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29 Nov 2021

Delays and extra fees: post-Brexit rules you need to know before sending gifts this year

Exclusive Which? research reveals majority of us planning to send gifts abroad this Christmas know little or nothing about new VAT and customs rules

People looking to send gifts abroad this Christmas have alarmingly little understanding of how to navigate the customs rules and charges introduced when the UK left the European Union, new Which? research can reveal.

One in six of us is planning on sending Christmas gifts abroad this year, according to a new survey* of more than 1,000 members of Which?'s research panel.

Since the UK left the EU on 1 January 2021, new rules have applied to gifts with a value of more than £39. But half of those planning to send a gift to someone in the EU said they didn't know anything at all about the new rules, and almost as many again said they feel they only know a little.

Incredibly only one respondent to our survey told us they feel confident in their knowledge of the new rules.

With 83% of people who intend to send gifts to friends and family abroad planning to do so around a month or less before Christmas day, we look at the impact new import and export rules are having, and how you can avoid problems.

Read more: Online shopping: do I have to pay VAT, import and handling costs?

Missing gifts, delays and unexpected charges

Since the UK left the EU in January 2021, almost one in 10 Which? members sent a gift to an EU address. More than a third experienced delays, three in 10 were hit by unexpected charges and, shockingly, almost one in 10 say their gift went missing.

The changes brought about by Brexit create more customs paperwork for consumers and couriers alike.

You now need to attach customs declaration forms to anything you send very clearly describing what it is and where it originated from.

'I've been failed by couriers I trusted'

In early September, Joanna Harry, 56, sent six packages from her home in South Wales to her property in Andalusia, Spain . She booked the delivery with Parcelforce using the 'broker' website ParcelHero.

One package was returned to Joanna a week after posting, but the remaining five are still being held hostage at Spanish customs. Joanna says she completed the customs paperwork requested before her packages left the UK and she has subsequently been asked to fill out and send the same paperwork again online and by post.

Joanna tells us: 'I have telephoned customs numerous times but I've been hung up on due to language barriers, most of my emails - both in Spanish and English - are getting no response and I have sent letters in English and Spanish to four Madrid offices without reply.

'I asked Parcelforce for help with the customs parcels, they were rude and avoided all responsibility saying my contract was with ParcelHero who I had booked the service with.

'ParcelHero also avoided responsibility saying I needed to speak to Parcelforce.'

'I paid more than one hundred pounds for this so-called service. My boxes contained some items of sentiment value that were my deceased mothers and personal belongings from my home. They are very precious to me and I've been failed by couriers I trusted.'

A ParcelHero spokesperson said: 'Our customer services team is working to return all the parcels returned to the UK.' It has subsequently given Joanna £25 credit as an apology.

A Parcelforce Worldwide spokesperson said: 'We are currently experiencing delays to some items being delivered in Spain. Items are leaving the UK on time but are subject to some delay when being processed through Spanish customs.

'To avoid items being held at customs, please ensure you're providing complete and accurate electronic customs data and customs documentation (CN22/23).'

The Spanish postal service ADT Postale advises the delivery of shipments containing goods from the United Kingdom, apart from Northern Ireland, will need to be presented to Spanish Customs for clearance.

ADT Postale has confirmed to Which? that Joanna's five remaining parcels are now in the process of being returned to her UK address.

The new rules you need to know when you send gifts to Europe

Value thresholds for customs duty and import VAT apply for gifts and all come down to the value of the items, for gifts the threshold is £39 before fees kick in:

  • If the value of the gift is £39 or less - import VAT, customs duty and handling fees should not apply.
  • Between £39 and £135 - the 20% rate of import VAT applies to the total cost of the item and shipping. As you're paying import VAT you may also have to pay courier handling fees but you won't have to pay customs duty as the gift's value is below the £135 threshold for customs duty to apply.
  • Over £135 - at this point customs duty will kick in in addition to import VAT and courier handling fees. But, you could be exempt from the payment of customs duty when there is documentary proof that the goods contained in the shipment originated in the United Kingdom.

If you are sending gifts (or any other items) to Europe or elsewhere, you will have to attach customs declaration forms to anything you send. Letters, postcards and documents are exempt.

The customs forms you have to use when sending items abroad differ depending on the value of what you are sending. Royal Mail requires a different customs declaration form depending on whether the value of what you are sending is above or below £270.

  • Below £270 you have to fill in and attach a CN22 form.
  • Above £270 you have to fill in and attach a CN23 form.

Typically, the recipient of the gift will have to pay the costs of customs processing or any handling fees and they must also pay any customs duties or taxes incurred in accordance with the regions customs rules.

They could be exempt from paying customs duty if there is documentary proof the goods originated in the United Kingdom.

Christmas gifts: international last post dates

Two-thirds of our survey respondents who are planning on sending gifts abroad intend to use Royal Mail.

Royal Mail International Standard & International tracking and signature services last posting dates

Wednesday 1 DecemberCaribbean
Monday 6 DecemberAustralia Greece, Italy, New Zealand and Portugal
Wednesday 8 DecemberAfrica, Central and South America, Asia, Far and Middle East
Friday 10 DecemberCyprus, Malta and Sweden
Saturday 11 DecemberEastern Europe (except Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia), Turkey
Monday 13 DecemberCanada, Czech Republic, Finland, Poland and USA
Thursday 16 DecemberAustria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Slovakia, Spain, Switzerland

*A survey of 1,058 members of Which? research panel conducted between 16-21 September 2021