I just arrived in the UK yesterday, from the US, carrying a piece of jewelry, which I intend to carry with me for the following months before I give it to someone at the right time and place, then presenting it to a special someone.

Immigration discovered the jewelry while searching my bags for unrelated reasons*, and informed me that I should discuss the jewelry with customs later to see if a duty needed to be paid, which I did.

The relevant bit is, because the intended recipient is an EU citizen (with dual Spanish/Guatemalan citizenships), currently living in the UK, even though I will not be giving the gift to her in the UK (or in the EU--I intend to gift the item in January in Guatemala, after she has moved back home to her family), the customs agent determined that I must pay a tax of £510 before I can retrieve my item.

As I did not have that much money available when I arrived, I said I would return Friday to pay the tax and collect the item.

Aside from trying again, most likely in vain, to explain that I will retain the item for the duration of my stay, do I have any possible recourse? Can I ship the item out of the EU rather than collecting it in the airport? Or could I board a flight leaving the EU with the item, rather than paying the tax? Or anything else?


*While I believe the details of the search are irrelevant to this question, it's been asked about many times, and it's reasonable that it might be relevant under some circumstances, so I will elaborate:

  • I arrived without a booked ticket for onward travel, which raised suspicion
  • I had only carry-on baggage, which further raised suspicion
  • I arrived with minimal cash, and primarily debit/credit cards
  • After some questions about my work, financial means, etc (all routine), the immigration agent searched my bags
  • When he came across the ring, I explained its purpose, and he called over a coworker, and they agreed that I should discuss it with customs, even though I wasn't planning to leave it in the UK
  • After the immigration agent was done with me, he simply showed me to the customs area, and left me. He made no effort to follow me, or hand me over directly to customs, so he didn't appear to have any worries that I would try to evade customs.

I have entered the UK multiple times under identical circumstances (most recently less than a month prior), and have never gone through a search, so I didn't think anything of it. The particular agent, however, was training a new recruit, may have made him examine everyone more closely for training purposes, but for whatever reason, as luck would have it, he chose to search my bags, although that has never happened before to me.

  • Same rules in the country where I live, but we also have the choice to mail the items without paying to any address out of the country, of course you got to pay for shipping it. I hope same rules are in the UK as well. – Nean Der Thal Sep 30 '14 at 23:58
  • @Relaxed: Alright, updated to say just 'EU'. If you feel like clarifying further, please be my guest. :) – Flimzy Oct 1 '14 at 0:06
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    In some countries, I believe it is possible to get the customs duties refunded if you leave the country with the item. I don't know if that's the case in the UK, but you may be able to find out. In that case, if you can spare the money temporarily, you could pay now and get it back when you leave. – Nate Eldredge Oct 1 '14 at 1:52
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    To follow up on @NateEldredge, when I had a similar situation with a high-tech machine in another country, they let me post bond. So I just showed the article at export. (Actually, I turned it into their office to be destroyed, not relevant.) – Andrew Lazarus Oct 1 '14 at 5:15
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    Well, the time to act came and went, so I paid the duty. Thanks to everyone who tried to help. To avoid the hassle of dealing with customs again (in the UK or anywhere else) I changed plans, threw together a romantic weekend, and made the proposal yesterday. She said yes. – Flimzy Oct 5 '14 at 21:44
up vote 20 down vote accepted
+500

First of all, what you intended to do and what you actually did, seem to go in two different directions. For all relevant legal definitions of "import", you did try to import the ring to the UK and had the ring not been found before you had opted for the green lane (and thereby making a legal statement that you have nothing to declare), you would most probably have been penalized for smuggling in addition to the current tax claim.

The legalese term for what you intended to do is 'temporary admission', meaning that you seek duty relief when importing an object because you intend to bring it out of the country again within a reasonable time period. Depending on what you intend to import, in some cases why and the value of the item(s), you have to follow different procedures.

For tourists and regular visitors, even regular luggage fall into this category. If the goods is limited to 'accompanied/unaccompanied personal effects reasonably required for a journey ... or goods for sports purposes ... imported by a traveller not normally resident in the EU', you can follow the 'declaration by any other act procedure':

No formal application for authorisation or declaration is required. The application and declaration for relief is considered to be made and accepted by going through the 'nothing to declare' channel or its equivalent at the time of importation.

Since a gift to another person clearly does not fall into this category (the citizenship or residency of the intended recipient is however irrelevant), this procedure would not have been an option for you. What you should have done is to apply for a 'simplified authorisation' in advance, before even arriving in the UK. Your application would likely have been granted and you would probably have been required to provide a bond for the estimated taxes.

In some cases, a retrospective authorisation is possible, but HM Revenue & Customs writes in their guidelines:

In exceptional circumstances, you may be able to apply for TA authorisation after goods have been imported. However, you’ll have to prove that there are ‘exceptional’ circumstances - a general oversight isn’t accepted as such.

Even if there is room for interpretation here, it does not sound as if you have a good case.

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    So, if the OP had been wearing the ring, would they have had to pay this duty? – Azor Ahai Jan 31 '16 at 6:39

I arrived in the UK ... carrying a piece of jewelry

So you intended to import an expensive, dutiable bauble into the UK.

They discovered the jewelry while searching my bags

You did not declare the bauble to HM Customs upon arrival.

because the intended recipient is an EU citizen currently living in the UK

And intend to give said bauble to a local resident.

even though I will not be giving the gift to her in the UK (or in the EU--I intend to gift the item in January in Guatemala)

And she intends to bring this item back to the UK, probably on her finger.

the customs agent determined that I must pay a tax of £510 before I can retrieve my item.

That's their job - what you are doing is called "smuggling" and has a long and storied tradition. Still frowned upon in most places.

If you can show clear intent and ability to export the item you can apply for a bond - unless you are a licensed jeweler with a recognized business / office / otherwise known to HM Customs this is unlikely.

Or you can pay the duty and claim it back when you take it out of the country. Expect to pay again upon re-import.

Anecdote to support refunds: Back in the 1970's NASA had a diamond window made by the experts in Amsterdam. A large, high-quality chunk of diamond polished to optical precision. This branch of the US government had to pay another branch of the government a large amount of money in duties for the jewelry. After the diamond was mounted in the spacecraft and shot off on it's one-way trip to Venus, NASA received a refund as they demonstrated that it was no longer available for trade in the USA (or, indeed, no longer to be seen by anyone ever again).

  • @Mehrdad here you go: skeptics.stackexchange.com/q/31717/23144 – JonathanReez May 31 '16 at 6:15
  • @JonathanReez: Haha, awesome, thanks! – Mehrdad May 31 '16 at 6:45
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    The OP was still at immigration, where your travel plans are discussed and not yet at customs where you declare items you carry with you. So he was not guilty of trying to smuggle yet. He could well have planned to go to the 'something to declare' lane to discuss this item with the customs officer. Only at the point where he passes the customs area without declaring he might be in the wrong. – Willeke May 31 '16 at 17:08

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