Tax-Free Shopping on Amazon, Part 2: Personal Import to Switzerland

So you’re a Swiss resident shopping on Amazon, and you are wondering how to get the foreign Value Added Tax (VAT) back? What a slick bargain hunter you are. :-)

Essentially, there are two simple ways to reclaim VAT, which I’d like to illustrate using Amazon.de, Amazon’s German retail website.

  1. Home delivery: You can have your package shipped directly to your home address in Switzerland. This is the most convenient and inexpensive option when it comes to purchasing ordinary books, music, DVDs, and similar items on Amazon. In this case, the German VAT is automatically deducted from the price of your purchase during checkout.
  2. Personal import: The alternative is to use a German shipping address, personally import your package from that address to Switzerland, and receive a tax refund afterward. This procedure is usually faster. In most cases, the delivery costs less, and sometimes it’s simply the only way to obtain your desired product.

The home-delivery option is thoroughly covered in the first post in this series about tax-free shopping on Amazon. If you haven’t read it already, I highly recommend you start with that one and then come back here.

As the second part of the series, this post is dedicated to the personal import option. Just like with the first part, you’ll learn how to smoothly tackle your shopping adventures in a way that makes financial sense. Let’s start with an overview of the process.

Step-by-Step Guide to Personal Import

The overall process for personal import ends up being a few more steps than the one for home delivery. Before we address major questions you might have, let me show you the complete step-by-step approach:

  1. Go to Amazon.de and log in to your account or sign up for a new one.
  2. Fill your cart with items.
  3. Enter your German address as the shipping destination.
  4. Enter your Swiss residence as the billing address.
  5. Confirm your order and wait for delivery to your German address.
  6. Upon delivery, print your bills and pack them for the trip to Germany.
  7. Go to Germany and pick up your package(s).
  8. Before returning to Switzerland, present the German Customs office with your Swiss residence permit/identification document and ask the officer to stamp each of your bills.
  9. Bring your goodies home to Switzerland.
  10. Mail the stamped original bill(s) to the seller to reclaim the German VAT for your purchase. If Amazon is the seller, send it to their designated office in Germany (as explained on this info page):

Amazon.de
Umsatzsteuererstattung
Im Gewerbepark D 55
93059 Regensburg
Deutschland

  1. Wait for the German tax reimbursement. If Amazon was the seller, expect your tax refund to be automatically credited to your bank account or credit card after a month or so.

As you can see, steps 1-5 cover the actual ordering process, whereas steps 6-11 account for what happens afterward. Steps 6, 8, 10, and 11 are optional for anyone who cannot be bothered to save another 19%. 8-O But let’s stay reasonable and turn our attention to the pitfalls you should avoid and the questions you might have about this process.

Common Pitfalls

A savvy shopper never loses sight of the pitfalls lurking on the Amazon.de website and at the Swiss-German border!

  1. Receiving the German VAT back from Amazon (steps 10 and 11) only works if your items are both shipped from and sold by Amazon.
  2. In order to receive the German VAT refund, you must enter your Swiss residence as your billing address in step 4 (and not the German shipping destination).
  3. Some products are subject to Swiss Customs duties if their weight or volume exceeds a certain limit (duty-free allowance).
  4. You must pay Swiss import tax on all imported goods if their total net value goes over a certain limit (tax-free limit).

Don’t worry! Here are the tips and tricks you need to get out of these money traps.

Amazon vs. Third-Party Sellers

If you read the corresponding section about the home-delivery option, you already know that it’s important to make distinctions between

  • Amazon as a vendor and third-party sellers, and
  • third-party sellers that rely on Amazon logistics and those that use other logistics solutions.

If you buy from a third-party seller, regardless of whether that seller makes use of Amazon’s logistics infrastructure, Amazon will not reimburse the German VAT to you. You should contact the seller directly and ask them what their tax refund policy is. I’ve personally had the pleasure of dealing with lots of courteous sellers on Amazon and beyond. In most cases, they simply asked me to send my stamped original bill to their headquarters, then they promptly refunded the German tax.

Your German Shipping Destination

Of course, you’re probably asking yourself what German address you could use in step 3. Theoretically, you could send your package anywhere in Germany. If you have relatives or friends there you’d like to visit anyway, good for you! But no worries if you don’t; there are plenty of German parcel shops, particularly near the border, at your disposal.

If your package ships directly from Amazon (regardless of the seller), you can use the large Hermes PaketShop network (Hermes parcel shops—similar to UPS stores in the US) free of charge. Just pick the most convenient parcel shop during the order process on Amazon.

If your package ships from a third-party seller, other parcel shops like europaketshop.ch or Swiss Paket are dependable, inexpensive alternatives.

Free Amazon Shipment Within Germany

Apart from some rare exceptions, Amazon offers free shipping within Germany if

  • at least one item from the book department is included in your package, or
  • the total gross value of your order exceeds 29 EUR.

Otherwise, you’ll be charged 3 EUR per package. To take advantage of these excellent conditions, make sure you choose “Standardversand” (standard shipment). The package should then arrive 1-2 days after it leaves the warehouse.

As you can see, you pay almost the same as for international shipping to Switzerland. Within Germany, however, the delivery time is way shorter, and many more products can be purchased using standard shipment if you go about it this way.

A comprehensive list of Amazon.de’s delivery options within Germany can be found here. In particular, their page dedicated to free delivery is quite interesting.

Remember that the above shipping policy is applicable to all packages handled by Amazon, even if Amazon is not the seller. The shipping policy for third-party sellers using their own logistics systems is usually less favorable, but still good.

In either case, you’ll see the shipping cost and the estimated delivery date of your package on the Amazon.de site during checkout.

Shipping Address vs. Billing Address

Unlike with the home-delivery option, the shipping and billing addresses for personal import are not identical. The shipping address is the physical destination for the packages you order. In our case, it should be a German address so that domestic shipping policies apply when ordering from Amazon.de (see above).

In contrast, the billing address should be your Swiss residence—the same address that appears on your Swiss identification document. It’s crucial that you pay attention to this in step 4 of the ordering process, as the German Customs officer will check the billing address, as mentioned in step 8.

Delivery Notification and Bill

By default, Amazon lets you keep track of your shipment via their logistics partners. If you’re shipping your package to a Hermes PaketShop, Amazon will notify you via e-mail upon delivery. Should you settle for another parcel shop, such as europaketshop.ch or Swiss Paket, expect a timely notification from them as well.

If your product is sold by Amazon itself, you’ll find a digital bill inside your Amazon account as soon as your package arrives (or shortly thereafter). In case you made your purchase through a third-party seller, you’ll either receive your bill via e-mail or as a hard copy enclosed in the package.

You need to have the printed bills at your fingertips in step 8 to be able to claim a VAT refund in step 10. If necessary, make a copy of your bill for your personal records, because the original will eventually end up in the German tax office.

Export Procedure at the German Customs Office

After the fuss over export stamps for online shoppers in September/October 2015, it's definite now: the German Customs office doesn’t care whether you obtained your goods in a local store or online. Hence the personal import procedure is the same for online shopping as it is for offline shopping.

You show them your bills, along with your Swiss identification document, and confirm that all declared goods are in your personal luggage and that you’re going to export them immediately.

It’s crucial that your bills aren’t older than three months. On top of that, the billing address on your bills must match the Swiss residence address on your Swiss ID. If it doesn’t, there will be no stamp, and therefore no tax refund. However, if for some reason you mess up step 4, a friendly officer might still allow you to write your residential address on the bills with a pen and stamp it for you.

Usually everything goes just fine and you’ll leave the German Customs office with all your bills stamped and a smile on your face.

Tax- and Duty-Free Personal Import to Switzerland

As always, keep the Swiss side of the border in mind. As you’ll see, the Swiss tax and duty regulations for personal import are milder than those for cross-border shipping. Nevertheless, if you want to tap the full potential of tax-free shopping on Amazon, these extra costs should be avoided as much as possible. Let me show you how.

First of all, if you’re importing food, alcohol, or tobacco products and don’t want to pay hefty duty fees, you should take a closer look at the current duty-free allowances from Swiss Customs. I assume, however, that the average Amazon customer is more interested in other product categories and so won’t be concerned with duty fees.

Regardless of whether your products are duty-free or not, your import will be tax-free if the total net value of your imported goods clocks in at below 300 CHF. Personal effects, such as used clothing, a camera, and a mobile phone, are excluded from this consideration. The tax-free limit is granted once per person per day. If you exceed this limit, all your goods will be subject to Swiss VAT, which is

  • 8% at the normal rate (applicable to most items), or
  • 2.5% at the discounted rate (e. g., books and groceries).

Although the Swiss VAT rates are much lower than the saved German VAT rates (19% and 7%, respectively), I advise you to stay below the tax-free limit and split your order accordingly to reap the highest benefit. This will also save you the hassle of declaring your goods at the Swiss Customs office.

If you're interested specifically in Amazon books, I wouldn't even bother with personal import. Check out my guide to buying digital and printed books on Amazon for detailed info.

Otherwise, be an upright citizen and declare your goods if you don’t want to run the risk of getting busted and having to pay ludicrous fines. Go to the official site of the Swiss Customs Administration for more information about the tax-free limit.

Conclusion

Let me summarize the pros and cons of personal import as opposed to home delivery. As you can tell from the table below, there are more advantages than disadvantages. However, the weight you attach to each of them depends on your individual situation and preferences (border proximity, means of transport, need for convenience, etc.).

ProsCons
+ faster delivery- longer journey
+ cheaper delivery- greater administrative effort
+ more product choices
+ higher tax-saving potential

If you have the choice between home delivery and personal import, you should weigh the merits and drawbacks of each. Head back to my post about the home-delivery option to compare your options. Or just stick to the rule of thumb for the lazy shopper:

Simple, small purchases (books, DVDs, etc.) call for home delivery, but anything else is usually worth the effort to personally import.

So if you're buying Amazon books, for example, the only disadvantage of home delivery is the standard shipping taking a couple days longer. But it's still free, plus you're spared from picking up our books from abroad and asking for an export stamp to receive a delayed tax refund. Instead, you just pay the net price during checkout and immediately save the foreign VAT with one click. Check out my Amazon book guide (part 3 of this series) to learn all you need know about buying physical and digital books on Amazon.

However, if you're interested in buying a laptop on Amazon, the personal import method is a better choice in my opinion. First, you have a chance of saving the Swiss import tax if the net price of your device stays below the tax-free limit of 300 CHF. Second, your package won't be held up and scrutinized by Swiss Customs entailing shipping delays and unnecessary processing fees. Also keep in mind that electronics items (amongst others) qualify for the standard delivery within Germany, but not to Switzerland. When ordering such items to Switzerland, the AmazonGlobal Switzerland shipping conditions apply.

And, of course, if the product you want doesn’t ship to Switzerland, the personal import option will definitely be your friend. While you’re at it, why not combine retrieving your package with shopping/guides/tax-free-shopping-across-swiss-borders? This way, you can manage your offline and online purchases at the border all together.

Now you know the full spectrum of tax-free shopping on Amazon.de. But also bear in mind that Swiss online stores like deindeal.ch, micasa.ch, or galaxus.ch) might be worth a look as well. They usually offer super quick home delivery and, in some cases, quite competitive prices.

In other cases, they might not have the items you’re after in stock, which makes foreign online retailers the way to go—be it in combination with home delivery or personal import. It’s best to decide case by case.

I’d love to answer your questions or read about your own experiences. Feel free to leave a comment below!

Best of luck to you!