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I am an American with residence in Belgium. I came here to the USA for the holidays and brought my old, iPhone, iPad and my MacBook. Now, here, I want to buy a new iPad and also a surface pad, among some other stuff.

Assuming I leave the boxes at home, and boot these devices up, maybe downloading some stuff on them, before leaving to the airport, will it be safe to bring them without risk of paying tax?

I can't find any info on the limit of goods I can bring over. I suppose if they are not in their boxes, it's clear that I am not selling them (in fact they are Xmas gifts).

Is there some regulation about this?

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    This question appears to be off-topic because it is about smuggling. – Dirty-flow Dec 15 '14 at 11:13
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    @DCTLib really? "Assuming I leave the boxes at home, and boot these devices up, maybe downloading some stuff on them, before leaving to the airport, will it be safe to bring them without risk of paying tax?" – Dirty-flow Dec 15 '14 at 11:17
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    Using the product makes it a used product, so the OP probably thought of reducing the market value in this way. He asked for limits, after all. – DCTLib Dec 15 '14 at 11:21
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    I am not smuggling devices! I will buy these things in the usa and bring them back as gifts. The reason for my question is precisely because I don't want to break the law! – Teusz Dec 15 '14 at 11:23
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    Why would booting up, downloading stuff or getting read of the packaging change the legal status of the goods? Either they are for your personal use and within the allowance and you can keep them in their box or they are not and you have to pay import duties. Mentioning all this make it look as if you want to circumvent the rules, i.e. smuggle the goods into the EU (which, as Jonathan and Peter commented, is in fact very common but illegal nonetheless). – Relaxed Dec 15 '14 at 12:23
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Mark and DCTLib already posted a link to official EU guidance on this (+1 to them) but it might be useful to clarify how these rules are intended to work.

Firstly, there is a fundamental difference between goods that have never been imported in the EU and things you take with you out of the EU and want to bring back in but that were originally bought in the EU. You might have to pay taxes and duties on the former but the latter do not need to be taxed again. In theory, customs officers can however ask you to produce some evidence that you did in fact buy them in the EU. Many countries also have a temporary export procedure to facilitate such reimports (especially for expensive equipment like computers, professional cameras, etc.)

So if you travel with a smartphone, a tablet and a laptop, they are probably worth more than the duty-free allowance but that's not really relevant (that's not the purpose of this allowance). You are allowed to reimport these items because duties and taxes (especially VAT in this case) have already been paid (the only potential issue is proving it).

Secondly, you do have the right to import some things as gifts or for your personal use. That's where the allowance comes in: As detailed in the EU page mentioned earlier, the total value of all the goods sourced abroad must be under EUR 430 (that's the price before taxes so one iPad is most likely OK but two tablets probably not). Both conditions must be satisfied: The value must be under the threshold and the importation must have no “commercial character”. There is no allowance for goods you intend to resell and no provisions to import expensive things tax-free and without paperwork only because it's for your personal use.

The allowance is designed to give you a bit of leeway for small gifts and to avoid ridiculously unenforceable rules that would theoretically require you to declare anything you bought abroad even if it's only a toothbrush. But it's not designed to allow frequent travellers to circumvent VAT and import duties for all their large purchases. All expensive goods (electronics, watches, luxury clothes, etc.) manufactured elsewhere and used within the EU are supposed to have been declared at some point, either by a professional importer (if you buy them inside the EU) or by yourself (if you shop abroad).

Thirdly, there is some gap between what's allowed and what you can do in practice. I have crossed the EU external border countless times with an expensive company-issued laptop, occasionally with boxed electronics goods or with wine and alcohol (within the allowance) and I have rarely been searched or asked anything. While I always scrupulously follow the rules, I could certainly have taken a brand new laptop or something else over the limit and gotten away with it and you will find many people who did just that.

EU borders are more open in this respect than many other borders I know (including US borders). There should be at least a passport check (except in the case of Switzerland) but it's not uncommon to enter without being questioned at all by customs. Enforcement is based on punctual searches, deterrence and tips by informants, not on checking everything that goes in. That's also why customs officers mostly do not bother with things like a single laptop or tablet without packaging.

Because of that you might actually get away with buying expensive goods in the US and bringing them back to the EU. But that does not change the rules. I even have a relative who got into trouble once for carrying six baby napkins with their labels (they were obviously well within the allowance value-wise but the customs officer ruled that nobody would need six of them so it was an illegal import - seriously). YMMV.

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    The customs officer in the last paragraph seems not to have spent much time with babies. – phoog Sep 23 '17 at 16:22
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Two possible sources here, one with brevity, one with detail.

The Taxation and Customs Union page specifies:

Up to a value of €430 for air and sea travellers
Up to value of €300 for other travellers

The value on an individual item may not be split up.

but doesn't really explain how they define it.

So the UK government has a page on Electronic goods: international trade regulations:

This guide, which is aimed at traders who import and export electronics goods and technologies, provides an overview of the sector and sub-sectors, the key regulations you will need to comply with as an exporter or importer and selected sources of further help and support.

They have a variety of links which wouldn't be that useful here, but covers all the various use cases and RULES for both importing AND exporting from the EU.

  • I don't think bringing a product into a foreign country for personal use is "importation" or "trade"... these rules seem outdated. After all, most telephones are well over $430 these days... – Teusz Dec 15 '14 at 13:24
  • Well of course bringing it in for personal use isn't trade, that's kinda the point of personal use ;) However it's to try and separate personal and trade, which is what the OP is after. Although I agree with you, the numbers seem...low, but the page was updated this year. – Mark Mayo Dec 15 '14 at 13:26
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    @mateuz The rules are not “outdated”, they have been updated (relatively) recently and were never intended to make it easy to import a brand new laptop yourself, let alone without paying tax and duties. You seem to assume it should be possible to import a phone or tablet for your personal use and the rules should be structured around that but that's not how it works. There is a small allowance for cheap items but that's it. The assumption is that anything else should be bought within the EU. – Relaxed Dec 15 '14 at 13:51
  • @Relaxed I guess I'm just surprised that I've been ignorant for so long. I live between the two countries, and typically bring personal stuff back and forth between the two (nothing for trade). Just assumed that what's mine is mine, since I pay tax in the country where I bought it. I just assumed if it was for personal use, no problem. Hell, my winter coat cost more than $430, you know? Even my eye glasses were up there. So far as I know, there's no oversight on such activity. – Teusz Dec 15 '14 at 14:15
  • I once imported a vintage saxophone from the US which was well over the value limit (a Selmer!) and the man said, just for personal use? not going to sell it? you're not a dealer? nice little souvenir, off you go. – RedSonja Jan 8 '16 at 12:53
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Assuming that the question is about items bought in the US and then brought to Europe (not 100% clear from the question title), the rules can be found here.

Note that whether stuff is boxed, new, etc. or not does nor make a difference in general - it may make a difference for determining the value of the goods, though (new vs. used). An almost-new product will probably be treated as a new product, though.

So you can bring along electronic devices to the EU, but an iPad will almost surely exceed the tax-free limits.

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    As far as I know, the custom rules are always the same regardless of nationality. – DCTLib Dec 15 '14 at 11:24
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    @mateuz This is Belgium, we are lenient on rules here. Technically speaking they should check almost every second person coming back to the EU, since most of us carry laptops or phones worth well over those 430 euros. So do you see them check all of them? No you don't, because in most cases they bought the stuff in Belgium, went on a trip and came back. So checking for just a single or two devices would most likely be a waste of the person's time. And even if they check you, you could always explain that they are presents. Just don't bring back 10 iPads and you'll probably be fine. – Peter Raeves Dec 15 '14 at 11:51
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    @mateuz See travel.stackexchange.com/questions/37354/… That's why removing the packaging might indeed help (but my point is that it's nothing more than cheating, you should not confuse what is allowed and what you can get away with). – Relaxed Dec 15 '14 at 12:41
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    an iPad will almost surely exceed the tax-free limits You're buying your iPad from the wrong place then! The most expensive (base model) iPad from Apple is US$499, which is only ~401EUR, which is under the EUR430 limit. And you can invariably buy new iPads from cheaper sources in the US. – Flimzy Dec 15 '14 at 14:01
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    @Lyrion That statement is invalid. I bought a macbook from their official online retailer and asked for a qwerty model. So mine was bought in Belgium and wasn't azerty. Additionally he could have bought it in the Netherlands (which is still within the EU) – Peter Raeves Dec 15 '14 at 16:41
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Going to answer this part:

"Will it be safe to bring them without risk of paying tax?"

Yes it will.

Make sure your items are not boxed and wrapped in paper. Unless it looks like your going to sell it, the airport personal will not be bothered.

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    On what do you base your answer? – Mast Dec 15 '14 at 22:49
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    Mostly - Common sense. – Thorst Dec 16 '14 at 7:22

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