Hi Frugalistas! Even though I don’t like to waste my money when traveling, once I get to Europe, like many of us I love to shop. Even though I don’t necessarily buy a lot (I only ever take one carry on bag) I have been known to drop some serious cash (or plastic as the case may be), so getting a VAT refund on my purchases is a key money saving strategy I use to make sure I don’t pay anymore than I need to. This post is updated to reflect VAT changes in France and the UK for 2021.
Here’s how getting a VAT refund in Europe works
1. You buy stuff. There is a minimum purchase amount per store per day that varies from country to country that you need to adhere to. They will give you a set of special receipts you need to have stamped when you leave the EU. You will need to hand over your passport and credit card details in the shop when you buy. In 2021 France will reduce the minimum purchase from €175 to €100.
2. You travel around with the stuff. Don’t wear or use what you’ve purchased – they can decline your refund. If your purchase comes in wrapping or packaging, make sure you leave it in its packaging and keep the bags etc.
3. When you leave the EU you show your purchases to Customs at the special VAT refunds counter in the departure hall of the airport, they will stamp your receipts, sight your goods and send you on your way. You can then either post your stamped receipts or queue up again and get a cash refund depending on the system the vendor where you bought the goods uses. A number of countries have automated this process. Instead of queuing at Customs, there are bar scanner machines installed (at Charles de Gaulle they are next to the Customs VAT refund desk). If your merchant has signed up to this system, the paperwork will have a bar code that you just scan at the machine. There is no need to post the paperwork. Not all merchants will have this option, so if you aren’t sure just ask.
4. You get money – usually about 10% of the purchase cost either in your hand or a few weeks later on your credit card.
Things you need to know about VAT refunds in Europe
It’s hard to get good advice on how to do it. Which is why I am writing this. The best I’ve ever found apart from this post is at the ever reliable Rick Steves website although it looks like it hasn’t been updated in a while. This website gives you the spend amounts for each country plus other good things (like it can be hard to claim in Italy for example).
It can take up to 3 months for your refund to come through so don’t rely on the cash to pay off your credit card in a hurry.
My top tips for maximising and claiming your VAT refund in Europe
- Make sure you know what the spend is in each country.
- Look out for signs in shop windows advertising refunds. They are guaranteed to know exactly how to do it. If there isn’t a sign don’t be put off – just ask before you complete your purchase.
- Don’t spend money just to get a refund – you only get back between 10 and 12%. If you’re only a few Euro short and you can buy something cheap it’s worth it, but any more than that isn’t.
- Keep your goods handy in case the customs officer wants to see them. You must be departing the EU with the goods, so they may ask to see your goods just to check.
- Don’t use or wear the goods. It’s OK to take them out of their bag for packing purposes, but don’t turn up wearing your new ensemble – you may be refused a refund as the goods are clearly used.
- Persistence might be required to find exactly where to get your receipts stamped. Don’t assume the country you are departing from WANTS to give you a refund. I once spent an hour and a half in Milan on the great VAT refund treasure hunt.
- Department stores may lack the charm of shopping in boutiques, but they are usually very well organised for VAT refunds, and are an easy way to get up your required purchase amount – you can consolidate your cheaper purchases towards your total as long as you do your shopping in the store on one day. Just don’t expect the Refund Desk to be somewhere easily found, no matter how well signposted it is.
- Always ask about the VAT refund BEFORE you pay for your goods. Once the payment is completed there’s nothing the shopkeeper can do for you.
- Allow plenty of time at the airport in case you have trouble finding the Refunds desk or there is a long queue.
- If you are traveling round Europe alot you need to claim your refund when you leave for the last time. Remember not all countries in Europe are part of the EU.
- The UK will cease its VAT refund scheme altogether in 2021 by all reports, so if you are travelling to the UK after Europe, or leaving for home via the UK make sure you do your shopping and claim your refund at your last European port.