SHARE
COPY LINK
For members

MONEY

How to challenge high import fees on non-EU parcels in Germany

Residents of Germany have been complaining of high charges levied on gifts sent from outside the EU - many of which should be exempt from customs fees. Here's what to do if you're facing this problem.

DHL letter delivery
A DHL worker delivers parcels and letters in Passau, Bavaria. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Lino Mirgeler

Receiving a parcel from someone you love can be one of life’s small pleasures, whether it’s a thoughtful handmade gift or something special for your birthday.

But in recent months, many residents of Germany have been furious to discover that their parcels from outside of the EU have been held by couriers and are only released upon payment of steep import charges and admin fees.

When The Local conducted a survey on this topic back in February, around 95 percent of respondents said they’d been asked to pay some sort of fee before they were allowed to collect parcels from non-ÉU countries – including gifts from family and friends.

Most commonly, people said they’d been charged for parcels coming from the UK after Brexit, though shipments from other non-EU countries such as the United States, Hong Kong and India were also subject to hefty fees.

READ ALSO: ‘Ridiculous’: Foreigners in Germany hit by high fees on non-EU parcels

Stuttgart-resident Rebecca, 24, told us she had been charged more than €10 in total to receive a box of her own belongings from the UK.

“It was a ridiculous amount,” she said. “But I knew if I tried to question it at the post office I wouldn’t understand the explanation either, so I just paid it.”

As in Rebecca’s case, many people have felt they have no choice but to pay the fees, even if they believe that they’ve actually been incorrectly charged. Sadly, a large number of our respondents said they had simply asked family and friends abroad not to send them anything in the future.

Nevertheless, in some cases it may be worth challenging a fee that doesn’t seem proportionate. Here’s what to know about the fees that should (and shouldn’t) be levied and how to try and claim your money back.

What fees are levied on non-EU parcels?

Firstly, it’s important to distinguish between gifts (or your own personal belongings) and commercial parcels from outside the EU. 

On July 1st, 2021, the previous €22 exemption limit for purchases from non-EU countries was dropped. That means that, from this date, any goods with a value of over €1 ordered from outside the EU have been subject to import VAT and, in the case of so-called luxury goods like tobacco and alcohol, excise duty. 

If goods worth over €150 are ordered from a non-EU country, the recipient will also have to pay customs charges. The rules were changed to level the competitive playing field between EU and non-EU sellers, but in reality they mean that a bargain purchase from China or the US may not be such a bargain after all.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Why people in Germany are being charged to receive small parcels from outside the EU

It’s important to note that, according to the German authorities, ‘swap’ deals conducted online or purchases from sellers via online auctions also count as commercial shipments and are therefore subject to things like VAT and import charges.

Then there are gifts and non-commercial shipments, which are exempt from VAT and customs and excise charges up to a certain value. To meet this criteria, gifts must be:

  • Less than €45 in total value
  • Sent by an individual to an individual (rather than a business)
  • Intended for personal use only 
  • Not paid for by the recipient 

If your parcel meets all the above criteria, it should be free-of-charge to receive and not subject to any admin fees from couriers, aside from the normal postal charges. 

Why are people being overcharged?

This is a very good question, and one that’s hard to get to the bottom of. 

One reason for it could be the scrapping of the €22 exemption limit for non-EU purchases last July. Though this shouldn’t apply to gifts, it has vastly increased the number of parcels that are now subject to import VAT within the EU, which could mean that low-value gifts are being lumped in with purchases in some cases. 

The other issue could be to do with the system for relaying information on the parcel. According to the German Customs Office, the postal courier in the third county (say, the UK’s Royal Mail) is tasked with relaying the information on the customs form to their EU partner (say, DHL) electronically.

This information is then used by the courier in Germany to submit a declaration to the Customs Office, who then apply the relevant taxes. 

In this slightly unwieldy system, there seems to be a lot of potential for human error. 

A spokesperson for the Deutsche Post group seemed to confirm this view, explaining that the postal operator occasionally has a hard time verifying whether charges should be added to parcels or not.

DHL worker

A DHL worker carries a parcel in his arm while working in Ober-Ramstadt, Hesse. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sebastian Gollnow

“The calculation of the specific VAT or customs duty charge is based on a customs declaration done by Deutsche Post,” they told The Local.

“The customs declaration is based on the electronic information which the sender is required to transmit with the shipment. Given the high amount of customs declarations that Deutsche Post is transmitting daily to the Customs Office, plus the fact that some shippers/countries unfortunately provide bad data quality, it is not always easy to assess the nature of the shipment.”

The Customs Office spokesperson also appeared to blame the couriers and senders in non-EU countries.

“If a consignment is to be treated as a gift, it has to contain a corresponding note,” they said. “If such information is missing, the postal or courier service will report the consignment to customs as a commercial import consignment.

“In addition, it can also happen that the data was not correctly or not completely taken over by the shipping company in the third country. Neither the postal or courier service in Germany nor customs has any influence on this.”

READ ALSO: What you need to know about sending post between Germany and the UK after Brexit

Who should I contact if the fees are incorrect?

If you’ve reviewed all the above criteria and are still convinced that you’ve been wrongly charged for your parcel, your first portal of call is the Customs Office. 

The contact details for the Customs Office can be found on their website and they have a special email address for enquiries in English. They also have some useful information in English about postal fees and regulations if you need to check anything first.

In your email, give as many details as you can about the shipment, but most crucially mention that it was a gift and that the value of the contents was less than €45. 

Unfortunately, the Customs Office won’t be able to refund any administrative fees you may have been charged by the German courier.

Customs office in Germany

A small plaque with the German Bundesadler sits on the side of the Customs Office in North Rhine-Westphalia. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Federico Gambarini

However, Deutsche Post tells us that they are open to reimbursing an incorrectly levied admin fee, so simply contact their customer service representatives to try and arrange your refund.

Understandably, you may feel like it’s not worth kicking up a fuss over a matter of euros, and whether you choose to challenge the fees is entirely up to you. As the old saying goes: “Pick your battles.”

Nevertheless, challenges to unfair fees may make a small difference in encouraging couriers to be a bit more thorough when checking and transmitting information about shipments in the future. 

We can always live in hope. 

Other tips for avoiding import charges

If your family or friends are planning on sending you anything from outside the EU, ask them to fill in the customs form carefully and to be sure to clearly mark it as a gift and state the value of it on the form.

You can also gently suggest that, if they’d like to order something to your house directly, it’s best to do it from a German or EU-based business so that the parcel won’t be subject to fees.

Many online marketplaces and retailers in Germany have English-language websites for the international crowd, so this shouldn’t be too tricky for them to navigate. 

Have you successfully challenged fees on parcels or have an experience of receiving non-EU gifts you’d like to tell us about? Let us know by emailing [email protected]

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members

MONEY

Why German bank customers could soon pay less for their account

A major German bank is set to scrap fees on large balances - and a number of others look set to follow. Here's why people in Germany may be paying less for their savings or current account in the near future.

Why German bank customers could soon pay less for their account

What’s going on? 

Interest rates have been at rock-bottom levels for years, making it much harder for people to get returns on their savings.

In recent years, many banks have even been levying what’s known as negative interest rates on customers. If interest normally incentivises people to save by helping them to grow their money, negative interest basically does the opposite.

If you have a certain amount of money in the bank, your bank will charge you negative interest via a deposit holding fee, which will usually be a certain percentage of your balance.

With N26, for example, balances of over €50,000 are subject to a 0.5 percent fee each year. For a balance of exactly €50,000, that equates to €250 in bank charges just for keeping your money there. 

Some banks even charge a deposit holding fee for balances as low as €5,000 or €10,000 in a current account. 

On Tuesday, ING Deutschland became the first bank to announce that it would be scrapping negative interest rates for the vast majority of its customers.

From July 1st, new customers of ING will be able to deposit up to €500,000 in their account without being charged for it, while existing customers will automatically have the fee-free amount raised to €500,000 from the current €50,000. 

Now, it seems a number of other German banks are planning similar moves. 

Why is ING Deutschland ending the holding fee?

Not entirely out of the goodness of its own heart – though that doesn’t stop it being good news for customers.

The European Central Bank (ECB) is set to make a decision on interest rates in the bloc this July, and most people expect that the bank is poised to increase interest rates from minus 0.5 percent to zero. 

Since banks have basically been passing on the ECB’s fees to their own customers, a hike in the ECB’s interest rate would spell the end of most negative interest-rate accounts in any case. But ING Deutschland said it wanted to pass on the positive interest rate trend to its customers even earlier.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How to save money on your taxes in Germany

“With the increase in the fee-free allowance for credit balances on the current and extra accounts, the deposit fee is no longer applicable for 99.9 percent of our customers,” said Nick Jue, chief executive officer of ING in Germany. “We were one of the last banks to introduce a deposit holding fee and one of the first to virtually abolish it.”

He added that the bank had already kept its promise to abolish the holding fee for almost all customers before the European Central Bank made its decision.

Does this have anything to do with that court decision on bank charges?

That’s definitely a factor. According to a decision in Germany’s Federal Supreme Court last year, credit institutions have to obtain the consent of their customers when making changes to their fees and conditions.

That means that financial institutions have to ask for consent to current fees retrospectively if they don’t want hoards of people trying to claim their money back.

If a customer doesn’t consent to the fees, the bank will usually close that customer’s account.

Man signs a contract

A man in a suit fills in an official form. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/Pixabay | hnw-Gruppe

According to ING Deutschland, the scrapping of negative interest rates on balances up to €500,000 may help to sway those customers who have not yet agreed to the latest terms and conditions – including the deposit holding fee.

Anyone who agrees to the Ts&Cs will automatically be given the higher allowance as of July 1st.

“ING Deutschland expects that the increase in the allowances will convince in particular those customers who have not yet agreed to the General Terms and Conditions including the holding fee, and that the bank will thus terminate fewer customers than last planned,” ING said in a press release. 

READ ALSO:

What other banks are planning to do this?

According to reports in Bild and Bialo, the other banks planning on ending negative interest rates (or raising the threshold for fee-free balances like ING Deutschland has done) include:

  • Deutsche Bank
  • Commerzbank
  • Deutsche Apotheker- und Ärztebank (Apobank)
  • Dortmunder Volksbank
  • Hamburger Sparkasse (Haspa
  • Frankfurter Sparkasse
  • Frankfurter Volksbank
  • Mittelbrandenburgische Sparkasse
  • Nassauische Sparkasse (Naspa)
  • Ostsächsische Sparkasse Dresden
  • Sparda-Bank München
  • Sparda-Bank Südwest
  • Sparda-Bank West
  • Sparkasse Hannover
  • Sparkasse Pforzheim Calw
  • Volksbank Stuttgart

What does this mean for my savings?

There’s good news and bad news.

The good news is that, from July, you’ll no longer have to pay exorbitant charges just to store your money in a safe place – and you won’t be penalised for saving more. The bad news, on the other hand, is that low interest rates aren’t going away anytime soon.

So while you won’t be losing money hand over fist, you won’t be earning much of a return on your savings either.

Banks in Frankfurt

Skyscrapers in the financial district of Frankfurt am Main. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Fernando Gutierrez-Juarez

“If the interest rate environment continues to develop positively, we will also let our customers participate in this development,” said ING Deutschland’s Nick Jue. “However, the low-interest phase will continue for the time being and broadly diversified investments will remain important.”

Getting a securities account where your money is invested is one way to try and grow your savings, as is investing in property.

Of course, people with mortgages and other loans benefit from the low interest rates – which could be why the German property market is currently booming. 

READ ALSO: Five ways Germany’s soaring inflation could affect your life

SHOW COMMENTS