How to get a travel tax refund when leaving the EU

How to get a travel tax refund when leaving the EU

Every year visitors to Europe lose millions of Euros in unclaimed tax refunds because they either don't know they can claim it back or because they might find the process too involved.

This is rather regrettable because when you buy virtually something in the European Union (EU) you will pay as much as 25% VAT - and in many cases, travelers from outside Europe can claim a tax refund when returning to their home country. In what follows we will tell you exactly what you need to know and do to save yourself a lot of money next time you visit Europe.

What exactly is VAT?

The term VAT refers to value-added tax, a consumption tax that is paid by consumers when they buy certain items or services. It is not the same as a revenue or income tax.

When you visit Europe and buy products and services, the price typically includes VAT. Locals of course pay the same tax, the difference is they can't claim anything back.

What is the VAT rate in Europe?

In the EU (European Union) the value added tax rate typically varies between 5% and 25%, depending on which country you are in. Some EU countries also apply different VAT rates to different types of products and services. These are often categorized as either super-reduced, reduced, or standard.

If, for example, you travel to France, certain products will include VAT at 2.1% while on others the VAT rate will be 5.5%, 10%, or even 20%.

VAT rates for each European country (as of April 2023) 

Below is a summary of the VAT rates of the various European nations, including Schengen area countries, and the minimum amounts you have to spend to be able to claim a tax refund when you leave.

  • Austria (20%) (€75.01)
  • Belgium (21%) (€125.01)
  • Bulgaria (20%) (250 BGN)
  • Croatia (25%) (740 HRK)
  • Czech Republic (21%) (2,001 CZK)
  • Denmark (25%) (300 DKK)
  • Estonia (20%) (€38.01)
  • Finland (24%) (€40)
  • France (20%) (€175.01)
  • Germany (19%) (€50.01)
  • Greece (24%) (€50)
  • Hungary (27%) (74,001 HUF)
  • Iceland (24%) (11% on food & books) (6,000 ISK)
  • Ireland (23%) (€75)
  • Italy (22%) (€154.95)
  • Latvia (21%) (€44)
  • Lithuania (21%) (€55)
  • Luxembourg (17%) (€74)
  • Malta (18%) (€100)
  • Netherlands (21%) (€50)
  • Norway (25%) (315 NOK)
  • Poland (23%) (200 PLN)
  • Portugal (23%) (€61.50)
  • Romania (19%) (250 RON)
  • Slovakia (20%) (€100.01)
  • Slovenia (22%) (€50.01)
  • Spain (21%) (€0.01)
  • Sweden (25%) (200 SEK)
  • Switzerland (8%) (300 CHF)
  • Turkey (18%) (118 TRY)

What does a VAT refund involve?

The term VAT refund refers to the authorities refunding the amount of VAT a visitor from outside Europe paid on products bought while visiting the region. If the product qualified for a refund and the VAT rate is 25%, for example, these travelers will be able to get the full amount of the tax refunded when they leave the EU again.

What types of products qualify for a VAT refund

The exact products on which you can claim a VAT refund differ from one country to the next. The general rule is that this only applies to items that can fit in your luggage. If you bought a new car in Europe, for example, the VAT on this is non-refundable. On the other hand, there is a minimum purchase price to qualify for a VAT refund. See the list above for more details.

Certain products and services are also not included, for example, tobacco products, hotel bills, and services.

When do I qualify for a Value Added Tax refund?

To qualify for a VAT refund you should not be a permanent resident of a European country and you must have bought the products while visiting Europe.

If you live outside Europe on a permanent basis, you will typically be regarded as a 'visitor' for the purposes of a VAT refund when you travel to one or more European countries. In these cases, you are not liable for VAT, which is why you are allowed to claim a refund. When you buy merchandise or goods in Europe and take it back to your home country, this is viewed as an export - and exports from Europe are VAT exempt.

To qualify for a VAT refund, your purchases should be more than a certain amount. This also differs from one EU country to the next, but in the majority of cases you must spend at least that amount in a particular location. If the minimum, for example, is 100 EUR, you can not spend 10 EUR at 10 different locations. It has to be 100 EUR at a single location.

Will I get my Value Added Tax refunded before I leave Europe, or afterward?

To claim the VAT refund, you will have to depart from Europe. Merely crossing an internal border between two countries is not enough. To qualify as an export, the items you bought have to leave Europe.

Do items I bought online qualify for a tax refund?

The answer here is yes, visitors do qualify for a VAT refund even on items they bought online. Similar rules to offline shopping apply: you must live outside Europe and the amount of your purchase has to be higher than the minimum determined by the country where the online store is located.

What you need to know about getting a refund for Value Added Tax

The procedure often differs slightly from country to country, but generally speaking, this is what you will have to do:

[1] Make sure you can provide proof of where you live

To kick off the refund procedure, you will be asked to show some form of identification that proves that you do not live in the EU. Your passport should in the majority of cases be all you need.

[2] Do the necessary paperwork

Ask the shop owner to assist you with filling out the relevant tax-free form. Double-check the information to make sure it's correct and do not lose your receipts! Tourism-savvy shop owners often offer an on-the-spot refund as an added service. It's not hard to find those: they typically display a 'tax free' sign outside their shop.

If the shop owner provides a direct cash or credit card refund, you are most likely going to pay a (relatively small) fee for the service.

[3] Make sure you know what to do when you get to the airport

You should take your refund forms, receipts, and the items you bought with you to a VAT office at the airport. Allow enough time before your flight departs. If the merchant didn't give you an instant refund, you might get your tax refund at the last stop before you leave the EU.

That is not the end of the story though. To qualify for a VAT refund, you will have to prove that the items you bought have left the EU. This means that you will not be able to claim a tax refund on the VAT you paid if you are merely leaving one EU country on your way to the next one.

[4] Look for the customs office

This can take quite a bit of time, so make sure you arrive early to your departure point. There are often fairly long queues in front of the customs office. The best is to complete this step even before you go to the check-in counter with your luggage. That is because the customs agent might want to confirm that your purchases qualify for a refund. Once this office has cleared your purchases. they will put a customs stamp on your forms to make it official.

To qualify for a VAT refund, the items you bought have to be new. You can not get a tax refund on used products. To prevent any misunderstanding regarding this, rather refrain from using any of the items on which you would like to claim a tax refund. If it looks like it's been used a hundred times, customs might refuse to reimburse you.

You will often also be asked to show the items you bought when you get to the customs office. That is why you should rather not pack any of them in the luggage you are going to check in. This is particularly relevant if you plan to go to the customs office after you have checked in your luggage.

How long will it on average take before I get my refund?

You are definitely not getting your money right there at the customs office. If you bought anything at a shop that works with a specific refund service agent, you have to look for their office or desk when you get to the airport. Take the stamped documentation with you. Just remember that in this case you are going to pay a modest commission.

If you did not buy from one of these retailers, you will have to send the refund documentation via snail mail and wait until you get a response. If you paid for your purchases with a credit or debit card, remember to check your bank statements regularly.

It normally takes around 3 weeks before the VAT refund will show up in your bank account. Cheque payments also take around three weeks to get processed.

Can't I purchase items in Europe without having to pay VAT?

Unfortunately, that is not possible. The VAT will always form part of the purchase price and you will not be allowed to buy anything without this.

The best scenario is if you buy from a merchant that offers direct refunds. Yes, it will take a bit longer than usual because there will be more paperwork involved, but you won't have to wait as long to get your tax refund.

Another option is asking the shop owner to send the products you bought to your home address. In most instances, however, this will not benefit you financially because you will have to pay for the shipping costs and there could also be import duties involved once the products get to your own country.

There is only one way in which you can totally sidestep paying Value Added Tax and that is to buy everything at duty free shops. Unfortunately, these are mostly located at international airports and their prices can be high.

To get a refund, do I have to leave the EU directly from the country in which I bought the items?

Not at all. You can purchase your gifts and souvenirs in one European country and after that visit as many other EU countries as you wish, provided you stay within your time limit. When you finally decide to go back to your own country, you should, however, have the products you bought in the EU with you in case the customs officer wants to check them before he or she stamps your documents.

What is the situation if I am going to leave the EU by train?

You should be able to get your VAT refund forms stamped at the last train station. To do this, you will in most cases have to get off the train when it arrives at the station and find the customs office.

If you are lucky though, a customs officer will board the train before it gets to the border. Whether or not this will happen depends on the route of the train and the individual country's internal procedures. Your best option is to ask at the station when you buy the train tickets.

Schengen visas and ETIAS

Currently, citizens from about 60 countries do not have to apply for a Schengen Visa to visit Europe. The majority of the rest have to apply for such a visa before they are allowed to enter the region.

In 2025, most of the visitors from the 60 countries that currently do not need a Schengen visa will have to apply for ETIAS, or the European Travel Information and Authorization System. This includes travelers from the U.S. If you need more information about this, please visit the website.