Simon’s duty-free guide shopping contains everything you need to know about duty-free and tax free shops, scams, duty free allowances and online shopping.
First of all, the difference between a tax free shop and a duty-free shop is:
- Duty-free shop: Selling goods, which are exempt of duties, on the requirement that the goods sold will be sold to travelers who will take them out of the country (often spelled as duty free, however duty-free is acceptable as well).
Duty-free shops are always located in international zones (see explanation below).
- Tax-free shops: Within the EU (European Union), non EU citizens can claim back the VAT on their purchases if they shop at participating stores. These stores are called tax free shops (spelled as tax free or tax-free, both are correct).
Tax free shops within the EU can be found outside of international zones as well.
/Duty-free shops often label themselves as “tax free” as a marketing gimmick. You might not be able to claim back your VAT at a duty-free shop, which advertises itself as a tax free shop. Make sure to get informed and ask them before you make a purchase. This is just one of their many dubious claims, see below./
First of all, you need to know that duty-free stores at airports were ripping you off and lying to you for years! The products at most duty free shops are no longer cheaper than at local stores.
However, luckily not every duty-free shop is a scam (only most brick & mortar duty-free shops). You can save money by shopping duty-free online. Online shops, thanks to price comparison websites and global competition can not trick you like their land based counterparts.
You might be wandering:
How on earth is this possible? I thought you have to be physically present at the airport to be eligible to shop duty-free?
Actually, it turns out it is not true, and there are legally operating online duty-free shops. Many of them have been in operation for 8+ years. But not many people have heard of them yet.
UPDATE: New duty free coupon codes and bulk discount codes are now being added regularly. Check the coupon codes here.
Simon’s duty-free shop guide
In this guide you will find everything you need to know to become an expert of duty-free shopping, to find the best deals, and to protect yourself from scams.
By using this guide you can significantly save on your online purchases and you will learn how to differentiate between legitimate businesses and websites selling black market cigarettes and alcohol illegally.
We have created handy price comparisons in the most popular product categories, so you can compare prices with local retailers from the UK, US, EU and with duty free shops at the airports.
|Duty free products|
|Check out the latest|
coupon codes and bulk discount codes here.
Summary – what is actually cheaper in an online duty free shop:
I have compared the price of products from the above categories in duty free airport shops, local retailers and online duty free shops.
Cheaper: cigarettes, e-cigarettes, fragrances, perfumes, cologne and lighters are the cheapest in online duty free stores.
Not cheaper: alcohol in general, spirits, liquor are not cheaper in online duty free stores.
Depends on the brand and product: when it comes to cigars and watches no general rule can be established, it depends on the brand and the product, it worths checking out their selection but I do recommend doing a manual price comparison as well.
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/credit cards accepted, free international shipping/
The second part of the online duty free shopping guide contains:
- Legal status of online duty free shopping – why and how it is legal
- Duty free scams – how to detect them
- Duty free allowances
Legal status of online duty free shopping
First of all, not every duty free shop is located in an airport. They only have to be located in international zones. International zones include:
- international airports
- border towns
- cruise ships
- on-board international flights
- bonded warehouses
- international waters
- and in theory space stations, the Moon, Mars etc.
And this is the secret to why online duty free shopping is legal. All legit online duty free shops are shipping their products from bonded warehouses. There are no laws prohibiting them from doing so. However, we recommend to never exceed your country’s duty free allowance per one single order. The USA and the UK are notorious for seizing orders if they exceed the duty free allowance (,which they have every right to do so within the borders of the country). Therefore if you are ordering from the US or the UK you should never exceed the duty free allowance (you can still try to take advantage of bulk discounts, just make sure to ask them to deliver your order in parts). Other countries usually don’t have this problem, but still, just to be safe, stick to the duty free allowance or make sure the package is insured.
Insurance: The shop I recommend offers a form of insurance to protect buyers. If you decide to pay some extra, your order will be guaranteed to be delivered again if it happens to be seized by customs, free of charge. I strongly suggest using this insurance if you bulk order.
Brick and mortar duty-free shop are a SCAM
Brick & mortar duty-free shops deceive people, their products are overpriced and you can get them cheaper in a regular store in the given country, and even with the added customs duty you are still better off (and you only have to pay that if your order exceeds the duty free allowance for your country, most people don’t).
The degree of tax-exemption and which products qualify to be sold as duty-free varies from jurisdiction-to-jurisdiction. However, if you checked out the price comparisons above you know that local stores offer better prices than duty free shops at airports. But this wasn’t always the case. To understand why this happened you have to understand two things: what they are selling, and where.
Products most often sold in duty free stores:
As you can see the most often bought items are alcoholic drinks, especially high-end, expensive, limited edition spirits.
- 37% of all purchases in duty-free shops were alcohol related
- 26% of all purchases in duty-free shops were that of clothing items and accessories
- 22% of all purchases in duty-free shops were of perfume
- 15% of all purchases in duty-free shops were jewellry related
The survey did not measure tobacco sales!
According to Euromonitor International the duty-free tobacco market is twice as big as the duty-free alcohol market.
With duty-free tobacco products sales included, the figures are:
- 43.5% tobacco products (including premium cigars)
- 21.2% alcohol
- 14.9% clothing
- 12.6% perfume
- 8.6% jewellry
These types of products are so called ‘inelastic goods’, which means lower price causes only a very small increase in demand. Not to mention that many of these products are status symbols and luxury products. In this case a higher price can actually increase their perceived value, and the marketers know this very well.
The second thing you should be aware is the location.
It turns out, that being located at an airport is crucial for duty-free stores for many unexpected reasons.
“52% duty free shoppers surveyed seem to support the idea of the influence the airport atmosphere plays in the purchasing action. On the consumer side, the atmosphere emerges to be a significant factor affecting their behavior; companies try to create in the collaboration with the airports, walkthroughs and a good layout of pre-boarding areas. Customers state that relaxing and low load environment represent an appealing atmosphere inducing them to buy. It has emerged therefore that customers’ perception correspond to the purposes of companies. The high percentage of people purchasing (82%), which corresponds to the high percentage of people admitting to be influenced by a low load atmosphere (80%), confirm the previous statement. ”
So it turns out, that as much as 52% of duty free shoppers were aware and admitted, that the location influenced them to buy something at the duty-free shop.
However after careful analysis of the data, it turns out as much as 80% of people were actually affected by the airport atmosphere (80% were affected but they were not consciously aware of it, 52% were aware of it and were affected), which influenced their purchasing decisions. Most of them would not have shopped, if it wasn’t located at an airport.
Summary: This is why brick & mortar duty free shops are actually more expensive than local stores. They are located in an environment that promotes shopping, and they are selling price inelastic luxury items mostly.
Only 46% of the people shop for the better prices and as much as 33% of people are already aware, that duty-free shops are not cheaper and in many cases much more expensive than regular shops. (- from the same study)
Here are some opinions of the duty-free shoppers surveyed in the Upsala quantitative market research study:
“I found out lately that many products are more expensive in the duty free areas than in the “normal shops”. For instance, 10 dollars for a big Milka bar in Santa Cruz airport Bolivia whereas in Europe in groceries stores they should cost 6 or 7 euro. Same price more or less. Not free of tax at all. For a watch in Cancun airport, the difference between the price in duty free area and the price on internet was 50 euro!!!”
“The perception on price is due to the price tags which clearly state how much you are saving in comparison to outside shops. The problem is, I’ve never checked this claim as the things I buy at duty free shops are generally items I seldom purchase. Lacking the knowledge on how much a product actually costs outside (and not trusting the price tags) I cannot really compare. The same goes for the range of products.”
And there is more!
People are willing to spend much more during a holiday. Not to mention, purchasing power and travelling by plane shows a correlation. This is why you mostly find expensive, high-end items and luxury fashion apparel at duty-free stores.
It’s a marketing scheme, designed by shrewd professionals and nothing else. Millions fell for it daily. At one point these duty-free shops were indeed cheaper but that’s certainly not the case for many-many years.
Duty-free shops are ripping you off! Stop buying at brick & mortar duty-free shops. They are overpriced.
You can actually get the same products cheaper (sometimes significantly cheaper) in a regular store in the given country. Don’t fall for the duty-free marketing scam!
There is only one way to take advantage of duty free shopping: online duty free shopping.
How to identify scams and dangerous, illegal sites selling black market, counterfeit products online
Of course, the online world is not without its scams too. Let me show you how to identify and avoid these scam sites posing as online duty free shops. It’s actually very easy.
There are two types of online shops you need to avoid:
- shops, which are scam sites looking for victims and stealing their money, credit card information and personal information,
- sites posing as duty-free shops, selling stolen black market cigarettes and other products (low quality counterfeit or stolen cigarettes) illegally online.
There are fours things to keep in mind when you are trying to determine the legitimacy of an e-commerce site:
Common sense: Look at the webpage. Is the website cared for ? Or is it looking abandoned and haven’t been updated for a while? Does the website look good? Does it look like how a public face of a company supposed to look like? Does it look like a legitimate, operating e-commerce store?
Accepting credit cards: If an online duty-free shop does not accept credit cards you are dealing with a scam. Or it’s a website selling black market goods illegally.
Credit card payment processors have very strict requirements. They are really thorough and if they as much as suspect anything remotely illegal they shut down credit card processing on the website instantly (and also fine the website and alert authorities).
Therefore, websites selling illegal products don’t take credit/debit cards. They prefer anonymous, less regulated payment methods e.g.:
- Western union
- pre-paid virtual cards
- cash in an envelope.
Contact the webshop before you make a purchase: First of all, make sure you can actually contact them. Contact them and don’t buy anything till they respond.
Scam sites are usually not given much attention. Scammers create hundreds of low quality fake sites and wait till someone falls for one them and gives them sensitive information. They don’t bother replying to customer emails.
Websites selling black market cigarettes do not have contact information listed on the website. They know they are doing something illegal and they will try to remain as anonymous as possible.
If you follow the simple step-by-step tutorial above, you will be able to tell the difference between legitimate online businesses and scams.
/Actually, you can apply this for every type of e-commerce store, not just duty-free shops./
Check the social media profiles of the store (if they have any of course). Are they abandoned, or are they active?
Check the website for dates (e.g.: “Copyright 2010” in the footer, that would be a warning sign).
People have various reasons for wanting to be anonymous online. They don’t necessarily have a malicious motive. However, it is an entirely different issue if an e-commerce website goes to great lengths to hide the business entity (if any) behind it. It is definitely a warning sign.
See whether you can find out who, which company is behind the website.
/credit cards accepted, free international shipping/
Duty-free allowances by country and tax free shopping in the EU
Tax-free shopping in the European Union
Tax free shopping (tax-free shops in the EU are not the same as duty free shops! – explained at the very beginning) is not restricted to international zones. Tourists from outside of the EU VAT area are entitled to shop tax-free at participating shops.
/You can – in theory – find the list of participating stores online for each EU country. However, I could not find such a list for many Eastern European countries in English. A central, well maintained list would be nice./
You have to pay VAT on the spot but you can request a refund when exporting the goods. To qualify for a VAT refund you must:
- have residency in a non-EU country
- have a maximum stay of six months within the EU
- make purchases no more than three months prior to export
- obtain a form from the shop where you make the purchase
- present the filled out form, and in certain cases the goods, to a customs officer when leaving the EU, where they will be stamped
Only goods meant for personal use are eligible for the refund. You must not exceed duty-free allowances (see below).
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You can check the duty-free allowances of the USA (applies to US territories as well), Canada, UK, Ireland, the European Union, Australia and New Zealand.
The following goods may be imported by visitors over 21 years of age into the USA without incurring customs duty:
- 200 cigarettes and 100 cigars.
- 1 liter of alcoholic beverage.
- Other goods up to a value of US $800 (US residents).
- Goods up to a value of US $100 (non-residents living in the USA, or visitors).
Travellers arriving from certain Caribbean and Latin American countries may import up to 2L of alcoholic beverages, as long as at least 1L was produced in one of the applicable countries.
US residents returning from a US insular possession (American Samoa, Guam or US Virgin Islands) have a duty-free allowance of US$1,600, including up to 1,000 cigarettes (at least 800 of which must have been bought in the insular possession) and 5L of alcoholic beverages, 1L of which must be a product of the insular possession.
Important – For some reason diamonds from Ukraine have a 100% customs duty, and it is very easy to exceed the duty free allowance with diamonds.
The following are either banned or may only be imported under licence.
- Narcotics and dangerous drugs, unless for medical purposes (doctor’s certificate required).
- Biological materials, some seeds, fruits and plants (including endangered species of plants and vegetables and their products).
- Firearms and ammunition (with some exceptions – consult the customs website).
- Meat and poultry products – fresh, dried or canned (FDA ban).
- Certain fish (unless certified as disease free).
- Dairy products and eggs.
- Wildlife and endangered species, including crustaceans, molluscs, eggs, game and hunting trophies and crafted articles of any part thereof.
- Dog and cat fur.
- Some art and artefacts.
- Haitian animal hide drums.
- Some automobiles.
- More than one article (limited to once every 30 days) displaying a counterfeit or confusingly similar logo to trademarked and copyrighted articles.
- Merchandise from embargoed countries: Iran, Myanmar and most of Sudan; information materials (pamphlets, books, tapes, films and recordings) are permitted. Items of archaeological, historical religious or scientific importance that are illegally removed from specific locations in Iraq.
Personal exemptions allow you to bring goods of a certain value into Canada from the United States without having to pay the regular duties that apply to those goods (except for minimum duties that may apply to certain tobacco products).
Less than 24 Hours – $0 CAD
There is no duty free allowance for absences of less than than 24 hours.
24+ Hour Exemption – $200 CAD
If you are absent from Canada for more than 24 hours, you may claim up to $200 CAD worth of goods duty free as your personal exemption and all goods must be with you when you arrive. If the goods you bring in are worth more than $200 CAD in total, you cannot claim this exemption and you will have to pay duties and taxes on all goods you bring in to Canada. You can NOT include tobacco or alcoholic under this exemption.
48 Hour Exemption – $800 CAD
If you are absent from Canada for more than 48 hours, you may claim up to $800 CAD worth of goods duty free, and must have the goods with you when you arrive at the border. You can include tobacco or alcoholic under this exemption.
7 Day Exemption – $800 CAD
If you are absent from Canada for more than 7 days, you may claim up to $800 CAD worth of goods duty free. You can include tobacco or alcoholic under this exemption.
Alcohol and Tobacco (24+ hours)
You can include limited quantities of alcoholic beverages in your personal exemption.
The provincial or territorial minimum ages for the importation of alcohol are:
- 18 years for Alberta, Manitoba and Quebec; and
- 19 years for Yukon, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador.
You are allowed to import only one of the following amounts of alcohol free of duty and taxes:
- 1.5 litres (53 imperial ounces) of wine;
- 1.14 litres (40 ounces) of liquor;
- a total of 1.14 litres (40 ounces) of wine and liquor; or 24 x 355 millilitre (12 ounces) cans or bottles (maximum of 8.5 litres) of beer or ale.
You are allowed to bring in all of the following amounts of tobacco into Canada without paying duty:
- 200 cigarettes;
- 50 cigars or cigarillos;
- 200 grams (7 ounces) of manufactured tobacco; and
- 200 tobacco sticks.
Duty tax is not charged for buying and importing up to 200 cigarettes every 21 days (for all countries except Ireland, France and Canada), and 1,200 cigarettes every 21 days (for US).
So make sure your order does not exceed 200 cigarettes or otherwise you will have to pay duty tax.
UK alcohol allowances
You can bring in either, but not both, of the following:
- 1 litre of spirits or strong liqueurs over 22% ABV
- 2 litres of fortified wine (such as port or sherry), sparkling wine or any other alcoholic drink that’s less than 22% ABV
Or you can combine these allowances. For example, if you bring in one litre of fortified wine (half your full allowance) you can also bring in half a litre of spirits (half your full allowance). This would make up your full allowance. You can’t go over your total alcohol allowance.
In addition you may also bring back both of the following:
- 16 litres of beer
- 4 litres of still wine
UK tobacco allowances
You can bring in one from the following list:
- 200 cigarettes
- 100 cigarillos
- 50 cigars
- 250g of tobacco
Or you can combine these allowances. For example, if you bring in 100 cigarettes (half your full allowance) you can also bring in 25 cigars (half your full allowance). This would make up your full tobacco allowance. You can’t go over your total tobacco allowance.
Other goods, including perfume and souvenirs
You can bring in other goods worth up to £390 without having to pay tax and/or duty.
If you arrive by private plane or private boat for pleasure purposes, you can only bring in other goods worth up to £270 tax and duty free.
You are allowed to bring in goods (including gifts, souvenirs, perfume and clothing) free of duty, the combined value of which does not exceed:
- €430 in the case of an individual aged 15 years or over
- €215 in the case of an individual aged under 15 years
If the total amount you bring in exceeds €430 or €215, you must pay import charges on the full value.
If you are bringing back any duty-free goods you bought when you travelled out from Ireland, these count as part of your allowance.
In addition, you are allowed to bring in tobacco products and alcohol free of duty in the following amounts:
- 200 Cigarettes, or
- 100 Cigarillos, or
- 50 Cigars, or
- 250 grammes Tobacco
You can combine the different types of tobacco products e.g. 100 cigarettes plus 50 cigarillos.
- 1 litre spirits (whiskey, gin, vodka etc.), or
- 2 litres of alcoholic drinks not exceeding 22% vol. (e.g. port, sherry, sparkling wine, some liqueurs, etc.)
You can combine the different types of alcoholic drinks e.g. ½ litre of spirits plus 1 litre of port. In addition to this amount you are allowed to bring in wine and beer.
Wine and Beer
- 4 litres still Wine, and
- 16 litres beer
Customs Duty, Excise Duty and VAT, where applicable, are charged on tobacco products, alcohol, beer and wine in excess of the duty free allowances.
Entering from an EU country
If you are travelling to the EU from the European Union, you can bring in an unlimited amount of most goods for your own use without paying tax or duty for personal use.
Although there are no limits on the amount of alcohol and tobacco you can bring in from EU countries, customs officials are more likely to declare it not for personal use if you have more than the following:
Cigarettes – 800
Cigars – 200
Cigarillos – 400
Tobacco -1 kilogram
Beer -110 litres
Wine -90 litres
Spirits -10 litres
Fortified wine (for example port or sherry) – 20 litres
You should not exceed this amount in any of these categories, but you can combine the different categories. Just keep in mind, that “for personal use” is not very well defined, so use common sense. Don’t try to abuse the system.
Entering from a non EU country
If you enter the EU from a non-EU country, goods having no commercial character in your personal luggage can be imported free of customs duties, VAT and excise duties within the following limits:
- 200 cigarettes or 40 cigarettes;*
- 100 cigarillos or 20 cigarillos; *
- 50 cigars or 10 cigars; *
- 250 grams of tobacco or 50 g smoking tobacco*
* Each amount represents 100% of the total allowance for tobacco products and any combination of those products must not exceed the total limit.
Example: 100 cigarettes + 50 cigarillos = total allowance
- A total of 1 litre of alcohol and alcoholic beverages of an alcoholic strength exceeding 22% ABV, or
- undenatured ethyl alcohol of 80% ABV and over, or
- a total of 2 litres of alcoholic beverages of an alcoholic strength not exceeding 22% ABV
- a total of 4 litres of still wine, and 16 litres of beer (only for VAT and excise duty)
In any means of motor transport, the fuel contained in the standard tank; and
a quantity of fuel not exceeding 10 litres contained in a portable container.
Other goods (including perfume, coffee, tea, electronic devices etc.)
- Up to a value of €430 for air and sea travellers.
- Up to value of €300 for other travellers.
The value on an individual item may not be split up.
The value of personal luggage (i.e. suitcases) and medicinal products for personal needs of the traveller do not count.
Member States may reduce the above limits to € 150 for travellers under 15 years (e.g.: Ireland).
Allowances concerning tobacco and alcohol do not apply in the case of travellers under 17 years of age.
Cigarillos are cigars of a maximum weight of 3 grams each are allowed only.
Personal items such as new clothing, footwear, and articles for personal hygiene and grooming (excluding fur, and perfume concentrates) may be brought into Australia in your accompanied baggage, free from duty and tax.
If you are aged 18 years or over you can bring 50 cigarettes or 50 grams of cigars or tobacco products duty-free into Australia with you. All tobacco products in accompanied baggage are included in this category, regardless of how or where they were purchased.
If you are aged 18 years or over, you can bring up to A$900 worth of general goods into Australia duty-free.
If you are under 18 years of age there is a A$450 limit.
General goods include gifts, souvenirs, cameras, electronic equipment, leather goods, perfume concentrates, jewellery, watches and sporting equipment.
If you are aged 18 years or over, you can bring 2.25 litres of alcoholic beverages duty-free into Australia with you. All alcoholic beverages in accompanied baggage are included in this category, regardless of where or how they were purchased.
Families travelling together can pool their duty-free concessions.
Personal items such as new clothing, footwear, and articles for personal hygiene and grooming may be brought into New Zealand in your personal luggage, free from duty and tax. Except the for the following categories.
On entering New Zealand you are entitled to bring in the following quantities of alcohol products free of Customs duty, provided that you are aged 17 years* or older and that the goods:
- accompany you through the Customs arrival process
- are for your own personal use, or intended as gifts
- are not carried on behalf of another person.
- are not intended for sale or exchange
If the above is applicable the following amounts are allowed duty free:
- 4.5 litres of wine or 4.5 litres of beer, or a combination, and
- three bottles (or other containers) each containing not more than 1,125ml of spirits, liqueur, or other spirituous beverages.
Any amounts over the above will be liable for Customs duty and goods and services tax (GST). This includes bottles which are of greater volumes than the one described.
On entering New Zealand you are entitled to bring in the following quantities of tobacco products free of customs duty, provided that you are over 17 years of age and that the goods:
- Accompany you through the Customs arrival process.
- Are for your own personal use, or are intended as gifts.
- Are not carried on behalf of another person.
- Are not intended for sale or exchange.
If the above is applicable the following amounts are allowed duty free:
- 200 cigarettes or
- 250 grams of tobacco or
- 50 cigars or
- a mixture of all three weighing not more than 250 grams, e.g.: 25 cigars and 100 cigarettes
Legal disclaimer: You must be 18+ to order tobacco online. You must be 18+ to order alcoholic drinks online.
Ordering duty-free items online is a personal decision. I can not be held liable for your actions. Make sure to fully understand local laws governing the import of alcohol, tobacco products, duty free products and the duty-free allowances of your country.
Make sure you get informed before making a purchase online and comply with the laws and regulations of your country.
Save money, get informed
Last updated: 2016-08-06