Our tips and tricks to help you save the most money possible while shopping abroad

[Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in September 2016. Think of it as PurseBlog Classic.]

Even if you don’t travel much, you’ve probably heard tales of Value Added Tax or VAT refunds from people who have made significant purchases while on an international vacation. The deal is pretty good for travelers from the United States: most global shopping destinations are in countries that will let foreign tourists claim a refund for part of the purchase price of goods they buy while in the country on vacation, and that almost always includes fashion items. All you have to know is how to do it.

The rules for who gets a VAT refund, procedures for how to get your money back and the amount the final refund will be vary widely depending on location, and navigating the process can be a bit tricky any time customs laws come in to play. To help you out, we sat down with a list of the world’s biggest luxury markets to figure out how traveler’s in each locale can get the most out of their vacation purchases. We hope the information will be handy the next time you find yourself headed abroad, and for the most determined shoppers, it might even help you plan your next trip.

First, some FAQs for this of you unfamiliar with the VAT:

What is the Value Added Tax or VAT?

In most international markets, the VAT is a charge of between 5% and 25% percent that is already included in the marked price of many consumer goods. In most of these markets, if you’re visiting on a tourist visa and shop at the appropriate locations, some or all of this tax can be refunded back to you on eligible purchases, which usually includes luxury fashion.

How Much Can I Get Back in a VAT Refund?

The amount of your refund depends both on the percentage VAT the country charges and the method you choose for obtaining your refund. In many countries with more difficult refund processes, including most EU countries, large boutiques and luxury stores partner with an agency that will give you a partial refund in-store or immediately upon arrival at your departure airport; in exchange for the convenience, the agency (and sometimes the store) keep part of the refund for themselves. In France, for example, this kicks your refund down to around 12%, instead of the full 19.6% you’d get doing it the old-fashioned way.

Who Qualifies for a VAT Refund?

In most places, visitors in a country on a tourist visa are the primary group to claim a VAT refund on departure. EU residents cannot claim one when visiting another country within the EU.

Which Purchases Quality for a VAT Refund?

These rules vary, but in general, unused consumer goods in their original packaging qualify for the refund when goods on one receipt total up to enough to meet a country’s purchase minimum. It’s important to remembr, though, that VAT refunds are specifically intended for products the purchasers intend to use in their home countries, so don’t wear your new shoes for the last half of your vacation. Customs officials will check the condition of the purchases you’re claiming and can deny your refund if they appear worn or used.

How Do I Get My VAT Refund?

Well, that varies quite a lot. No matter where you are, you’ll have to have your passport with you at the time of purchase–that’s almost always the key to getting the process started as smoothly as possible. For more specific tips, please see the country guides below.

France

How Much: 19.6% if processed by the shopper; usually 12% if processed in-store via a refund agency, which takes a cut for itself.
Who: Residents of non-EU countries over the age of 16, visiting France on a tourist visa.
Which Stores: Stores do not require a special designation to sell to customers looking for a VAT refund, and because Paris is such a shopping destination for travelers, any luxury boutique will be well-versed in the process.
Eligible Purchases: Consumer goods, including luxury goods, to be used exclusively outside the country and totaling 175EUR (about 200USD, currently) or more on a single receipt. Multiple receipts can be presented, but refunds will only be issued for each receipt over 175EUR.
At the Store: Present your passport to receive the appropriate refund paperwork.
At the Departure Airport: Arrive early if you have tax refunds to process, especially at airports that serve shopping-heavy areas, like Paris and Nice. Bring the paperwork given to you by the store and, if possible, pack your purchases in your carry-on luggage so they can be checked by customs to ensure that they are leaving the country unused. You must leave France within three months of purchase in order to receive a refund.

United Kingdom

How Much: 20% if processed by the shopper; less if processed by the store or an agency hired by the store, who will deduct fees.
Who: Residents of non-EU countries visiting the UK on a tourist visa, or EU residents who can prove they’re leaving for at least 12 months.
Which Stores: Stores do not require a special designation to offer tax-free services and high-end shops are likely to be well-versed in the process, especially in locations with high tourist traffic.
Eligible Purchases: Consumer goods totaling at least 25GBP (around 32USD) on a single receipt.
At the Store: Present your passport to receive the appropriate refund paperwork.
At the Departure Airport: Present your completed paperwork and the appropriate receipts, as well as your unused purchases, to a customs official for inspection. If no customs official is available, you can file your paperwork and receipts in a drop box and they will be processed if everything is in order and they have been filled out in full. If you’ve chosen to go through an agency or broker, proceed to the company’s counter at the airport to receive your refund, less fees. You must leave the UK within three months of purchase in order to receive a refund.

Italy

How Much: 22% if processed by the shopper; convenience agencies at the airport can quicken and simplify the process, but they will knock your refund down several percentage points with their fees.
Who: Non-EU residents visiting the country as temporary visitors on tourist visas.
Which Stores: Stores do not have to receive special government designation to sell to shoppers looking for a VAT refund and most shops (especially high-end fashion retailers or boutiques) in tourist-heavy areas will be well-versed in the process.
Eligible Purchases: Most consumer goods totaling at least 155EUR (around 175USD) on a single receipt.
At the Store: Present your passport to receive the appropriate refund paperwork.
At the Departure Airport: Present your completed paperwork and the appropriate receipts, as well as your unused purchases, to a customs official for inspection. If no customs official is available, you can file your paperwork and receipts in a drop box and they will be processed if everything is in order and they have been filled out in full. If you’ve chosen to go through an agency or broker, proceed to the company’s counter at the airport to receive your refund, less fees.

Germany

How Much: 19% if processed by shopper; convenience agencies at the airport can quicken and simplify the process, but they will knock your refund down to around 12% with their fees.
Who: Non-EU residents over the age of 18 who are visiting Germany as temporary visitors.
Which Stores: Stores do not have to receive special government designation to sell to shoppers looking for a VAT refund and most shops (especially high-end fashion retailers or boutiques) in tourist-heavy areas will be well-versed in the process.
Eligible Purchases: Most consumer goods totaling at least 25EUR (around 28USD) on a single receipt.
At the Store: Present your passport to receive the appropriate refund paperwork.
At the Departure Airport: Present your completed paperwork and the appropriate receipts, as well as your unused purchases, to a customs official for inspection. If no customs official is available, you can file your paperwork and receipts in a drop box and they will be processed if everything is in order and they have been filled out in full. If you’ve chosen to go through an agency or broker, proceed to the company’s counter at the airport to receive your refund, less fees. You must leave Germany within three months of purchase in order to receive a refund.

Switzerland

How Much: 8%.
Who: All non-Swiss residents.
Which Stores: Stores do not have to receive special government designation to sell to shoppers looking for a VAT refund and most shops (especially high-end fashion retailers or boutiques) in tourist-heavy areas will be well-versed in the process.
Eligible Purchases: Almost all consumer goods on receipts totaling at least 300CHF (around 310USD).
At the Store: Present your passport and request tax-free paperwork.
At the Departure Airport: Present your paperwork, receipt and unused goods to customs staff at the airport for export validation. You must leave Switzerland within 30 days of purchase in order to receive a refund.

Japan

How Much: 8%
Who: Tourists with a temporary visitor visa status.
Which Stores: Japan has thousands of stores that offer tax-free shopping for visitors, including everything from souvenir shops to luxury department stores. Participating shops post a sign indicating their tax-free status in their windows in English.
Eligible Purchases: Clothing, handbags, shoes and accessories totaling 5000JPY (about 50USD) or more on a single receipt. Cosmetics are also tax-refundable, but because they are considered a consumable product, they must total 5000JPY on a different receipt than general goods; the two are not combinable to reach the minimum purchase requirement.
At the Store: As long as you bring your passport with the appropriate visa, refunds are processed on the spot at a shop’s tax-free register (where you won’t pay the extra tax to begin with) or at a mall’s tax refund counter. Refunds can’t be requested at a later date; you must complete the process on the day of purchase. Your purchases will be sealed in a bag once you receive your refund and they must remain in that bag until you leave the country.
At the Departure Airport: You’ve done all the paperwork already, so as long as you can keep your hands off your new purchases, you should be set. If customs officials find that you have opened the bag and used the things inside, you may be required to pay the extra tax.

China

How Much: 11%, minus a 2% fee charged by the rebate agencies who will process your refund, for a total of a 9% refund.
Who: Foreign tourists, as well as those visiting from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.
Which Stores: Designated tax-free stores will have signs in their windows; the most popular ones tend to be large department stores and stores in tourist-friendly or expat shopping areas. Not all Chinese provinces offer refunds, but all large metropolitan areas with tourist-friendly shopping areas do.
Eligible Purchases: Consumer goods totaling at least 500CNY (about 75USD) on a single receipt.
At the Store: Present your passport and ask for the sales invoice and tax-free forms from the staff at eligible stores.
At the Departure Airport: Take your passport, refund forms, receipts and purchases to a customs official for verification. Once your refund has been approved, you can take your forms to the rebate agency’s window to receive your refund. You must leave China from an approved port within 90 days of purchase to receive a refund.

Australia

How Much: 10%.
Who: Both visitors to and residents of Australia who are leaving the country.
Which Stores: Stores require no particular designation from the government in order to sell to customers who will request tax refunds on the goods.
Eligible Purchases: Consumer goods on a receipt totaling 300AUD (around 229USD) or more.
At the Store: Request a tax invoice from the retailer and keep your original receipt.
At the Departure Airport: Bring your paperwork and receipt, as well as the goods themselves. Travelers should have their goods on their bodies or in their hand luggage. (Goods in checked luggage are permissible as long as they’re checked with an airport official first.) Regular consumer goods may be used prior to departure from Australia, but consumable goods (perfume, for example) must be entirely unconsumed. You must leave Australia within 60 days of purchase in order to receive a refund.

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