Adventures with the German Customs Authority

The German customs authority (“Das Zollamt”) is quite strict. We had heard tell of this from veteran expats, and Justin once had to pay 70 Euro duty on a pair of pants sent to him as a birthday gift in Austria, but we managed to avoid the Zollamt until three months into our stay here.

Our first encounter with the Zollamt was due to inexperience on my part. Many American retailers will ship to Europe, but not all of them pay the proper duties when they do. If you go to J. Crew’s online shop from a German IP address, for example, they boast that they pay the German taxes. In reality, what this means is that they have increased the price of items by 22.7% (to account for import and Value Added [VAT] taxes). When online shopping, I found invitations for our upcoming wedding celebration that looked great, fit our theme, and were reasonably priced. Even better, they shipped to Germany! I had them shipped here so I could address them and mail them off on our next trip back to the states. FedEx delivered them here amazingly fast, and I started the slog of hand-addressing each one. A week later, an envelope arrived from FedEx. What could it be? Oh, it was an invoice for the taxes on the invitations, tacking an extra 30 Euro on to the price. FedEx knew the exact value of the package thanks to the shipping manifests, and merely billed us for the taxes, payable, like all things in Germany, by direct bank transfer.

We wrote that off as one of the costs of moving to Europe, and I learned to be more careful in buying stuff online. This experience also made us aware that any gift registries for the wedding celebration would also have to be done in the EU, or else we would be paying VAT on every single gift sent to us. However, our second encounter with the Zollamt was unexpected. When we were back in the states for a wedding in February, I accidentally left my Kindle at the happy couple’s house. This was a tragedy because I consume books at an appalling rate and the Kindle was my main source of reading material. Our friend graciously agreed to mail it back to us, and sent me a tracking number. After a few days, however, the tracking mysteriously stopped in Germany. About a week after that, we received a letter from the Zollamt notifying us they had a package, and we had to show up and prove that we didn’t need to pay VAT on it. Keep in mind, this was a year-old Kindle with a small crack in the screen and scratches on the body. It was clearly not new!

Unfortunately, this letter appeared right at a busy time in the spring. The Zollamt’s hours are from 7:45 am to Noon, conveniently dovetailing with when Justin has to work and when I have German class. Finally, Justin moved his schedule so he could go up to the Zollamt one morning. He got there, took a number, and presented the receipt for the Kindle (which I had to get from my sister-in-law since it was a gift!) and asked for the Kindle back. That was when we found out that we didn’t read the fine print well enough – they only held the Kindle for 14 days, and then sent it back to the sender!

Germany won this round, and I purchased a new Kindle from Amazon.de so I could maintain my sanity.