Around the holidays, I always see lots of posts in various Facebook groups for expats.
“Help! My parents sent me Christmas presents and FedEx wants me to pay €100 in taxes on the package!”
Unfortunately, the French border control has begun cracking down on imports of goods from outside the European Union, and not everyone knows the rules on how to send gifts abroad.
And if you get it wrong, you’ll pay big. 20% import tax on the ENTIRE value of the package (not just the amount that goes over the €45 limit) PLUS on the cost of shipping as well. If you end up paying tax, it could very well be that you’ll have paid more for shipping and tax than the gift is worth in the first place – and that’s a bummer.
Fortunately, with a father who works in shipping and who LOVES to do things as ‘by-the-book’ as he possibly can (a quality that I do not seem to have inherited), I’ve gotten insight into the shipping and customs process, and know the rules for how to avoid customs fees.
Here are some tips for receiving gifts without paying fees. Make sure your parents and friends respect these rules to minimise your chances of having to pay.
1) Send your gifts via FedEx, UPS, or DHL, rather than through the post office.
I don’t know why it is, but the French post seems to have a problem with tracking packages sent from outside of France. I’ve personally had several small packages sent via the post office lost – whether they disappeared at Customs or in the bowels of the Paris post sorting center, I have no idea.
But even if your packages are sent ‘registered’ mail via the post, they’re impossible to track and find internationally. If anything happens, the US Post Office will tell you that the package got to France fine, and therefore they’re not responsible for it. Meanwhile, the French post office will tell you that it was sent from the US, so the US post office has to track it. Lose-lose.
If you send the package via an international carrier, it’ll cost a bit more, but the company will know exactly where it is at all times, and when it will be delivered. And FedEx, at least, will call you when they’re on their way.
2) Make sure the declared value of the gifts is less than €45 per recipient.
Unfortunately, the amount that customs lets you import is very low, at only €45 per person. If you live with a roommate, it may work to your advantage – as long as the sender puts BOTH of your names on the package, and indicates gifts of equal value for both of you (even if they’re all for you).
Keep in mind as well that exchange rates will play a role in the €45 limit, so you’ll want to leave a little buffer. The sender will have to declare the value in USD, and customs officials will convert the dollar amount into Euros on the day the package clears. Thus, a package with a declared value of $60 will make it through customs with no fees on a day when the exchange rate is $1.45 / € – for a value of €41,37. But if that same $60 package clears customs while the exchange rate is $1.30 / €, it’ll be worth €46,15 – and you’ll owe taxes on the whole amount.
To be safe, have the sender convert the package’s value from dollars to Euros using a very LOW estimated exchange rate. Since the exchange rate has been hovering around $1.35 / € for the past few years, I typically use $1.30 or even $1.25, to make sure it fits comfortably under that €45 before sending.
3) Wrap the gifts individually and put a name tag on them.
The wrapping doesn’t have to be fancy, but the law says that gifts have to look like gifts. Therefore, they should be wrapped individually (packing paper or bags are fine), and each should be labeled with the recipient’s name.
4) Write a complete package inventory with an accurate value for each item, and identify each item as an “unsolicited gift.”
The package will clear customs far more easily (and without further inspection) if the packing slip has a complete and accurate inventory of what’s inside, along with the purchase price.
My fastidious father goes so far as to identify the fabric blend of the t-shirt he gifted me (much to my mother’s chagrin, as she had to unwrap all of the gifts she had already wrapped up to check the tags). You don’t necessarily have to go that far, although the more details you provide, the better off you’ll be.
Finally, it’s important to list all of the items as ‘unsolicited gifts’ on the packing slip, so that it’s clear that the items are not ‘personal effects (the rules for sending personal effects are different) or commercial purchases.
5) Don’t insure the package.
Insurance is a tip-off that the package has value, and many of the people who have had problems receiving gifts have indicated that their package was insured.
In many cases, it seemed like the gifts were sent following the other rules on this list, but for some reason, French customs marked their packages as “commercial” when they noticed insurance, thus cancelling the ‘gift’ designation, and requiring customs charges to be paid.
Plus, if your package’s declared value doesn’t match the insurance value, you’ll be in trouble – you’ll either get charged, or you won’t get reimbursed the full amount if the package is lost.
6) Don’t ship valuable gifts – bring them back with you in person.
A woman I used to work with received a handmade quilt from a relative, maybe her grandmother. When her family sent it to her, they put the full value of a handmade quilt – €300 – on the package, and she ended up paying almost €100 in taxes to get her “gift” out of customs hell.
Don’t make the same mistake.
If someone wants to give you something of value, celebrate Christmas in July or your half birthday the next time you go home, and bring it with you on the plane. The same customs rules *technically* apply when you arrive in the airport, but checks are far from systematic, and it’ll be hard to prove the item is new or wasn’t purchased in France.