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I never realized how many visitors to France miss out on the advantages of duty free shopping until I caught some in the act. While the concept of bargain basement prices may not be a universal law, these unsavvy shoppers certainly should have been more versed in discounts for tourists. At least you can save yourself before it’s too late.
One dear woman was standing next to me looking through a rack of clothes in Galeries Lafayette when she muttered that everything was soonice but soooxpensive. Never too shy to talk to strangers, I joined her in her little conversation with herself.
“But you know there are coupons for tourists?” I interrupted and then continued, sure that she was as innocent as a lamb. “Any time you plan on visiting one of the big department stores, you should always bring your passport and you should always stop by the welcome, or accueil, desk.”
“Lady, you can’t be serious,” I snapped. (I hate to see careless victims.) “Let’s start from the beginning. First, you should always look for the visitors’ desk because that’s where you get the special discounts for shoppers visiting from outside of the European Union. Sometimes they won’t have anything for you but a store map; other times you get lucky. The point is, it’s not like in civilized places where the salesperson will help you out and offer you a coupon at the counter or even suggest that such a thing exists. Here you have to fend for yourself. You have to just know these things.”
“Oh, I had no idea.”
“Ignorance is no excuse, Ma’am.”
“Second, you should always have your passport with you when you are planning on doing a lot of shopping.”
“But isn’t it dangerous to carry your passport with you?”
“That’s a good question. It’s up to you to assess the situation a href="http://www.autoeurope.com/showspecial.cfm?aff=bonjourparis" mce_href="http://www.autoeurope.com/showspecial.cfm?aff=bonjourparis" target="_blank" rel=”nofollow”> but if you know that you are going to be doing a lot of shopping then it would be rather foolish of you not to have your passport with you. Stores will usually not let you fill out the duty free form unless you have it. However sometimes they will let you use your driving license and sometimes, but rarely, they let you get away with filling in the information yourself later.”
“But I don’t understand. What is this ‘duty-free’ form?”
“Basically, a lot of small stores display a small blue and white sign in the window saying either duty-free or tax-free shopping. Department stores might not display any signs but they offer the service. And what they are offering is an exemption from paying the French value added tax, or VAT, or sales tax. The VAT is more than 18% and you will receive a refund of about 13%. The hitch, and this is a big one, is that the only way you will get this refund is if you spend at least 175 euros in that store during that day. And in some stores, I don’t understand why, you have to spend at least 185 euros. So you should ask what the policy is before you start shopping. Does that make sense?”
“I think so. You mean if I buy this sweater here for my daughter and it cost 100 euros I cannot get the refund?”
“Exactly, but if you buy this sweater and then that skirt over there, or some perfume, or whatever else in this store, and your receipts for the day total more than 175 euros, you can get the discount.”
“Oh my, you’ve been very helpful.”
“All in a day’s shopping, ma’am.”
So I thought my duty was done but I arrived at the airport to find another duty-free victim pleading her case at customs. Usually, and I go through this process a few times a year, I sail through the customs line. There are just a few simple rules to follow:
1) you MUST have items that fit the description of what you bought with you
2) you must have your passport AND BOARDING PASS
3) you have to present yourself no earlier than 3 hours before your flight but with enough time before boarding to allow for hiccups and hassles.
Simple but cardinal rules. However this time I was stuck behind a bunch of hardened, duty-free cons. Due to some fluke the customs line was longer than I had ever seen it before. Instead of everything taking the usual 10 minutes it took nearly an hour. That’s just something a shopping pro should allow for. The novices were in a panic.
Then, one after the other, they all presented their sob stories.
“No sir, I don’t have the item with me. You see, it is too heavy…”
“Well sir, I know my plane isn’t scheduled to leave until this evening but I arrived early just so that I could turn in these forms…”
“I need my boarding pass? But I didn’t know. My husband has it and he is buying a newspaper…. My purchases? No, I checked those…”
I couldn’t believe it. I actually felt sorry for the customs officer. Surprisingly, he let the early bird and the weakling who couldn’t carry his purchases slide by with a warning then stamped their forms anyway. But The Lady Who Didn’t Know, who spent thousands of dollars on clothes and furniture and only had the tie her husband was wearing to show for it, had the rule book thrown at her.
I am no fan of French bureaucrats but this guy had a heart and took pity on the lady. He was looking for ways that she might eventually be able to get the refund so he asked her if she would be visiting France again anytime soon. Generally I would suggest keeping mum about any plans for a return visit because this could make a customs official, who might be teetering on the verge of letting you slide, change his mind. This is because you have a few months to turn in your forms. If you plan on coming back to Paris you could bring all of your purchases with you and do things properly the second time around. Normally this would be a huge hassle but for this sad shopper it was her only chance at getting a refund.
Instead she took the absolutely, classic, worst approach.
“Do you realize I just spent thousands of dollars in your country? Can’t you see that I have helped your economy? If I knew that I was going to be treated like this I would have spent my money somewhere else….”
Big mistake. Need I explain why?
Luckily for me, and the 50 other people waiting in line, another customs officer returned from his break and was able to help the next person in line.
One last bit of advice for hassle-free duty-free. Be careful when you are filling out the form. A persnickety agent would not accept my form after I changed my mind and crossed out the X in the cash box and filled in my credit card information instead. So if you check that you want cash back you can only get cash back. That means that after clearing through customs you have to find the American Express counter, perhaps wait in line again and pay a fee of about 3 euros to get your money back. If on the other hand you fill in your credit card information then you simply put one copy of the stamped form that the customs officer returns to you into the envelope that the stores provide – be sure there is a stamp if one is required – and then find a mailbox, which is usually close by. You should see the refund on your credit card statement in a few months.
For more information on who is eligible to receive the refund visit the French customs website: http://www.douane.gouv.fr/finc.asp?page=particulier/detaxenglish.htm&cusnum=1260).
It’s in English but unfortunately misses a lot of the finer points of the process. So be sure to ask at each store before you shop.
Happy, smart, shopping.