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Shopping for gifts and souvenirs is a fun and inevitable activity when you visit Europe. Make the most of your travel budget by checking into tax refund schemes and reading about Shopping in Europe before you go.

International shoppers may be entitled to tax refunds on the purchases they have made, so keep your receipts, ask what forms you need to fill out when you make your purchases, and be prepared to show the goods to Customs officials at the airport or other point of departure from the Europe Union.

For Travelers Resident Outside the EU

Most European countries levy a value-added tax (VAT), a form of sales tax. The rate varies from country to country, the average hovering around 20% of the total price of goods. The tax is usually included in the price rather than added on at the point of purchase, so you won’t have a surprise when the cashier rings up your total sale. The rate itself depends on the product category; in some countries the rate is higher for luxury items such as jewelry and lower for basic items such as foodstuffs.

Travelers resident outside the EU in many cases can apply for a refund of the VAT on goods purchases; for tourists, the refund does not apply to services such as hotel rooms or meals in restaurants. Always ask at the shop if they participate in the VAT refund program and what the country's minimum-purchase requirements are to qualify for a refund. The amount is usually € 18-265 Euros or the equivalent in local currency, spent in a single shop. Participating retailers often place the Tax Free Shopping logo on their doors for easy identification.

While the specific procedure varies from country to country, usually you need to fill in a form at the shop and present your passport. Upon your final departure from the EU, you must submit all forms and receipts to Airport Customs for approval. They may ask to see the goods, so have them handy in your carry-on luggage. Items must be new and unused to be eligible for the refund. Sometimes a shopkeeper will refund the tax to you at the point of purchase, however you still need to collect and present all the paperwork to Customs; the same applies if you have your purchases shipped home. In some instances, you can get the refund before departure at the Cash VAT Refund desk; otherwise, it will come by mail or can be credited back to your credit card by the retailer. When you travel to European countries outside the EU, you need to go through this process as you depart from each of those countries.

Companies such as Global Refund and Euro Refund provide services for eligible shoppers to recoup taxes in three simple steps.

For Travelers Resident in the EU

Despite the abolition of duty free purchases within the EU in 1999, you can still find good prices at airport tax-free outlets. You will often see two prices listed, one for intra-Europe travelers and another one for travelers outbound from the EU. Remember that if you are travelling within the EU you will not be able to benefit from the same tax breaks as when you fly to destinations outside it, except on certain items. Thus it’s best to make your big purchases just prior to departure from the EU.

A Helpful Distinction

Tax Free refers to the possible elimination or refund of taxes levied by the country in which you purchased the goods.

Duty Free refers to the quantity of certain goods which can be brought back to your country of residence without paying the normal tariffs imposed on those goods by that country.

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