My ‘Brexit bonus’ proved to be a customs duty bill from DHL

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My daughter purchased some prints and frames online from Sweden on 30 December. The cost (including VAT) was £71.74 with “free delivery”, which she paid. She has now been told by DHL there is an “import duty” due of £25.34 – more than a third of the original price. Is this what the government means by a “Brexit bonus”?

GW, Edinburgh

I bought some trainers from a company in Italy which cost in total €490. I ordered two pairs of different sizes and styles, intending sending one back.

The shoes arrived today by DHL followed by a text saying I owe £131 in import duty. Why was there no indication of this when I ordered them? Also, what should I be entitled to if I send one pair back?

RG, London

Now the transition period has ended, customs duty and import VAT are levied on all goods over £135 (and on items like alcohol, tobacco or perfume that are worth less than that).

GW’s daughter made the purchase the day before the transition period ended, but the new rules on customs duty apply from when goods are shipped, not from when they were ordered. Import VAT is charged at the same rate (mostly 20%) as equivalent items in the UK. Customs duty isn’t due on products wholly of EU origin.

The trouble is, stuff that may be made or sold in the EU may be compromised if any component is imported from elsewhere. So if the frames contained woods or rivets bought from, say, China, customs may apply, and there’s no way a casual customer will be able to tell.

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If customs duty is due, the rate will vary depending on the exact nature of the product. To find out, you have to consult Allow several hours and a stiff drink.

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As to the trainers, there are a number of categories for footwear, depending on what the sole is made of, and how it’s attached, which will make your hair stand on end. Clothes, shoes and food incur the highest rates; on 40% of merchandise there’s none at all.

Added to that is the handling fee charged by the delivery firm – and customers rarely get to choose which one it is.

Royal Mail has a flat fee of £8, and won’t deliver until you pay up. DHL pays the customs duty and import VAT on your behalf, but charges a fee of 2.5% of the duty/tax, with a minimum charge of £11.

The questions show how Brexit has compromised many of the consumer rights we take for granted. Take a seller’s failure to warn of the extra charges.

EU consumer protection legislation doesn’t generally apply now the UK has left the EU, according to James Kane of the Institute for Government, although member states can choose to extend it to non-EU consumers under the new Omnibus Directive.

So no, the seller doesn’t necessarily have to publish a warning to customers outside the bloc. And as for returning items, EU sellers may not have to apply distance-selling regulations which allow customers to cancel within 14 days.

“EU sellers might refuse to accept returns from the UK because they would then have the hassle of clearing the goods back through customs, and having to claim exemptions from EU import duty,” says Kane. “You, as the ‘exporter’ of the goods you’re returning, will have to fill out a customs declaration form, which you can get from the post office.”

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A final piece of bad luck for RG was choosing to buy shoes which incur among the highest rates of customs duty at 16%.

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This article was amended on 28 January 2021 to clarify that it is customs duty (rather than VAT) that applies according to shipment rather than order date.