GETTING YOUR VAT REFUND STAMP IS NOT SO EASY WHEN YOU’RE TRAVELLING BY ROAD:
As most keen shoppers from non-EU countries would know, to be eligible for VAT refund on your purchases in the EU, you must firstly obtain Customs verification of your VAT refund forms. As the Tax Refund agencies will quickly point out to you, No Customs Stamp = No VAT Refund!
When departing the EU by air, the procedure is quite simple as there are Customs desks at the airport where you can obtain your Customs stamp before proceeding to one of the Tax Refund companies to obtain your payment.
But What About Road Travel
But, what if you are travelling by car or coach and leaving the EU by road, or train for that matter. On our recent coach tour, the tour director (TD) told us early in the trip that we would be able to get our Customs stamp when we cross the border from Germany into Switzerland. He mentioned this a couple of times and made it sound quite simple. He also said that normally Customs wouldn’t ask to see your purchases unless the amount was substantial.
On the day before we were due to leave Germany, I reminded him that we had VAT Refund forms for Customs verification. I have never in the past tried to get Customs stamp when exiting the EU by road and so this experience would be a first.
Customs Post at Stühlingen
On the morning of our departure from Germany to Switzerland we stopped at the border crossing at Stühlingen. As we wanted to experience the process ourselves, Tony and I got off the coach rather than let the TD take our forms from us. A couple of things he said suggested to me that he wasn’t as familiar with the procedure as he claimed to be.
When we got to the Border Control office, it was very shut. Tony immediately saw a poster on the wall indicating that the office is not open on Sundays which was when we were making our crossing. For export receipts, the office is only open Monday to Friday from 07:30 to 20:30 and from 08:30 to 20:30 on Saturdays.
At that stage we knew that we had lost our opportunity to get our VAT refund, but the TD suggested that he would check at the Swiss border, but the desk was unmanned as well.
Desperate Try at Zurich Airport
At Zurich Airport I made a desperate attempt by asking the Customs Officer if he could stamp my forms for me, explaining to him that the Customs desks at both the Stühlingen and Schleitheim border crossings were closed on the Sunday that we crossed. He was very sympathetic, but explained that as Switzerland is not in the EU, his stamp will not get us our VAT Refund. He suggested that we could get a stamp back home from any of the EU consulates and send in the forms. They must have encountered this situation many times as there is a permanent notice in the office explaining that Switzerland is not a part of the EU and EU VAT Refund forms cannot be verified in Switzerland. He went on to explain that these days countries within the Schengen area generally don’t bother manning Customs Desks on a full-time basis within European borders and getting your VAT Refund stamp on road travel is now more difficult. The Customs officer at Zurich central station said the same thing as well.
All Hopes Dashed
For the pure exercise of seeing if I can still get my VAT refunded, I contacted Global Blue and they advised that I will need to contact a German Consulate/Embassy back home and provide them with following:
- my passport and a copy of it
- purchased goods (unused)
- a boarding pass or a train ticket (as proof of my departure from the EU)
- original receipts and invoices
- Global Blue Form (if I did not obtain the form, I will be given a governmental form by the Embassy)
I then looked up the German Consulate website in Sydney and found out that they will charge 25 Euros for each VAT claim they have to stamp. This fee more or less made it pointless to pursue the VAT refund as I will be getting very little back from each receipt.
It was a good thing that we didn’t have a lot of VAT refund to claim otherwise we would have been most upset at not getting accurate information from the TD who claimed to know about VAT refunds as he had escorted nearly 400 tours. But if you do have substantial VAT Refund to claim and missed getting your Customs stamp on leaving the EU, it is worth knowing that you can still claim your refund from back home.