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I broke my phone while away in Spain and had to purchase a new one there. I asked the shop for a tax-free form.

Now, I need to go back home in Switzerland, by train. I will cross two borders. The price of the phone exceeds the duty-free import limits, therefore I will have to declare it.

The complexity is because there are two borders to cross.

What to do at each border post regarding customs? May I have to pay duty twice? Should I claim my tax refund while crossing between Spain and France or between France and Switzerland?

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    "The price of the phone exceeds the duty-free import limits": Note that the threshold may not be where you think it is. It is calculated on the pre-tax price. With Spain's VAT rate of 21% and the current EUR-CHF exchange rate, the threshold for an item brought in Spain is €383.64, assuming you are not importing anything else.
    – phoog
    Oct 21, 2023 at 22:00

2 Answers 2

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I broke my phone while away in Spain and had to purchase a new one there.

First, if you are already using your phone, you are mostly likely not eligible for a tax refund, as it is reserved to goods exported from EU without being used in the EU. The border post is allowed to request you to demonstrate your goods under unused condition when processing your tax refund forms.

Now legally you are still required to pay tax to Switzerland, It is your decision if you want to follow the law or risk punishment if you are checked ;). If you do not declare or request a tax refund, the chance of Swiss customs verifying the origin of your phone is essentially nil.

The complexity is because there are two borders to cross.

In the context of your particular situation, there is only one border to cross, that is, the customs border between the EU Customs Union (including all EU countries, Monaco and Akrotiri and Dhekelia) and the Swiss customs territory (Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Büsingen).

There is no customs control between Spain and France, as they are both EU countries.

What to do at each border post regarding customs?

Routine passport control for persons is abolished within the Schengen area (incl. Spain, France and Switzerland) and between two EU countries (Spain and France) there is no customs control. If you are taking the train back home, you will most likely not see any border control or customs staff on your journey. It is still possible for there to be on-board random passport or customs inspections as your cross national and customs borders, but these are very basic controls or they are looking for particular persons (sometimes even showing the cover of your passport can suffice).

May I have to pay duty twice?

No. You only have to pay Swiss customs. There is no customs duty for electronics between EU and Switzerland, however, you must pay Swiss valued-added tax (currently 7.7%; planned increase to 8.1% in 2024) on the pre-tax price indicated on your EU invoice.

Should I claim my tax refund while crossing between Spain and France or between France and Switzerland?

You must claim your tax refund when you leave from EU, i.e. between France and Switzerland. In practice, this can be difficult for train journeys. There is a staffed French customs at the Geneva central train station, but the working hours are not regular (but it should be staffed whenever there is a TGV arriving at or departing from Geneva within a two-hour window). You may also go to another French (or German or Italian or Austrian) border post during the working hours (to be checked online or by local experience) to certify the export from EU with your unused goods within three months (check the time written on your tax refund form to be sure).

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    This is correct as a legal matter, though in practice I have taken e.g. a tent with me out of the EU (to the US) and got a VAT refund without anyone checking to see if it was used or not. I don't know if electronics would get more attention, or if they are more or less strict at train stations than airports.
    – mlc
    Oct 21, 2023 at 18:39
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    @mlc My limited experience suggests the French customs at Swiss borders almost always ask where the goods are as part of routine questioning if you see an agent (note most of the times for French issued tax forms it is electronically validated without intervention or checking), but takes your word for it 80% of the time ("it is in my bag", "it is in my car"), so the risk is low but isn't negligible compared to say the chance of being checked by Swiss customs on whether you bought your phone or laptop outside CH.
    – xngtng
    Oct 21, 2023 at 19:16
  • Very interesting mention that the goods have to be unused. I need to research more about that.
    – DavGin
    Oct 21, 2023 at 20:09
  • In the unlikely event that the crossing into Switzerland occurs on a Léman Express train from Annemasse, the passenger will find himself on the wrong side of the customs controls.
    – phoog
    Oct 21, 2023 at 21:52
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    If you use an item for 1 minute to check if it works, that's going to be a very expensive 1 minute.
    – Jake
    Oct 22, 2023 at 6:21
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Should I claim my tax refund while crossing between Spain and France or between France and Switzerland?

You must claim your tax refund when exiting the EU, i.e. when exiting France and about to enter Switzerland.

This is explicit by the Spanish authority on https://sede.agenciatributaria.gob.es/static_files/Sede/Tema/Viajeros_Desplazados/DIVA/devolucion_del_dinero/Devolucion_TAV_viajeros_ingles.pdf

What do I need to do if I leave the European Union through another EU Member State?

You must request the validation of your EDR (DIVA) forms from the competent authorities of the Member State through which you exit the European Union and subsequently send them to the Spanish retailer who issued them, or to the TAX FREE operator involved in the operation. If, due to error, the electronic document is scanned at a DIVA terminal, you must ask the customs authorities to reset the document to the initial status of the procedure.

May I have to pay duty twice?

No. You do not pay duty between Spain and France.

Let's suppose the phone cost you 1000€ in mainland Spain, which has a tax of 21%. This is a pre-tax price of 826.44€, and 173.55€ of taxes.

  • You pay 1000€ in Spain, but ensure to get the proper paperwork
  • You don't pay anything between Spain and France
  • On the last stop on France, you request the refund of 173.55€, which on some airports you can get right away, but in this case will likely need to be handled later (note: a processing fee may be deducted from it)
  • When entering you pay import tax on the pretax price of 826.44€, which should be the normal rate of 7.7% (note for future readers: increased to 8.1% from 1 January 2024), paying about 63.64€

So in this example you might end up with a net saving of around 100€ after all the paperwork.

The main risk would be not getting the stamp before leaving EU.

Do note that https://taxation-customs.ec.europa.eu/guide-vat-refund-visitors-eu_en has a special warning for those leaving by train:

Be careful if you leave the EU by train!

You may be able to get the VAT refund documents stamped at certain train stations of the departure. However, you might as well need to get off the train at the last station within the EU to get this stamp. Other methods could also apply (e.g. a customs officer might be boarding the train).

This depends on the trains’ route and the internal arrangements in each EU country.

We therefore strongly advise you to consult in advance the national authorities or your refund company on the arrangements applicable in our concrete route.

The pages don't mention anywhere the statement of the other answer that the goods must not have been used in the EU. I would recommend you to keep the phone box in case you get asked about it and, probably more useful, check where in this phone there is the option to show the serial number, in case you needed to show it matches the one in the receipt.

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