it is easier if the dealer acts as our official exporter until the VAT is refunded. (We are just the drivers of our new car.)  

At the border, German customs officials confirm that we have now exported our Golf. We will need this confirmation later for getting the German VAT back from the dealer. The dealer is not legally obliged to do this, so we ensure it is part of the agreement.  

The Swiss customs registration system e-dec is also electronic. We do this ourselves in our name. We need to be able to show both customs registration documents when we arrive at the border – in order to export the car at German customs, and import it at Swiss customs.  

We therefore plan in advance at exactly which border crossing we will enter Switzerland. We also ensure that the customs offices on both sides will actually be open. And that we will be able to pay by card in these customs offices, otherwise we will need a lot of cash.  

Licenced twice, insured twice

But back to Regensburg, Bavaria. Our Golf is still at the dealer’s and not yet licenced. We need German number plates to be able to drive it out of the yard. It's no problem for the test drive – the dealer just attaches dealer plates. But he's not going to lend them to us until we register our new car in Switzerland.  

So we need German number plates in our own name for the journey to Switzerland and the first few days there. You can get special export number plates for this purpose. In Germany, they are available from the relevant local authority. Our dealer tells us that we need to go to the vehicle registration office for Regensburg city.  

In order to obtain the plates, we need proof of insurance. Liability insurance is obligatory. You can usually find insurance agents near the vehicle registration office. So we go into the office, pick up the vehicle papers and a document stating the vehicle number. But no plates. In Germany, you have to get that done separately afterwards. But there are number plate makers near the registration office too.  

The cost of all the above varies depending on the local authority, insurance company and number plate maker. We get the plates for around 30 euros. Registration costs roughly the same in all local authorities in Germany. And we find a 30-day liability insurance policy for some 70 euros. So we have registered our Golf for 130 euros and can drive off. We don't have casco (comprehensive) insurance, because to take this out at short notice can cost as much as 500 euros for just 30 days.   

Once we get to Switzerland, we will have to register the vehicle again – this time properly and permanently. We do this – as we would for any car in Switzerland – at the Road Traffic Office for our canton.    

Technical inspection before registration

But first, our Golf needs to undergo a technical inspection. The following two steps are involved:  

Emissions test: This can be performed by any authorized garage in Switzerland. We get the emissions test document from our garage. We pay 80 francs for the test and the document.  

Motor vehicle inspection (MFK in German): This goes just as smoothly as for Swiss cars, because we have the EC Certificate of Conformity (COC) for our Golf. We pay 60 francs at our local Road Traffic Office.  

The COC is important. Without it, the car may have to undergo an individual inspection, and that’s expensive. Our dealer in Regensburg didn’t have the COC to hand, but would have obtained one for us for a fee. We chose a cheaper way and had it issued online by Volkswagen Germany for 40 euros.  

Less than 1,000 francs saved

Apart from the German export declaration, we did everything we could ourselves. And only paid for services that were absolutely necessary. So everything we did up until registering the car in Switzerland came to just under 460 francs.  

That doesn't include plates and fees in Switzerland. But we can't include these in our comparison because we would have to pay them anyway if we were re-registering a car from Switzerland.  

After adding tax, import duties, fees and the minimum necessary third-party services prior to registration, our Golf is now costing us 18,980 francs – just 940 francs cheaper than the car for sale in Switzerland (some prices rounded up or down):

Car from Germany 16,500 francs
Vehicle duty 660 francs
Inspection report 20 francs
VAT 1,322 francs
Export declaration 100 euros
Number plates 30 euros
Liability insurance 70 euros
Registration 30 euros
Emissions test 80 francs
Motor vehicle inspection 60 francs
COC (online, VW Germany) 40 euros
TOTAL 18,960 francs
Car from Switzerland 19,900 francs
SAVING 940 francs

So was it worth the trip and the effort? It's really up to the individual to decide. But you’ll certainly have a tale to tell afterwards!

Import by yourself or by a professional?

So far, our calculations are based on the cheapest way of importing a car, i.e. you fetch the car yourself from abroad and bring it into Switzerland. You do the driving. You complete all the administrative tasks. But you can have someone else help you with all this.  

Professional service providers are available at each step of the process: customs agents, if you want to avoid bureaucratic mistakes, and freight forwarders, to drive your new car to you on a lorry. Or the friendly dealer just over the border who will drive your new car to you on his dealer plates.  

There are also full-service providers. These are agencies that organize all these services for you. Of course, this comes at a price. The company Import Butler has a practical online import calculator to help you calculate the total cost of all services. Using this calculator, a complete package for our Golf, from customs registration to motor vehicle inspection, works out at just under 1,500 francs – and you still need to drive the car to Switzerland yourself. To have a freight forwarder ship the car for you, the cost goes up to 1,900 francs. Either way, using these services makes it more expensive to buy our Golf in Germany than to buy the used car in Switzerland.  

And the warranty?

Essentially, garages in Switzerland would be obliged to provide the services covered by the manufacturer’s warranty, including for parallel vehicle imports. However, rhe German manufacturer’s warranty for our Golf, which was first registered in 2015, has already expired. But the same applies to our used car in Switzerland. The difference is that an extended warranty is available on the Swiss Golf.  

For many car makes, official Swiss imports already come with warranties that last much longer and are much more comprehensive than in the EU. It’s very difficult to put a value on that. So if you want to import a car yourself, you should watch out for the differences for your preferred make of car.  

Under 20,000 francs – not worth it

In 2018, the euro is not as cheap as it was in 2015. Then, it was worth importing a car in many more cases. Nowadays, price pressure from abroad has driven down prices in Switzerland, so that the price difference is relatively small.  

We save less than 1,000 francs on our 20,000-franc Golf. If the car you want is for sale for less than 20,000 francs on the Swiss market, it's usually not worth importing from abroad, irrespective of how much of the administration and driving you do yourself.  

It can, however, be well worth importing new cars or those sold by vehicle manufacturer employees after one year, especially the more expensive models. But you may need to pay more service charges, such as for a specialist import service provider or a dealer that will fetch the car from abroad.  

Keeping track of everything

If you want to buy your next car yourself from abroad, then this TCS brochure (in German only) provides a useful guide. It is not quite up-to-date any more, but it is very thorough. You could also visit the official import page of the Customs Information Office. This provides a precise list of the documents you need to have with you.