Buying from abroad on the Internet - what to look out for

If you're buying online from abroad for your personal use it's important to check whether you'll have to pay any tax or duty on top of the advertised purchase price when you receive the goods in the UK. It's also best to check that the supplier will complete an accurate Customs Declaration.

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Customs Duty, Excise Duty and import VAT: basics

If you're ordering goods online for your own personal use, you may have to pay Customs Duty, Excise Duty or Import VAT on top of the advertised purchase price. What's due, if anything, depends on the type of goods and where they come from. See below for what applies in different circumstances.

You can find out more about Customs Duty, Excise Duty, and Import VAT: introduction, and link to rates for different items in our guide under 'More useful links'.

Note that this guide only deals with goods bought for personal use. If you are buying goods for commercial purposes, the rules are different. See link below.

Find out about imports and exports on the GOV.UK website (Opens new window)

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Check the total purchase price of online goods

When buying goods from abroad online, it's important to be aware that tax and duty may be charged on top of the purchase price at the point of delivery and that if any required UK Excise duty for European Union (EU) purchases hasn't been paid in advance by the online retailer, the goods could be seized.

Goods ordered online from the EU

Excise Duty is payable on goods such as alcohol or tobacco. It is the responsibility of the online seller to ensure that UK Excise Duty is paid before they send you the goods. You should therefore expect the price you pay to reflect the payment of UK duty - if the price is very low, UK duty has probably not been paid.

In addition, cigarettes and hand rolling tobacco must bear UK health warnings and fiscal marks, and containers of spirits that are larger than 35cl must bear a UK duty stamp.

If the online retailer you're buying the goods from does not pay UK Excise Duty before they send them to you, or the goods do not bear the relevant UK markings or warnings, the goods can be seized by customs on arrival in the UK, and you may not be able to get a refund on their value. It's therefore a good idea to check with the retailer that all these requirements have been met.

Goods ordered online from outside the EU

If you buy goods online from outside the EU for delivery to the UK, you'll have to pay Customs Duty and Import VAT on top of the purchase price if the goods are above a certain value - though Customs Duty is waived if the amount of duty payable is £9 or less.

Some Internet sellers outside the EU have arrangements with the UK whereby you pay them the VAT that's due on the goods you're ordering. They then pay the VAT to their postal authority - which in turn pays it to HM Revenue & Customs. Note that these sellers must be authorised to do this. They'll have a special number that will be on the Customs Declaration. The declaration should also carry a message saying 'Import VAT pre-paid'. When this arrangement is used you won't be charged any import VAT or a Royal Mail handling fee when you get your parcel. Note that if the above procedures aren't followed properly you could end up losing the goods.

In addition you'll have to pay UK Excise Duty on any alcohol or tobacco products. Cigarettes and hand rolling tobacco must also bear UK health warnings and fiscal marks, and containers of spirits that are larger than 35cl must bear a UK duty stamp.

You can find out which types of goods you have to pay tax and/or duty on in our guide below. It depends on what they are, their value and where they're from.

Tax on goods ordered from or bought abroad

Read about which countries are in the EU in A guide for international post users Notice 143

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Gifts bought online for someone else

Ordering and paying for goods over the Internet to be sent to someone other than to you doesn't count as a gift and the recipient will be liable to pay UK duties and taxes.

By contrast a gift - defined as something sent directly by one private individual to another - doesn't attract import VAT if its value is £36 or below.

Follow the link below to find out more.

Tax on gifts and other goods ordered from or bought abroad

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Make sure the supplier completes an accurate Customs Declaration

Goods arriving in the UK from outside the EU by post or courier must have a Customs Declaration fixed to the package - completed by the sender. The declaration should include:

  • a description of the goods
  • their value
  • whether they are gifts, commercial or personal items

Some websites will offer to show a value on the Customs Declaration that's much lower than the actual price paid so that you don't have to pay duty and/or VAT when the goods enter the UK. This is wrong: if you're ordering goods over the Internet, it is in your own interest to make sure that the sender abroad makes a complete and accurate declaration. If no declaration is made, or the information is inaccurate, the package may be delayed whilst the UK Border Agency makes further enquiries, or in some cases the package and its contents may be seized and as the importer of the goods you will be liable for any charges.

Customs procedures for goods posted to the UK

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Who pays the tax and/or duty and when

Excise Duty

If you're ordering alcohol and/or tobacco from an EU country, Excise Duty must have been paid by the seller or sender before the goods are sent otherwise they can be seized by customs on arrival in the UK. Payment is made using the 'distance selling' procedures - see guidance on commercial importers and tax representatives: EU trade in duty-paid excise goods in Notice 204B link at the end of the guide.

If you're ordering or buying alcohol and/or tobacco from a non-EU country, Excise Duty must be paid by the recipient once the goods have arrived in the UK but before the goods are delivered.

Customs Duty

If you're ordering goods from outside the EU, any Customs Duty must be paid by the recipient once the goods have arrived in the UK but before the goods are delivered.

Import VAT

If you're ordering goods from outside the EU, any Import VAT must be paid by the recipient once the goods have arrived in the UK but before the goods are delivered.

In addition, there may also be a handling fee to pay to the carrier. Follow the link below to find out more.

Goods posted outside the EU: tax payments, queries or refunds

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Banned or restricted goods

There are certain goods that you are not allowed to have sent to the UK under any circumstances, and some goods are restricted. This is to protect the UK from crime, pests and diseases.

Read more about banned or restricted goods

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Getting more help and advice

If you need more information about buying goods from abroad on the Internet, you can contact the VAT Helpline or the Customs, International Trade & Excise enquiries.

Contact details for the VAT Helpline

Contact details for the Customs, International Trade & Excise enquiries

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More useful links

Customs Duty, Excise Duty and Import VAT: introduction

Read about Commercial importers and tax representatives: EU trade in duty-paid excise goods in Notice 204B

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