How to Shop Tax-free in Europe (and Get the Refund!)

One of the perks of travelling to Europe is the ability to save ~20% on all your shopping by getting the Value-Added Tax (VAT) refunded! But there are a few exceptions and things you need to know before you start spending.

The following guide is based on my recent experience in Austria and Italy on how to efficiently claim your VAT refund at the airport. By the end of the post, you’ll understand everything, if not, drop a comment.

TLDR: The short version

If you don’t want the details, here’s the very short version of how to get a sales tax refund:

  1. Shop at participating retailers across Europe and ask for a VAT refund. Keep hold of those receipts.
  2. When you exit Europe, find the VAT refund counter at the airport or train station. Show them the product and receipt.
  3. Submit the paperwork.
  4. Your refund will show up on your card within 4 weeks. Or you can ask for cash.

I shopped in multiple European countries, can I get a refund on everything?

First, my #1 question throughout this entire process was, “If I shop in Austria but leave Europe from Italy, can I still get a refund on that purchase?”

Yes, you can! You can shop all across Europe and then get a refund on everything from whoever you exit Europe – via train or airoplane.

But, what is VAT? And who can get a refund?

VAT is a sales tax included in the price of goods and services in Europe.

Non-EU residents are eligible to get a refund of this tax on goods purchased during their stay, provided certain conditions are met. Here’s how you can navigate the VAT refund process smoothly:

If you’re an EU resident and you have a second passport, you can also shop duty-free, but make sure you use your non-EU passport when requesting tax-free.

How much can I realistically save while shopping VAT-free in Europe?

By shopping VAT-free in Europe, you can realistically save around 12-20% on your purchases, depending on the country and the specific VAT rate.

Here are 4 major things to understand before you start shopping:

  1. Country VAT Rates: Every country has a different sales tax (VAT). Italy’s is 22% for example.
  2. Amount Spent: Every country has a different amount you have to spend to be able to claim a tax credit. Italy’s is €70.01.
  3. Eligible Goods: Not all goods are eligible for VAT refunds. Typically, items like clothing, electronics, and luxury goods qualify, while services and consumables often do not.
  4. Refund Processing Fees: The company processing your refund will charge a 15% commission. There’s no way around this.

Step-by-Step Guide to Getting Your VAT Refund

1. Shop at participating retailers

First and foremost, ensure that the stores you shop at offer VAT refunds. Look for signs or ask the retailer if they participate in the VAT refund scheme. Not all shops offer this service.

The most annoying thing is you cannot get refunds for online purchases like Amazon. You have to go into a store and have them do the paperwork for you.

2. Get the necessary paperwork

When making a purchase, inform the retailer that you want to get a VAT refund. They will provide you with a VAT refund form, which you need to fill out. This form is crucial for your refund claim, so keep it safe along with your purchase receipts.

Some shops really hate doing this paperwork and having to submit it, so it can take up to 30 minutes sometimes.

Collect all these receipts and paperwork in a safe place. You’ll need them again when you leave Europe.

3. Pack your purchases in your hand luggage

Tax refund goods sign
This is important! At some airports, you can apply for your refund before or after check-in. They didn’t actually check my goods, though!

To claim your VAT refund, you may need to show the purchased goods to Customs at the airport or train station. Therefore, it’s a good idea to pack these items in your hand luggage for easy access.

Check-in goods for vat refund

4. Find the VAT refund counter at the airport

VAT refund counter at European airport
A sign for the VAT refund counter at Leonardo da Vinci–Fiumicino Airport, Rome, Italy.

At whatever airport or train station you exit Europe from, look for VAT refund points. These are usually located both before and after security. Arrive an hour earlier than normal to do this because there can be queues!

5. Get your receipts stamped by Customs

More information about VAT Refund

At the VAT refund counter before security, present your VAT refund forms, receipts, passport, and the purchased goods to the customs officer. The officer will verify your documents and stamp your receipts. This stamp is essential for processing your refund.

6. Choose your refund method

You can choose to get your refund credited to your credit card or receive it in cash. Both options are available, but getting it credited to your card is often more convenient, especially if you don’t want to carry cash.

7. Submit your paperwork

The boxes that you place your refund paperwork into.
These are some of the boxes that you place your refund paperwork into once complete.

After your receipts are stamped, write down your credit card number on the VAT refund form if you opted for a credit card refund. Then, deposit the form and stamped receipts in the designated box at the refund counter. If you chose a cash refund, you might receive it on the spot.

My tax refunds took 3-4 weeks to be processed, they then appeared as a credit on my card.

Tips for a smooth VAT refund experience

  • Arrive Early: The VAT refund process can take some time, so ensure you arrive at the airport early to avoid any last-minute rush.
  • Check Airline and Airport Rules: Different airports and airlines may have specific rules for carrying goods in hand luggage, so check these beforehand.
  • Keep Documents Organized: Keep all your receipts, forms, and purchased goods organized and easily accessible to speed up the process.

Claiming a VAT refund at the airport is a straightforward process if you know the steps and prepare in advance.

Have any questions? Drop them in the comments.

By Karl Rock

Karl Rock, is a Hindi speaking Kiwi ex-pat who take viewers behind the scenes of incredible India and its neighbours. He has visited every state and union territory in India, and its culturally similar neighbours – Pakistan and Bangladesh, and aims to make others fall in love with India and the subcontinent.

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