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How do duty free allowances work now?

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From alcohol and cigarettes to perfume and electronics, if you’re buying duty free items and bringing them back to the UK, here we explain the rules you need to follow.

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How much can you bring back from holiday now?

Since the UK left the European Union (EU) lots of things about travelling have changed -  including the amount of goods you can bring back into the country. 

There are new rules on how much you can bring back from Europe without paying UK taxes and duty on them. Everyone has a duty free allowance and if you go over it you’ll need to declare your goods, and pay anything due on them. 

If you don’t and you get caught, the goods, and the vehicle transporting them could be seized and you might have to pay a penalty. 

Here we look at what the rules are now so if you’re taking advantage of tax-free goods from another country, you don’t get caught out. 

What is duty free?

If you buy anything while travelling, you may have to pay a local tax on it, or a tax, or duty, on it when you arrive back in the UK.

In some cases, if you’re buying it from a duty or tax-free shop some of these extra fees will be waived. Duty free shops are generally found when leaving or entering countries. This could be at the airport, on a ferry, or near a country’s border. 

This means it’s usually cheaper than buying it from a retailer while at home, however you can’t go overboard and you have a duty free allowance to stick to. This applies to anything you buy while you’re abroad, both in a high street shop or at a duty or tax-free shop.

The things you’re buying also need to be for your own use or to be given as a gift. You can’t stock up on products you’re then planning to sell on, for example. 

Spending abroad can be costly, so make sure you compare the market for the best exchange rates available on your travel money before jetting off.

What will you pay duty on?

Everyone has a personal allowance but if you’ve exceeded this you will need to tell customs when you cross the UK border. 

You’ll need to pay duty and tax on anything over the allowance, and you also need to declare any banned or restricted goods you may be bringing back with you. 

You can declare goods online at the Gov.uk website from five days before you are due to arrive in the UK.   

How have EU holidays changed?

The UK left the EU at 11pm on January 31, 2020, almost four years after the referendum to leave. During this time all the details about Brexit were negotiated and the rules were drawn up for the UK to leave.

Shortly after the Brexit date, we were plunged into the global coronavirus pandemic, which shut down the travel industry for most of 2020. Things are finally starting to get back to normal now, but new rules are in place now the UK is no longer a member of the EU. 

This includes a rule change which means when going on holiday to most EU countries, you can now only stay for a maximum of 90 days in any 180-day period. 

Roaming charges have also been reintroduced by some providers, which means it will be more expensive to use your mobile abroad, and you will now need longer on your passport before visiting an EU country.

The rules of buying duty free  

There have always been rules for buying duty free items and these changed most recently on the 1st January, 2021.

The amount travellers can bring back into the UK was increased at the start of the year. However, it is still significantly lower than the levels allowed when the UK was part of the EU.

For example, instead of taking your boat over to France to stock up on cheap wine for an upcoming wedding, you can now only bring back 18 litres of still wine before you pay tax.  

Make sure you get the best possible cover when you go away by comparing travel insurance deals. You can find the cover you need at the right price whatever your travel plans.

How to declare duty free goods that exceed your allowance

You can declare any goods over the allowance, and pay anything due on them, online before you arrive back in the UK.

To do this you will need the following details:

  • Your passport number (your driving licence or phone number if travelling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland)

  • The date and time you expect to arrive in the UK

  • A debit or credit card to pay any duty due

  • The exact price you paid for your items and the currency you paid 

  • The quantity or volume 

  • The country the goods were produced in (if travelling from the EU)

Duty free allowances

The personal allowance you’re allowed depends on where you’re coming from, and which part of the UK you are entering. 

If you’re travelling to Great Britain from outside the UK

Alcohol allowance

You can bring in:

  • Beer: 42 litres

  • Still wine: 18 litres

You can also bring in either of the following and split this allowance:

  • Spirits and other liquors over 22% alcohol: 4 litres

  • sparkling wine, fortified wine and other alcoholic drinks up to 22% alcohol (not including beer or still wine): 9 litres

Tobacco allowance

You can bring in one from the following or split your allowance (eg 100 cigarettes and 25 cigars):

  • Cigarettes: 200 

  • Cigarillos: 100

  • Cigars: 50

  • Tobacco: 250g 

  • Tobacco for electronic heated devices: 200 sticks 

Everything else

You can bring in other goods worth up to £390 (or up to £270 if you arrive by private plane or boat).

Arriving in Northern Ireland from an EU country

You don’t have to declare or pay tax or duty on anything you bring into Northern Ireland from an EU country as long as you transport them yourself, they’re for you or a gift, and you’ve paid tax and duty in the country you bought them.

However, if your goods exceed the following allowances, the government says you might be asked questions. 

  • Cigarettes: 800

  • Cigars: 200

  • Cigarillos: 400

  • Tobacco: 1kg

  • Sticks of tobacco for electronic devices: 800

  • Beer: 110 litres

  • Wine: 90 litres

  • Spirits: 10 litres

  • Fortified wine: 20 litres

Arriving in Northern Ireland from an non-EU country

Alcohol allowance

  • Beer: 16 litres

  • Still wine: 4 litres

You can also bring in either of the following and split this allowance:

  • Spirits and other liquors over 22% alcohol: 1 litre

  • Sparkling wine, fortified wine and other alcoholic drinks up to 22% alcohol (not including beer or still wine): 2 litres

Tobacco allowance (you can split this)

  • Cigarettes: 200

  • Cigarillos: 100 

  • Cigars: 50

  • Tobacco: 250g 

  • Tobacco for electronic devices: 200 sticks 

Everything else

You can bring in other goods worth up to £390 (or up to £270 if you arrive by private plane or boat).

What happens if you go over the limit?

Long gone are the days of buying pricey electronics abroad because it’s cheaper than in the UK, as most now exceed the personal allowance.

If you exceed your personal allowance, in any category, you will have to pay any tax or duty on all the items you’re bringing back. 

So, if you had 20 litres of still wine, for example, you wouldn’t just pay the extra for the two bottles, you would have to pay it on all 20 litres.  

How much can you save by buying duty free?

If you’re not paying tax then you should be saving money by buying duty free. 

Different items are taxed at different prices so it may be worth seeking out those which are usually taxed the highest, such as alcohol and cigarettes, as you’ll have a better chance of getting a bargain with these. 

However, unfortunately it’s not that simple as in some cases prices may be higher to start with, so even though it looks like you’re getting a discount you may not be.

Is duty free worth it?

If you buy something duty free and it works out cheaper than buying it at home, then it’s worth it. However, before you hand over your cash you need to check you’re actually getting a bargain.

To start with, check how much the same product would cost if you bought it when you were at home.

You can do this by checking online, using a tool such as Google Shopping or Kelkoo. Both of these will show you the item you’re looking for and the cheapest places you can buy it from.

If it’s still cheaper to buy it abroad, make sure you check you’ve calculated the currency correctly. Then check your personal allowance for bringing the item back into the country.

If you have to declare it and pay tax on it, this will obviously add to the price. If it pushes it up past the amount you’d pay for it at home, it’s not worth it.  

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