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I'm travelling across Europe, and my phone was stolen in Berlin. I'd like to buy a used replacement on ebay, but I see that I appear to be liable for a hefty import fee. Is that right? I'm only buying a phone for personal use, and will take it home with me.

Or, if the import fee can't be avoided, is there some other way for me to get a good used smartphone in Europe that I'm not thinking of?

EDIT for clarification: I'm talking about a smartphone; I'm primarily interested in data and apps. The phone I hope to get is a 2nd-gen Moto X.

  • Anecdotal, so not an answer, I had a friend in Berlin who was always stuck paying import fees on stuff bought outside the EU – blackbird Nov 7 '15 at 2:07
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    You may be able to avoid duty and VAT by declaring it as a temporary importation. But you're better off getting a phone for use in Europe anyway, and replacing your American phone at home (unless perhaps it's an iPhone). – Michael Hampton Nov 7 '15 at 2:21
  • @MichaelHampton, why would it be better to buy a separate phone for use in Europe, and then a second phone in the U.S.? My previous phone had both GSM and CDMA, and so would work on either continent. – rainbowsorbet Nov 7 '15 at 9:15
  • Mainly for 4G LTE. There aren't really any common radio bands between Europe and the US used for LTE, and very few phones which have both sets of LTE bands (the recent iPhones being notable exceptions). If you don't care about high speed data, then pretty much anything will do. – Michael Hampton Nov 7 '15 at 9:17
  • Well, the 2nd gen Moto X happens to also be one of those exceptions (I just saw your edit). The Verizon model will get 4G LTE in most of Europe, but not in every area that a European model would. But the European model won't talk to Verizon at all. – Michael Hampton Nov 7 '15 at 9:22
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You have basically three options:

  1. Buy a phone in Europe. If you can't find the one you want, buy a cheap one that will suit you until you return home, then buy the phone you really want. Consider re-selling the European phone on eBay back home to recuperate some of your cost.

  2. Buy the phone from the US, and pay import duties. If you're particular about the phone, and you can't wait, this is your best bet. There's a chance you may be able to re-claim the import duty when you leave. It is common to reclaim VAT taxes when leaving as a tourist. In principle import duties are the same, but that doesn't mean it's possible, and it's certainly not routine, so it may be more hassle than it's worth.

  3. Find someone traveling from the US to Europe, and have them bring it with them. Technically, they are likely subject to the same import duties (since they're importing a phone, and it's not for their personal use), but in practice, it's easy to fly under the radar in this case, and since you're taking the phone out of the region again, it seems (to me, IANAL) within the intent of the law.

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The only straightforward, legal way to do this without much fuss is to buy the phone from within the EU. There is ebay and a whole variety of other local websites working within the EU, and second hand phone shops are everywhere.

You may be liable for some kind of import fee on returning to the US, although there is a personal allowance of $800 - this would cover the cost of your desired phone brand new, nevermind second hand.

Another option may be to investigate your travel insurance (if you have any). Whil they'll likley just give you cash, they may have their own procedures for replacements (and also likley a time limit within which to notify them to make a claim).

Finally, you may be able to import the phone and then claim import VAT relief as a temporary admission. The UK government describes the system on their gov.uk website, although you'll have to claim this relief in the country you import it to, which hits the language barrier problem again.

  • Thank you , but the trouble with EU ebay (and in-person shops; I'm in Croatia now) is the language barrier. Google translate only goes so far. And, the phone I want is rare here. – rainbowsorbet Nov 7 '15 at 7:46
  • The language barrier shouldn't be too bad in most shops - point at the one you want, hand over cash or a card. Updated my answer with some more information. – CMaster Nov 7 '15 at 8:50
  • Because I'd like to replace my permanent phone, I hope to have a little more information about a potential phone than I could get from pointing and offering money. I'm not an expert, but I believe there are important differences between smart phones. – rainbowsorbet Nov 7 '15 at 8:55
  • It would seem there are variants of the Moto X which wouldn't be immediatly apparent on visual inspection. You'd hope they'd be on the sign, but can't help you there. You may find english speakers in some stores, depends how much time you are prepared to spend on this. – CMaster Nov 7 '15 at 9:06
  • US citizens get an $800 duty free allowance as long as they have been abroad more than 48 hours. – user13044 Nov 7 '15 at 14:34
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If you buy it in Europe, then you may be liable for duty when you return to the USA. Fortunately, unless it is really expensive, it likely falls under your personal duty free allowance (assuming you haven't bought a lot of other expensive stuff). But you need to make sure it covers all global frequencies not just the standard GSM used in Europe.

If you buy from the USA and have it shipped to Europe, then you are stuck paying whatever import duties are charged by Germany. You maybe able to get the VAT and other taxes refunded when you take the phone out of Germany, but I am not familiar with German rules (I know many countries only refund VAT if you bought it from certain stores authorized to issue the paperwork for a refund).

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