Notice 143: a guide for international post users

Updated 30 March 2017


This notice cancels and replaces Notice 143 (May 2016). Details of any changes to the previous version can be found in paragraph 1.2 of this notice.

1. Introduction

1.1 What this notice is about

This notice explains what happens when you import or export goods by post through Royal Mail or Parcelforce Worldwide. It also applies to gifts received through the post. Please note that, unless specified otherwise, all further references to Royal Mail within the text of this notice also applies to Parcelforce Worldwide, who are part of Royal Mail Group Ltd.

The arrangements set out in this notice however don’t apply when a full declaration on a single administrative document (SAD) (form C88) is required. That is for:

  • imports of goods with a value exceeding £873 (1,000 euros) declared to home use and free circulation
  • imports of goods for which relief from customs duty and import VAT is being claimed, for example, inward processing relief, outward processing relief, temporary importation
  • certain exports including all goods for export with a value exceeding £873 (1,000 euros)

Information on the procedures you should use can be found in Notice 144 Trade imports by post: how to complete customs documents.

The notice is not the law and doesn’t change the law, extracts of which can be found in section 7.

The carriage of dangerous goods, including but not limited to alcohol and perfume, in post is regulated by Universal Postal Union rules and Royal Mail Group conditions of carriage. Nothing in this notice should be construed as legitimising movement of any goods by post.

You can find information about exporting or importing by post on the Royal Mail website or phone Royal Mail Customer Services on 08457 740 740, or go to the Parcelforce Worldwide website or phone Parcelforce Worldwide Customer Services on 0844 800 4466.

1.2 What’s changed?

This latest version has been amended to show the increase in the level for which a formal customs declaration is required from £750 to £873 (or 1,000 euros) which will take place on 1 January 2017 due to the current pound/euro exchange rate, and the revised legislation brought in under the Union Customs Code. Also, an increase in Gift Aid allowance from £34 to £39.

The de minimis level above which customs duty is charged has been removed in the Union Customs Code so the references to the waiver of customs debt below £7 de minimis have been removed from the notice.

2. Postal packages imported (arriving) from countries outside the EU

2.1 Does the sender have to declare the goods?

Yes. Under international postal agreements the sender must complete a customs declaration (form CN22 or CN23) which in most cases should be fixed to the package. The declaration includes a description of the goods, the value and whether they are gifts or commercial items. Any Post Office abroad should be able to give advice to the sender.

Under customs law, you as the importer are legally responsible for the information on the declaration, therefore it’s in your own interest to ensure, wherever possible, that the sender abroad completes the declaration accurately and in full.

If no declaration is made, or the information is inaccurate, the package may be delayed while the Border Force make further enquiries, or in some cases the package and its contents may be returned to the sender or seized by the Border Force.

2.2 Do I have to pay import duties and/or import VAT on goods sent to me?

Most goods arriving in the UK from outside the EU are liable to any or all of the following taxes:

  • Customs Duty
  • Excise Duty
  • import VAT

and must be paid whether:

  • you purchase the goods or receive them as a gift
  • the goods are new or used (including antiques)
  • the goods are for your private use or for re-sale

2.3 What are the limits for customs duty and import VAT?

The limits for customs duty and import VAT are:

  • commercial consignments, that is, goods you have purchased, of £15 or less are free from Customs Duty and import VAT. Note: This doesn’t include alcohol, tobacco products, perfume or toilet waters, these items are excluded from the relief of duty and VAT at import. In addition, commercial consignments sent to the UK from the Channel Islands don’t benefit from any relief of import VAT
  • if you’re sent a gift with a value of £39 or less, which complies with the rules shown in paragraph 2.4, it will be free from Customs Duty and import VAT (gifts of alcohol, tobacco, perfumes and toilet waters are subject to the limits shown in paragraph 2.5, while gifts of perfumes and toilet waters are subject to the limits in paragraph 2.6)
  • Customs Duty becomes payable if the value of the goods is over £135

In summary:

Goods Value* Customs Charges applicable
£0.01 to £15 - No customs duty
- No Import VAT**
£15.01 to £135 - No customs duty
- Import VAT due
£135.01 and greater - Customs duty due,
- Import VAT due

*Excludes the following goods: alcohol, tobacco products, perfumes and toilet waters. These items don’t benefit from the relief of customs duty or VAT at import, and alcohol and tobacco products will also be liable to Excise Duty. **Commercial consignments sent to the UK from the Channel Islands don’t benefit from relief of import VAT.

There are a number of other circumstances where relief from some or all customs charges may be available. If you think your goods may be eligible for a relief you can contact the HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) Customs, International Trade and Excise enquiries service by phone on 0300 200 3700 for further information.

Further ways to contact HMRC for general advice and information on imports can be found on the GOV.UK website.

2.4 Gifts

Goods sent as a gift that are over £39 in value are liable to import VAT, Customs Duty also becomes payable if the value of the goods is over £135.

To qualify as a gift:

  • the customs declaration must be completed correctly
  • the gift must be sent from a private person outside the EU to a private person(s) in this country
  • there is no commercial or trade element and the gift hasn’t been paid for either directly or indirectly by anyone in the UK
  • the gift is of an occasional nature only, for example, for a birthday or anniversary

Note: if you purchase something from outside the EU to give as a gift to a relative or friend, whether or not addressed to that person, it is treated as a ‘commercial consignment’ for which the import VAT relief threshold in paragraph 2.3 applies.

2.5 Do gifts of alcohol and tobacco products qualify for relief from import duties and import VAT?

Yes - gifts of alcohol and tobacco products, with a value not exceeding £39, qualify for relief from import duties and import VAT subject to the following limits against each of the goods described below:

(1) Tobacco products Quantity
cigarettes 50
cigarillos (cigars with a maximum weight each of 3 grammes) 25
cigars 10
smoking tobacco 50 gms
(2) Alcohol and alcoholic beverages  
distilled beverages and spirits of an alcoholic strength exceeding 22% by volume, undenatured ethyl alcohol of 80% by volume and over 1 litre
distilled beverages and spirits, and aperitifs with a wine or alcohol base, tafia, saké or similar beverages of an alcoholic strength of 22% by volume or less, sparkling wines and fortified wines 1 litre
still wines 2 litres

If gifts of alcohol and tobacco are sent in excess of the quantities shown in the above table, relief from Import Duty will only apply up to the limits shown above, and the consignment won’t benefit from any relief of import VAT.

Please note that relief to the limits in the table above only apply to gifts and don’t apply to commercial consignments.

In addition, Excise Duty is payable on all alcohol and tobacco products even if they are a gift.

Undenatured ethyl alcohol and alcoholic beverages containing more than 24% abv are prohibited in international mail. If in doubt, check with Royal Mail Group before sending.

2.6 Do gifts of perfumes and toilet waters qualify for relief from duties and import VAT?

Neither Customs Duty nor Excise Duty is chargeable on gifts of perfumes and toilet waters. However, import VAT is chargeable if the allowances detailed below are exceeded, or the goods’ value exceeds £39.

Item Quantity
Perfumes 50 gms of perfume
Toilet waters 0.25 litres of toilet water

Please note that relief to the limits in the table above only apply to gifts and don’t apply to commercial consignments.

Perfumes with a flashpoint of less than 60°C is prohibited in international mail. If in doubt, check with Royal Mail Group before sending.

2.7 Do multi-gift packages containing more than one gift qualify for the £39 Customs Duty waiver and import VAT relief?

Where a package contains gifts that are clearly intended for several people, for example, members of the same family, the £39 VAT relief applies to each individual person provided the goods are:

  • individually wrapped
  • specifically addressed to them
  • declared separately on the customs declaration
  • within the allowances specified

If more than one individual package is addressed to a particular person the value of the goods will be added together. If the total value exceeds £39 import VAT will be charged, and if the value exceeds £135 customs duty may also be due.

If a package contains a number of different types of goods intended for more than one person, and these are separately described and given a value on the customs declaration, the waiver of Customs Duty will apply to each item. For import VAT, only as many items that add up to the value of the import VAT threshold (£39) will be granted relief, for example, if a package contains 5 items each with a value of £8, only 4 items will be entitled to relief (4 × £8 = £32) with charges payable on the sixth item.

When one item is sent to 2 people and its value exceeds £39, it isn’t possible to aggregate each person’s gift relief, and the value of an individual item itself can’t be divided, for example one item with a value of £50 sent to 2 individuals can’t benefit from the gift relief.

An illustration of this is shown below:

Goods sent as gifts Relief given
One item valued at £39 or below Free of Customs Duty and import VAT.
One item valued at £39 Import VAT is chargeable on the full value.
Five of the same items valued at £8 each Four items are relieved of import VAT leaving import VAT chargeable on the remaining one item.
Five different items valued at £120 each Import VAT is chargeable on the full value.
One item valued at £300 Customs Duty is charged. Import VAT is chargeable on the full value.

2.8 How and why the Border Force examine packages

The Border Force examine postal packages arriving in the UK from outside the EU for prohibited or restricted goods such as drugs, indecent or obscene material, weapons, endangered species and counterfeit goods, and to confirm the description and value stated on the declaration is correct.

The Border Force also check the customs declaration to determine if Customs Duty, Excise Duty and import VAT is chargeable. The Border Force will sometimes need to examine the contents of a package particularly when the sender hasn’t completed the declaration correctly. In such cases the opening, repacking and resealing of the package is carried out, under Border Force instruction, by Royal Mail staff.

3. Charges

3.1 How are import charges calculated?

Charges are calculated by Border Force officers at the postal depots where the packages are received. However, in some cases special arrangements are in place for goods purchased on the internet or by mail order (see paragraph 3.4 below).

Customs Duty - becomes payable if the goods are over £135 in value.

The amount of Customs Duty charged will depend on the type of goods imported and the value stated on the customs declaration CN22/CN23 (converted to pound sterling using the rates of exchange for the month of importation as shown on the HMRC website).

The percentage varies depending on the type of goods and their country of origin. Duty is charged on:

  • the price paid for the goods, plus
  • any local sales taxes, plus
  • postage, packing and insurance

However, the cost of postage is excluded from the calculation for Customs Duty on gifts except where the sender has used the Express Mail Service (EMS) as opposed to a standard mail service.

Where the value of gifts is below £630 per consignment, a flat rate of duty of 2.5% will be applied, but only if it is to your advantage.

Excise Duty - this is charged on alcohol and tobacco products and is additional to Customs Duty. The Excise Duty on alcohol products such as wines and spirits depends on the alcohol content and volume. In the case of wine and cider it depends on whether they are sparkling or still. Duty on cigarettes is based on a percentage of the recommended retail selling price plus a flat rate amount per 1,000 cigarettes. On other tobacco products, for example, cigars or hand rolling tobacco, Excise Duty is charged at a flat rate per kilogram.

Value Added Tax (VAT) - Import VAT is charged at the same rate that applies to similar goods sold in the UK and applies to commercial goods over £15 in value, and on gifts that are over £39 in value. However, please note that commercial consignments sent to the UK from the Channel Islands don’t benefit from any relief of import VAT. The value of the goods for import VAT is based on the:

  • basic value of goods, plus
  • postage, packing and insurance, plus
  • any import (Customs or Excise) duties charged

As with Customs Duty, the cost of postage is excluded from the calculation for VAT on gifts except where the sender has used the Express Mail Service (EMS) as opposed to a standard mail service.

3.2 Is duty charged on used goods?

Used goods are still liable to the same duty and VAT charges as if they were new. However, this may vary depending on their age and condition.

3.3 How do I pay customs charges?

Royal Mail provides several options for payment and they will inform you of the options available and the amounts payable when they contact you. A postcard or letter is usually delivered to your address, detailing the amount due and the options available for payment. Once payment has been made, the package may be collected from the post office or if you have paid online/by phone you can arrange for it to be delivered. Details of the charges, including the Royal Mail or Parcelforce Worldwide handling fee, will be shown separately on a label affixed to the package.

If the value of the package is over £873 (1,000 euros) or it is for a particular customs regime (including all special procedures) you will need to complete a customs declaration. You will be sent a customs declaration form (C88 or C160) which you must complete and return to the Border Force at the Postal Depot before your package can be delivered. You should not send any payment with this form unless asked to do so, however if there are any charges due you will be required to pay them to the Border Force before your goods can be released.

3.4 Prepayment of import VAT on goods purchased over the internet or by mail order

HMRC has special arrangements that allow some overseas traders to charge, collect and pay over to us the import VAT for goods purchased by mail order, that would normally be chargeable at the time the goods are imported. These arrangements operate under Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) signed with certain overseas customs and postal authorities. The countries that have a MoU with HMRC are - the Channel Islands, Hong Kong, Singapore and New Zealand. Overseas traders wanting to use this procedure must be authorised to do so by their authorities.

Once authorised, foreign businesses are issued with a unique authorisation number, which they must show on the customs declaration or packaging. They will include the statement ‘Import VAT Prepaid’.

Where these arrangements are used you won’t be charged a Royal Mail handling fee when you receive your package.

If you’re a VAT registered business and purchase goods for use in your business you should keep the outer wrapper and invoice from the supplier to support your claim to input tax.

3.5 Why do I have to pay a handling fee to Royal Mail?

If customs charges are payable upon importation, Royal Mail will charge a handling fee to cover the costs for carrying out customs procedures, which includes paying any customs duties or VAT due and collecting it from you. If customs examination is required, or if information is missing from the declaration, Royal Mail open, repack and reseal the package. All international courier and postal operators charge fees for their services and HMRC and Border Force doesn’t have any authority over the level of charges they apply.

Note that if there is no duty and/or tax to pay, you won’t be charged a handling fee.

The customs charges and handling fee will be itemised separately on the charge label, and Royal Mail will contact you to let you know how much you need to pay, and the available payment methods. Once payment has been received, you’ll be able to request delivery of your package or pick it up from your local delivery office or depot. You can read more about how to pay charges on either the Royal Mail or Parcelforce Worldwide websites.

As they are completely separate from any customs charges, any queries about the handling fee should be raised with Royal Mail or Parcelforce Worldwide as appropriate. Please note: Royal Mail doesn’t answer queries about customs charges. If you have any queries about the charges raised on your specific parcel you should contact Border Force - see section 3.6 below. General queries on customs charges should be made to the HMRC Customs International Trade and Excise enquiries service - see section 2.3 above.

3.6 Where can I ask about or query a customs charge?

If you have any questions about a particular customs charge you should contact the Border Force at the postal depot shown on the charge label as soon as possible using form BOR286. When you write to the Border Force you should include as much detail as you can, including the customs charge label, the customs declaration and the part of the wrapper with your address on it. If your claim is about overcharged tax because the declared value of the goods was incorrect you will need to supply evidence, for example, an invoice, receipt of purchase etc, to support your claim.

The Border Force deal with thousands of packages every day and without this information they may not be able to trace your particular package in their records. In the event of a claim you should retain copies of all wrappings and documents until your claim is settled.

3.7 What can I do if I am not satisfied with the reply I receive?

If you think that your query hasn’t been answered satisfactorily, or you have some additional information that may affect an earlier decision, please contact the Border Force at the postal depot again to try to resolve the matter.

3.8 What do I do if I disagree with a Border Force decision?

If you don’t agree with any decision issued to you there are 3 options available. Within 30 days of the date of the decision you can either:

  • send new information or arguments to the decision maker
  • request a review of the decision by someone not involved in making the disputed decision
  • appeal direct to the Tribunal who are independent of HMRC

Your request for a review of the decision must be in writing and should set out the reasons why you don’t agree with the decision. Please write to:

The Review Officer
National Post Seizure Unit
Border Force
3rd Floor
West Point
Elbringhton Street

If you opt to have your case reviewed you will still be able to appeal to the tribunal if you disagree with the outcome.

Further information relating to review and appeals is contained in factsheet HMRC1 Decisions - what to do if you disagree which can be obtained from our website or by calling 0845 900 0404 (note this phone number is only to be used for obtaining factsheet HMRC1 and this line can’t answer general customs enquiries).

4. Postal packages received from other EU countries

4.1 Are there customs controls on goods from the EU?

The Border Force carry out selective checks to ensure that no prohibited goods such as drugs, indecent or obscene material, weapons etc, are received in the UK from other EU countries. The Border Force also carry out routine controls for revenue purposes. However, because goods from the ‘Special Territories’, that is, countries who aren’t included in the fiscal territory of the EU (see paragraph 4.3), are subject to excise duty and import VAT, they are processed in the same way as goods imported from outside the EU.

4.2 Which countries are full members of the EU?

The current Member States are: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus*, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

*The European Commission has advised that the application of the Community Customs Code and Principal VAT Directive shall be suspended in those areas of Cyprus in which the government of the Republic of Cyprus doesn’t exercise effective control. Goods from those areas will be treated as non-EU imports.

4.3 What are the ‘Special Territories’?

These are countries that are part of the EU for customs purposes, but not for fiscal purposes. Goods imported from these countries therefore are free of Customs Duty, but subject to excise duty and import VAT. The ‘Special Territories’ are:

  • the Ǻland Islands (Finland)
  • the Canary Islands (Spain)
  • the Channel Islands*
  • the French Overseas Departments of Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Martinique and Reunion
  • Mount Athos also known as Agion Poros (Greece)
  • Commercial consignments sent to the UK from the Channel Islands don’t benefit from any relief of import VAT - see paragraph 2.3

4.4 What is the relationship between the EU and Turkey?

The EU and Turkey established a Customs Union on 1 January 1996, and many goods from Turkey no longer attract customs duty, but Excise Duty and import VAT still apply.

4.5 Can I receive alcohol and tobacco from the EU?

If you receive alcohol and tobacco by post on a commercial basis, this is known as ‘distance selling’, and there is a liability to both Excise Duty and import VAT. The sender should have made prior arrangements to account for these taxes no later than the date of dispatch from the exporting member state. It is in your own interests to ensure these arrangements have been completed otherwise the goods may be liable to forfeiture. You can find more information about this in Notice 203A Registered Consignees, and on our website.

If you receive goods that are for your own personal use, for example, a gift from another person, or you have posted them to yourself from another EU member state, there will be a liability to Excise Duty but not import VAT. The UK Excise Duty must again be secured before the goods are sent, using the ‘distance selling’ procedure.

If you’re in doubt about the duty liability of goods you have received you should contact the Excise and Customs Helpline on 0300 200 3700.

Nothing stated in this notice overrules any Universal Postal Union or Royal Mail Group regulations about what can be carried.

4.6 Can I receive alcohol and tobacco from the Special Territories?

Yes. Gifts of alcohol and tobacco are free of Customs Duty but they are liable to Excise Duty and import VAT. Please refer to the limits and information in section 2.5 and 2.6.

5. Exports

5.1 What do I need to do when I send a package abroad?

When you send a package to any country outside the EU including the Special Territories, you must complete and affix a customs declaration (CN22, CN23 or a Parcelforce Worldwide Despatch Pack incorporating the CN23) which you can obtain from the Post Office. Any necessary preference certificate or licence should be attached to the outside of the package and clearly identified before handing it over for post.

For commercial items that require an export licence or are being exported under a suspensive regime, that is, outward processing relief, a commercial invoice should accompany the package. A C and E83A ‘Exported by post under HMRC Control’ (sticky label) should be attached which directs post office staff to present the parcel to the Border Force at the Office of Exchange for checks to be made prior to export.

You don’t need a customs declaration for packages sent to another country within the EU.

5.2 Do I need to obtain evidence of posting?

For private persons there is no legal requirement to obtain evidence of posting. However, if you’re in business and registered for VAT you will need to obtain and retain a certificate of posting (C&E132) to support the VAT zero-rating of your supply, and to discharge your liability to customs charges on goods temporarily imported into the UK. In addition, if you’re a business exporting UK duty paid excise goods, you will need a certificate of posting on form C&E132 to support a claim for reimbursement of the UK Excise Duty.

You can find further details of the procedures to be followed in Notices 200, 221, 235, 275 and VAT Notice 703.

5.3 Are there customs controls on goods exported from the UK?

Yes. The Border Force carry out selective examinations to ensure that no prohibited or restricted goods or items relating to the proceeds of crime are being improperly exported.

5.4 Are there any other restrictions on what goods can be sent abroad?

Customs and postal administrations throughout the world set certain restrictions on what type of goods can be sent by post. If you have any concerns about sending your goods by post you should contact Royal Mail.

6. Quality of service

6.1 What should I do if I have a complaint about delay or damage to my package?

Although the Border Force can examine the contents of a package the responsibility for opening, repacking and resealing it is carried out by Royal Mail who also deliver it. Therefore if you have a complaint about delay or damage to your package you should contact the appropriate Royal Mail or Parcelforce Worldwide Customer Service Centre.

In cases where the Border Force have damaged the contents, an acknowledgement will be provided by enclosing a letter within the package.

7. Extracts from the law

Opening of postal packages - Regulation 21 of the The Postal Packets (Revenue and Customs) Regulations 2011 gives authority for an Officer of Customs to require Royal Mail to open for examination any postal packet being imported or exported.

Relief from import VAT on commercial consignments, excluding alcohol, tobacco, perfumes and toilet waters, with a value below £15 - The Value Added Tax (Imported Goods) Relief Order 1984:746, Schedule 2, Group 8 item 8 provides relief from import VAT on consignments of goods not exceeding £15 in value.

Please note:

1) legislation was introduced under Section 77 of the Finance Act 2011 to reduce the relief from import VAT on commercial consignments, excluding alcohol, tobacco, perfumes and toilet waters, from £18 to £15. This came into effect on 1 November 2011

2) legislation was introduced in Finance Act 2012 to remove the application of the relief on commercial goods sent to the UK from the Channel Islands

Relief from import VAT on gifts of goods with a value not exceeding £39 - The Value Added Tax (Non-Commercial Consignments) Relief Order 1986:939 (as amended), Article 3, provides that no tax is payable on the importation of goods forming part of a small consignment of a non-commercial character sent from a third country by a private person to another private person if the value of the goods doesn’t exceed £39, subject to specified limits for alcohol, tobacco, perfumes and toilet waters as listed in the Schedule to the order (detailed in parts 2.6 and 2.7 of this notice).

Inclusion of postage charges in customs value - Article 139 of the Implementing regulation 2015/2447 requires all postal charges levied up to the place of destination in respect of goods sent by post to be included in the customs value of the goods. However, this doesn’t apply to gifts other than those sent by Express Mail Services.

The limit before the rate of duty taken from the Common Customs Tariff - Consignments of gifts with a value less than £630 for which the rate of duty of the Common Customs Tariff is other than ‘free’ attract a flat rate of duty of 2.5% Council Regulation (EC) No 275/2008.

8. Glossary of terms

Term Description
CN22 and CN23 Customs declaration forms to be used for import and export of postal packets.
Customs Duty Tax charged on imported goods under the Combined Nomenclature of the Community.
Datapost The Parcelforce Worldwide Express Mail Service.
EC European Community.
EU and member states EU consisting of 27 member states listed in paragraph 4.2.
Euro Unit of currency used by some member states of the EU.
Excise Duty Tax charged on certain goods particularly alcohol and tobacco.
Gifts Goods of a non-commercial character sent by a private person to another private person without payment of any kind and intended for personal use only.
Intrinsic value Means the price paid or payable for the goods excluding postage and packing and insurance costs.
Import VAT VAT chargeable on importation.
Package Includes a letter, parcel, packet or other article transmissible by post.
SAD Single Administrative Document (C88).

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