Rules and regulations

Foreign value added tax: five tips for obtaining a refund

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Goods worth a total of 300 francs or more are subject to customs duties and the Swiss value added tax must be paid. Source: iStock

Whether it’s in Germany, Austria or Italy, shopping in a neighbouring country saves Swiss consumers money. However, in order to make sure that a bargain stays a bargain, comparis.ch has put together five tips for ensuring reimbursement of value added tax.

Clothes, cosmetics, food: goods purchased abroad are often cheaper than they are in Switzerland. And cross-border shoppers benefit not only from lower prices, but from the value added tax as well. A request for refund of this tax can be submitted for items purchased abroad. Heed the following tips and nothing will stand in the way of the hunt for a good bargain.  

1. Check the conditions for refund

Certain conditions must be met in order to be able to reclaim value added tax. In addition to permanent residence in Switzerland, the following conditions must also be met:

Conditions for refund from neighbouring countries

Condition Germany Austria Italy France
Minimum purchase None* EUR 75.01 EUR 154.95 EUR 175.01
Export time period 3 months 3 months 3 months 3 months
VAT refund request deadline 4 months 4 months 3 months 6 months

*The two refund companies Global Blue and Premier Tax Free (see paragraph 5 – Reclaiming value added tax) require a minimum purchase amount of 25 Euro.

Refund requires adherence to deadlines and, in certain countries, a minimum purchase amount. This may also be a condition for receiving an export certificate in a shop.

Important: amounts cannot be combined in order to reach the minimum purchase amount.

2. Request tax-free purchase

In the shop, ask whether you can make the purchase tax-free. This option is not offered universally, and Switzerland’s neighbours are not legally obligated to do so. Also, look for the blue and white Global Blue logo to see if tax-free purchases are possible. The logo can usually be found at the shop entrance or at the cash register.

After you have made your purchase, ask for an export certificate or a tax-free form right at the cash register or at the customer service desk. The form requires your name, address and ID number. Review this information carefully; if it is not absolutely correct, the refund (e.g. from Global Blue) may be rejected. Furthermore, the certificate of export is only valid with the invoice. If these two documents are not stapled together at the cash register, you should do this yourself.

Comparis tip: Going shopping in Germany? Then it is a good idea to bring this form with you – not every shop has them on hand. The “Export and procurer certificate for turnover tax purposes in the context of non-commercial travel” can be found on the website of the German Customs Office (in German only).

3. Have your export certificate stamped

The export certificate can be stamped at the customs desk before leaving the country where you made your purchase. For German customs, for example, this would be the customs desk at the German border. Customs officials require the export certificate along with the receipt and a government-issued ID. They sometimes also conduct spot checks of the items to make sure they are new and unused.

Important: Once an item has been brought over the border, customs cannot retroactively stamp the export certificate. For example, it is not possible to have the export certificate stamped a week after the purchase if you have already crossed the border.

4. Declaring items in Switzerland

For purchases with a total value of 300 francs or more, the goods purchased abroad must be declared to the Swiss authorities – and the Swiss value added tax paid. For Swiss customs, the net purchase value is decisive. This is the value of the item, less the German value added tax. If the converted value is less than the 300 franc limit, you do not have to visit the Swiss customs desk. However, this limit does not apply to packages shipped to Switzerland. Orders from abroad are subject to Swiss value added tax for a value added amount of 5 francs or more.

Important: The number of certain products that can be imported customs-free is limited. In particular, there are limits (per person) for food, alcoholic beverages and tobacco products:

  • 1 kilogram of meat
  • 5 litres of alcoholic beverages up to and including alcohol volumes of 18%
  • 1 litre of alcoholic beverages above alcohol volumes of 18%
  • 250 cigarettes
  • 250 grams of cigars and other tobacco products

Further information can be found on the website of the Federal Customs Administration.

5. Reclaiming value added tax

Value added tax is not reclaimed directly from customs. The amount of money that is refunded varies – this decision is made by the store that sells the products. At stores in border regions, the tax is often refunded directly by the store. In general, the following options are available:

  • Official export declarations: The customer returns to the store where he or she bought the item and is refunded the value added tax in cash or has it deducted from a subsequent purchase.
  • Value added tax refund companies: The value added tax can be reclaimed in cash from Global Blue or Premier Tax Free payment centres by submitting the export certificate. But this service comes at a price: it often involves high fees that are not very transparent. Alternatively, the export certificate (along with the applicant’s bank details or credit card number) can be sent to a tax-free service provider by post.
  • Refund Suisse: Along with the receipt, the export label is printed at the cash register. The label is verified at customs, and during the customer’s next purchase at the shop, the printed barcode on the export label is scanned. The tax is then refunded via Refund Suisse.  

For Swiss customers, the best solution is generally to submit the stamped export certificate during their next trip to the shop. This is the least expensive refund option. However, it is only practical for people who shop in the same location on a regular basis. For others, tax-free service providers or the Refund Suisse export label may be a good alternative.

Tip: Are you travelling by train? If there are customs agents on the train, you can declare the goods to them directly. If not, you can either declare the goods using the app QuickZoll, leave the train at the border train station and hand in a written declaration form (using the declaration box), or declare the goods afterwards within seven days at any customs office during office hours.

By the way, good deals can also be found in Switzerland:

 

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