From import charges to confusing returns processes, post-Brexit rules mean shopping with European retailers isn’t as simple as it used to be.
In fact, two in five of us who ordered products online since the end of the Brexit transition period have had issues, according to a Which? survey of 2,010 members of the public*.
One in four have experienced delays, while one in ten have been asked to pay additional handling or delivery fees, ranging between £1 – £300.
Returns have also become more complicated, with 87% of people experiencing issues with returning items to the EU since 1 January. These issues include delays, unexpected paperwork and extra charges.
A lack of clear information on how online shopping has been affected by Brexit means many of these new charges and processes have come as a surprise to consumers.
Which? is calling on the government to make the new costs clear so you know exactly what to expect when you order from the EU.
‘We’re not used to paying these charges’
Sophie from Hackney spent £205 on face cream from a retailer based in Germany.
‘I didn’t really think through the fact I was buying from the EU,’ she said. ‘The retailer said I might be charged extra costs but they’d reimburse me.’
The UPS courier turned up and asked Sophie to pay a £49.29 brokerage fee in cash, which she didn’t have. Sophie was homeschooling her daughter and couldn’t leave the house to get cash out.
UPS said it would try to redeliver the item in a few days and took her parcel away.
In the meantime, Sophie decided she didn’t want to pay in cash and told the retailer she no longer wanted the product.
‘What if the delivery guy was dodgy? What if he was trying to steal the cash?’ she asked. ‘It was a lot of money to risk on hoping the company would reimburse me.’
A few days later, UPS tried to redeliver and said they could take card payments.
‘I had lots of questions at this point,’ Sophie said. ‘We’re not used to paying these extra charges and it’s really weird being asked to pay more by a courier.’
Sophie again declined to pay and has since been refunded by the retailer.
UPS told us brokerage fees do now apply due to increased transportation, customs and brokerage, and network adjustment costs associated with goods movements in and out of the UK.
It said it tries to take payments over the phone prior to delivery. If this isn’t possible it asks customers to pay in cash or make the payment over the phone at the door and will arrange redelivery for the following day.
Returns: delays and paperwork
Some shoppers have also experienced difficulties when returning items to the EU.
Our research shows an overwhelming 87% of people who returned items to the EU after 1 January have experienced delays, unexpected paperwork or extra charges.
If you’re returning goods to the EU, you now need to complete a customs declaration form, CN22 or CN23, and include the item’s description, weight and value.
The customs charge is paid for by the recipient upon delivery.
But this new process hasn’t been made clear by all retailers, leaving some consumers unsure how to send items back.
Daniele had a frustrating experience with Footlocker EU, based in the Netherlands, after trying to return a pair of trainers that were initially delayed at customs.
‘UPS told me I need to fill out a customs form,’ Daniele explained. ‘I couldn’t find one on Footlocker’s website and the chatbot feature didn’t understand my questions.’
Daniele found a form on UPS’ website but was still unclear on how to fill it out. ‘It’s not user-friendly at all,’ he said.
Eventually he received help from UPS, but Daniele was disappointed with Footlocker’s service: ‘Retailers really need to have something in place to assist us – did I really need to go through all of this just to return something?’
Footlocker apologised to Daniele and says it’s fixed the technical issue he experienced with the returns label. UPS recommends customers ask the retailer for advice on returns forms.
VAT and import charges explained
You might be hit with unexpected VAT or import charges when shopping with the EU.
Some retailers show the final price, inclusive of all VAT and customs charges, on their websites, but not all stores will do this.
If you’re unsure, it’s worth double-checking any extra fees with the retailer before placing your order.
Here’s how the extra charges work:
VAT – for the majority of products VAT is charged at 20%. If the total cost of your order is more than £135 or a gift is over £39, VAT is often collected at the point of delivery.
Import charges – customs duties can range from 0-25% depending on the goods. Online shoppers who buy items from the EU which originate from further afield – for example, from a seller based in China on an EU platform – and cost more than £135 will have to pay customs duties. This is because the product originates from outside the EU, so the zero-tariff preference between the UK and EU does not apply.
Some retailers have clarified that they will try to include VAT and import charges at the point of sale but this may not always be the case.
If you’re returning items you can seek a refund on the VAT and import charges, though we’re yet to see how straightforward this process is.
To make a claim for these costs, you’ll need to complete a C285 form, or a C1179 for a returned faulty item.
The rules differ for shoppers in Northern Ireland due to its unique position of remaining within the EU’s Single Market.
Delivery and handling fees
On top of VAT and customs duties, you could also be stung with additional delivery fees.
Our research revealed that one in ten people have been asked to pay additional handling or delivery fees, ranging between £1 – £300, since 1 January. The average extra charge amongst participants was £41.
These extra charges have been introduced by some delivery firms to account for the cost of new checks and paperwork when clearing items through customs.
Each courier has a different policy on what they charge and how they ask you to pay, as shown in the table below. It’s worth double-checking your courier’s policy before paying if you think you’re being overcharged.
DHL Express says it is charging UK customers 2.5% of the amount paid to clear customs, with a minimum charge of £11.
DHL is yet to confirm with Which? how it collects its payments.
A £5 ‘Customers Clearance Fee’ is applied to parcels incurring import duty and tax payment transactions, to cover DPD’s additional processing costs.
Recipients are notified by email or text, with a web link to pay by card or PayPal. Payment must be made online before delivery is attempted.
Hermes UK has not introduced additional costs directly for this model. Inbound parcels from the EU entering the Hermes UK network have the duty/tax costs cleared ahead of arrival. Hermes UK does not ask customers to pay additional import or delivery charges.
Any import costs are controlled by the retailers and depends on the terms of sale. Hermes UK does not take payment from customers for delivery or customs charges.
For gifts over £39 and goods over £135, Royal Mail may collect the VAT and customs duties on behalf of HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) from the recipient prior to delivery. Royal Mail charges an £8 handling fee to do so.
You’ll be sent a ‘Fee to pay’ card, which shows how much you need to pay before you can receive your item. The easiest way to pay a fee is online. You have 21 days from the date on the ‘Fee to pay’ card to clear the charges. If you miss this deadline the item will be returned to the sender. If you’re paying online, you need to pay within 19 days of the date. Once paid, your item will be delivered or you can collect the item in person.
Due to the increased transportation, customs and brokerage, and network adjustment costs associated with goods movements in and out of the UK, brokerage fees are now applicable. You can find more info on these charges in UPS’ country specific Tariff Guides and its Brexit guide.
UPS will try to phone in advance. If it can’t get through or doesn’t have your contact information, it will ask you to pay in cash upon delivery. If you don’t have cash, it will ask you to pay over the phone and will redeliver the next day.
Watch out for scams
A lack of clarity around charges could give scammers an opportunity to mislead online shoppers.
A recent surge in ‘Royal Mail’ scam texts claiming that a parcel is being held due to an unpaid shipping fee shows that fraudsters are already finding ways to take advantage of people’s uncertainty over post-Brexit costs.
If in any doubt over texts or emails from courier services, make sure you don’t enter any personal details and contact the courier directly to confirm if it is genuine.
Suspicious texts or emails can also be reported to the courier and the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC).
Which? calls for clarity on cross-border shipping costs and consumer rights
Which? is calling on the government and businesses to make these new costs clear so you’re not hit by unexpected costs when ordering from the EU or misled into paying other charges that aren’t required.
It must also make the processes for how extra fees are charged as simple as possible for both businesses and consumers.
Alongside extra costs, Brexit has also affected your route to a resolution if something goes wrong with an order from Europe.
If you experience an issue with an EU retailer – perhaps due to misleading pricing or faulty goods – you can no longer pursue it through UK courts.
Instead, you’ll need to make a claim with the authority in the country you ordered from, which might not be an easy process to navigate.
In response to this, Which? is also calling on the government to secure reciprocal cooperation and intelligence-sharing on consumer rights enforcement within the EU.
This cooperative approach will ensure there’s still an easy route to redress if something goes wrong when shopping with Europe.
*The results are based on an online survey of 2,010 members of the public conducted in February 2021 and are representative of the UK population (aged 18+).