Rules and regulations

VAT refunds: 5 tips on shopping abroad

Source: iStock / katatonia82

Whether it’s in France, 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, has put together five tips on how to reclaim your value added tax.

Clothes, cosmetics, food: goods purchased abroad are often cheaper than they are in Switzerland. Shoppers benefit not only from lower prices on the other side of the border, but from the value added tax as well, is this can be reclaimed for items purchased abroad.

How is value added tax refunded?

Follow our tips to ensure the process of reclaiming your value added tax goes without a hitch:

1. Check the refund conditions

In order for you to reclaim value added tax, certain conditions must be met. In addition to permanent residence in Switzerland, the following conditions apply:

Refund conditions for neighbouring countries

Condition Germany Austria Italy France
Minimum purchase EUR 50.01 EUR 75.01 EUR 154.95 EUR 175.01
Max. time from purchase to export 3 months 3 months 3 months 3 months
VAT refund request deadline 4 years
3 years
3 months 6 months

Source: Global Blue

In order to obtain a refund, you therefore need to observe certain deadlines and, in some countries, have paid a minimum purchase value. This may also be a condition for receiving an export certificate in a shop. 

Note: Receipts cannot be combined in order to reach the minimum purchase value. 

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 obliged to do so. Often, the blue and white Global Blue logo indicates that tax-free purchases are possible. The logo can usually be seen at the shop entrance or checkout.

After you have made your purchase, ask for an export certificate or a tax-free form either straight from the checkout or at the customer service desk. The forms require you to provide your name, address and ID number. Review this information carefully – if it is not absolutely correct, the refund may be rejected. Furthermore, the certificate of export is only valid in conjunction with the invoice. If these two documents are not stapled together at the checkout, you should do this yourself.

Export certificate for download

Going shopping in Germany? Then it is a good idea to take this form with you – not every shop has them on hand. You can download and print the form, entitled Export and procurer certificate for turnover tax purposes in the context of non-commercial travel, from the German Customs Office website (in German only).

3. Have your export certificate stamped

You can get your export certificate stamped at the customs desk before you leave the country in which 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 to make sure the goods are actually being exported.

Note: At the time of export, the goods must be new and unused.

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 the item in question has already crossed the border.

4. Declare items in Switzerland

Goods purchased abroad whose total value is 300 francs or more must be declared to Swiss customs – and the Swiss value added tax paid. For Swiss customs, this figure is based on the net purchase value, which 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. Goods ordered from abroad are subject to Swiss value added tax if the tax owed is 5 francs or more. You can find out more about this subject in our article: “Ordering from abroad – what customs fees apply?”

Note: For some products, there are limits as to how much you can import without incurring customs charges. The following limits apply to food, alcoholic beverages and tobacco products (per person):

  • Meat: 1 kg in total 
  • Alcoholic beverages up to 18% alcohol content: 5 litres 
  • Alcoholic beverages over 18% alcohol content: 1 litre
  • Cigarettes: 250
  • Other tobacco products: 250 g 

For more information, see the website of the Federal Customs Administration.

5. Reclaim value added tax

Value added tax is not reclaimed directly from customs. The money can be refunded in different ways. At stores in border regions, the tax is often refunded directly by the store. In general, however, the following options are available:

  • Official export declarations
  • Value added tax refund companies
  • Refund Suisse

For Swiss customers, the best solution is generally to hand in 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 are good alternatives. 

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 QuickZoll app, leave the train at the border train station and fill in a declaration form (at the declaration box), or declare the goods afterwards within seven days at any customs office during office hours. 

Don’t want the trouble of reclaiming value added tax? Bag yourself a great deal using the Comparis price comparison site.