By Rick Steves
Every year, tourists visiting Europe leave behind millions of dollars of refundable sales taxes. Although you aren't entitled to refunds on the tax you spend on hotels and meals, you can get back most of the tax you pay on merchandise. For some, the headache of collecting the refund is not worth the few dollars at stake. But if you do more extensive shopping, the refund is worth claiming. And the process is fairly easy: Bring your passport along on your shopping trip (a photo of your passport should work), get the necessary documents from the retailer, and file your paperwork at the airport, port, or border when you leave.
In Europe, standard European Union Value-Added Tax ranges from 8 to 27 percent per country. Exact rates and purchase minimums change (and vary with the type of goods being purchased); if you plan to take advantage of refunds, check online for the countries you'll be visiting before you go. Among some key recent changes, Brexit brought an end to VAT refunds for tourists to the United Kingdom, and Spain no longer has a minimum purchase requirement for a refund. And in Turkey, you'll pay a lower VAT on clothing, leather goods, and books than you will on watches and sunglasses. GlobalBlue is a helpful website for information on VAT rates and restrictions.
To get a refund, your purchase has to be above a certain amount, depending on the country. Typically, you must ring up the minimum at a single retailer — you can't add up purchases from various shops to reach the required amount — so if you're doing a lot of shopping, you'll benefit from finding one spot where you can buy big. You're also not supposed to use your purchased goods before you leave Europe — if you show up at customs wearing your new Dutch clogs, officials may deny you a refund. Refunds must be collected within three months of purchase.
Retailers choose whether to participate in the VAT-refund process. Most tourist-oriented stores do; often you'll see a sign in the window or on the check-out counter (if not, ask). For any significant purchase, even at a boutique shop, it's always worth asking about a VAT refund. The precise details of getting your money back will depend on how a particular shop organizes its refund process. In most cases, you'll present your refund documents at the airport on the way home (explained later). Some stores may offer to handle the process for you (if they provide this service, they likely have some sort of "Tax Free" sticker in the window). Some merchants will reimburse your credit card on the spot, or you may be able to take your paperwork to a nearby third-party agency to get an immediate cash refund (minus a commission for the quick service; these tend to be located at money-exchange counters near touristy shopping areas — think the Champs-Elysées). In either case, you will still need to get the documents stamped at the border, then mail them back; if the shop or agency doesn't receive the documents, they'll cancel your refund and charge the VAT amount to your credit card.
At the Merchant
The details on how to get a refund vary per country, but generally you'll need to do the following:
Have the merchant completely fill out the refund document; they'll need your passport (or a photo of it) to complete the form. Hang on to the paperwork and original sales receipt until you file it (see later). Note that you're not supposed to use your purchased goods before you leave Europe. (Some retailers, particularly those in Scandinavia, will staple and seal the shopping bag to keep you from cheating.)
If the store ships your purchase to your home, you won't be charged the value-added tax. But shipping fees and US duty can be pricey enough to wipe out most of what you'd save. Compare shipping costs to your potential VAT refund — it may be cheaper to carry the items home with you.
At the Border or Airport
Unless a merchant has processed the refund for you, you'll need to do it yourself before heading home. If you buy merchandise in a European Union country, process your documents at your last stop in the EU (most likely at the airport). So, if you buy sweaters in Denmark, pants in France, and shoes in Italy, and you're flying home from Greece, get your documents stamped at the airport in Athens. (If the currencies are different in the country where you made your purchase and where you process your refund — say, euros and Czech koruna — you may have to pay a conversion fee.) And don't forget: Switzerland, Norway, and Turkey are not in the EU, so if you shop in one of those countries, get your documents stamped before you cross the border.
At some airports, you'll have to go to a customs office to get your documents stamped and then to a separate VAT refund service (such as Global Blue or Planet) to process the refund. At other airports, a single VAT desk handles the whole thing. Many customs offices are located before airport security; check before going through security. Customs agents may ask you to present your unused goods to verify that you are, indeed, exporting your purchase — if your purchases are inside your checked luggage, stop by customs before you check it. Allow plenty of extra time at the airport to deal with the VAT refund process.
Note that refund services typically extract a 4 percent fee, but you're paying for the convenience of receiving your money in cash immediately or credited to your card. The refund will be in the currency of the country from which you depart; if you want to be reimbursed in a different currency, such as US dollars, you'll be subjected to their (unfavorable) exchange rates. If a store or a refund agency has already reimbursed your VAT amount, you'll be required to mail the stamped documents back to them to prove that you obtained your customs stamp within the required three-month window (using a provided postage-free, preaddressed envelope — just drop it in a mailbox at the airport or border after getting your customs stamp).
Tips for Train Travelers: Be careful if you leave the EU by train. Bigger train stations handling international routes will have a customs office that can stamp your documents. But depending on your route, you may have to get off the train at the last station within the EU to get your stamp; in some cases, a customs agent might board the train. Ask train station staff about the customs arrangement for your particular route.