ISSUE 36  |  Industrial Chic

International Shopper

April 01, 2007 1:00 PM

BY Janet Hall

Share This:

You may have noticed that we list many links to UK and other international websites (last week’s story on’s note paper holder, for instance), including Japanese ones (Sarah, our Napa Valley denizen, lived in Tokyo for 10 years and is magically able to translate those sites). It’s not as hard to shop overseas as you might think. A guide to navigating the waters:

1. Make sure the item will work in the US.

In the case of the note holder and other items such as tablecloths and pillow covers, the answer is obviously yes. However, electronics can be tricky. Steer clear of any motorized appliances (different voltages will wreak havoc with the internal mechanisms). Electric appliances without motors are fine. Lamps, for example, work as long as you have a plug adaptor and you use US-manufactured lightbulbs. Alternatively, lamps are cheap and easy to have rewired, which is what I did with two I brought back from the UK.

2. Make sure the seller handles out-of-country shipments.

If you search the site, you will locate several general information links at the bottom of the homepage. Click on the “shipping” link and the “terms and conditions” link and you’ll find information for ordering outside the EU. The majority of online retailers ship overseas; if you can’t find the information online, pick up the phone and call (just remember the time change). Go to for time zones; go to for international dialing codes.

3. Calculate the Total Cost.

Figure out the Base Price. To get the price in US dollars, use the online currency converter at For instance, the paper holder is 21,50 Euros, which, as of today, is $28.75.

Add the Direct Shipping Costs (charged by seller). The US is almost always listed as a choice for “ship to” on most websites. For instance, on, click on “ship to US” and you will learn that shipping costs 20,45 Euros, or $27. This is almost as much as the item itself; the charge is less onerous if you are buying something of higher value (and is completely offset when you subtract the VAT tax).

Subtract the VAT Tax. European goods are subject to VAT (value added tax), unless they are sold and dispatched to addresses outside the European Union. In’s “terms and conditions” link, the company states: “For deliveries made to non-EU member countries, the amount of VAT included in our prices is subtracted. However, the price increases by the amount of the corresponding import sales tax for your country.” Because the company does not have a store location in my state, I won’t incur any sales tax. Unlike US sales tax, VAT is built into the list price, so you can adjust the price downward, depending on the country’s VAT rate. The VAT rate is different in each European country; for instance, is based in Germany, where the VAT is 16 percent. According to my calculations, I can shave $4.60 off the price, bringing the tab down to $24.15.

Some General VAT rates: UK (17.5%), France (19.6%), Italy (20%), Spain (16%), Belgium (21%), Denmark (25%).

Consider the Customs Cost.’s site further explains: “The exact amount of the customs duty depends on your country’s legal regulations and the individual product. You will receive a certificate of origin printed on the invoice.” Goods ordered from overseas are subject to import duties and taxes, which are calculated according to the forms filled out by the seller.

Whether my purchase requires a duty charge depends on its classification. I can get an idea of what the duty might be on my note holder at ITC website ( Most of the items we list are in chapter 94 and are either exempt from duty (most furniture) or have fairly low rates (pillows, for instance, are taxed at 5.3 percent). I find that products like the note holder have a general duty is 3.9 percent which will amount to 94 cents.

Then there is the possibility of a MPF (Merchandise Processing Fee) levied by Customs. For Informal Entries (i.e. goods imported by mail, etc.), there is a set fee that from $5 to $9 per shipment.

I calculate my total cost to be: $57.09.

Some tips to make the process easier and less costly:

– Be sure your items are listed “For Personal Use” on the customs form. Goods imported for personal use are generally not subject to regulations and quotas (an issue with linens, for example) and are usually classified as “informal entry.”

– Keep the purchase value below $2000. If this is the case, and your goods are being shipped by mail or freight, they will most likely by imported as “informal entry”, which is a less arduous process. Items under $200 will generally be cleared immediately by Customs.

– Request that your sender ship via International Postal Service. This is the most economical and speedy route. Courier-shipped goods tend to accumulate unforeseen fees and charges, and freight shipments can end up sitting on the dock.

4. Phone the seller. I always make a confirmation phone call when I order from overseas. I like to confirm that the VAT tax will be deducted and to determine the shipping method. I also like to make sure they will complete the customs form and that they will list the goods properly (for instance, “pillow covers” is preferable to “textiles” and because they are taxed at a lower rate).

For those interested in the gory details, the US Dept. of Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) has an Infrequent Importer Internet Buying Guide that covers it all at