When importing goods into the UK to sell, process or use in your business, or even when bringing goods into the UK for your own private use, there may be import VAT, customs duty and excise duty to pay.
In this guide, we look at the current rules relating to customs charges for both commercial and personal goods being brought across the UK border in 2022.
UK customs charges for personal goods
Anything that is posted or couriered to you from another country goes through UK customs, not only to check that it isn’t banned or restricted, but that you pay the right tax and duty on it. This includes anything new or used bought online, anything you’ve bought abroad and sent back to the UK, or that you receive as a gift from someone else. You’ll be contacted by Royal Mail, Parcelforce or the courier company if you need to pay any VAT, duty or handling fees.
VAT is charged on all goods imported into Great Britain from outside the UK, or into Northern Ireland from outside the EU, except for gifts worth £39 or less. Depending on the value of the goods, you’ll usually pay any VAT due either when you buy the goods or at the point of import. Import VAT is charged at the same rate as if the goods were supplied in the UK, where the standard VAT rate for most goods is 20%. However, where import VAT is charged, this will be calculated based on the price of the item, plus the shipping and handling costs.
Customs duty is payable on any goods sent from outside the UK, or the EU for Northern Ireland, if these are excise goods, for example, alcohol and tobacco, or worth more than £135. For gifts between £135 and £630, customs duty is charged at 2.5%, and for gifts above £630 and other goods above £135 the rate will depend on the type of goods and where they’re from.
You can also bring some goods from abroad on your person without having to pay customs charges, if they’re either for your own use or you want to give them as a gift. The amount of goods that you can bring into the UK is known as your personal allowance. The personal allowance rules apply to any goods purchased overseas, regardless of where you bought these from, for example, a duty-free shop or on the high street of the place you’ve visited.
Personal allowances for bringing goods into the UK
The volume of goods you can bring into the UK without paying customs charges on them depends on where you’re travelling from, and if you’re arriving in Great Britain (England, Wales and Scotland) or arriving in Northern Ireland. The allowances for alcohol, tobacco and other goods being brought from both EU and non-EU countries into Great Britain are:
- Alcohol allowance: how much you can bring in depends on the type of alcohol. You can bring in 42 litres of beer and 18 litres of still wine without incurring any customs charges. You can also bring in 4 litres of either spirits and other liquors over 22% alcohol, or 9 litres of sparkling wine, or fortified wine (such as port or sherry), and other alcoholic drinks up to 22% alcohol, but not including beer or still wine. This last allowance can be split, for example, 2 litres of spirits and 4.5 litres of sparkling wine, both half of your allowance.
- Tobacco allowance: you can bring in just one from 200 cigarettes, 50 cigars, 100 cigarillos, 250g tobacco or 200 sticks of tobacco for electronic heated tobacco devices. You can also split this allowance, for example, you could bring in 100 cigarettes and 25 cigars.
- Allowance for other types of goods: you can bring in other goods into the UK worth up to £390, or no more than £270 if you arrive by private aircraft or private boat.
You may have to pay import VAT, customs duty and excise duty on any alcohol or tobacco you declare. For other goods, you may have to pay import VAT and customs duty if you exceed your personal allowance. However, you may not need to pay customs duty on items where they were grown or made in the EU using solely EU ingredients or materials, you bought them in the EU and you’re bringing them in from an EU country. If all these conditions are met, you can claim a zero rate of customs duty for each item, although you’ll need documentary evidence to prove, if asked by a Border Force officer, that you satisfy the criteria for this preferential rate.
For Northern Ireland, the rules on customs charges will depend on whether you’re travelling from an EU or non-EU country. From an EU country, you don’t need to declare or pay customs charges on any goods you bring into Northern Ireland, provided you’ve transported them, will use them yourself or be giving them away as a gift, and you’ve paid tax and duty in the EU country where you bought them from. If you’re bringing goods from the Canary Islands, North Cyprus, Gibraltar or the Channel Islands, you must follow the rules for non-EU countries.
The personal allowances for bringing in tobacco and other goods into Northern Ireland from countries outside the EU are the same as for Great Britain, although the alcohol allowance is lower: just 16 litres of beer, 4 litres of still wine, 1 litre of either spirits and other liquors over 22% alcohol, or 2 litres of sparkling wine, fortified wine and other alcoholic drinks up to 22%.
How to declare goods that exceed the personal allowance
Before crossing the UK border, you must declare to customs any goods on your person that are banned or restricted, or where you go over your allowances. If you go over a personal allowance, you’ll have to pay tax and duty on all the goods on the total value of the goods in that category, not just the value above the allowance. For example, if you bring 200 cigarettes and 50 cigars into Great Britain from Spain, you’ll need to pay tax and duty on both the cigarettes and the cigars because you’ve gone over your allowance in the tobacco category.
You can either declare goods on arrival at the UK border or, alternatively, declare them online from 5 days (120 hours) before your scheduled time of arrival. If you declare goods before arriving in the UK, the online service will calculate the tax and duties owed and you can pay these in advance. You can also use the online service to check your personal allowances, and whether you need to pay customs charges on any goods you’re bringing into the UK. There are, however, limits to the amount of alcohol and tobacco you can declare using the online service.
Where applicable, to use the online system, you’ll need:
- the price of your goods in the currency that you used to pay for them
- the quantity or volume of these goods
- the country where your goods were made or produced if you’re travelling from the EU
- your passport number or EU identity card number
- the date and time of your arrival in the UK
- a credit or debit card if you need to pay any tax or duty owed.
The online service will apply HMRC’s exchange rates to calculate what’s owed, using the applicable rates for the month in which you’re declaring. When using the online service to declare your goods, customs charges will be calculated using simplified rates. If using the online service doesn’t offer you the best overall outcome for all the goods you’re declaring, or you’re not permitted to use this service because you’ve exceeded the upper threshold for alcohol and tobacco, you can make an oral declaration on arrival in the UK instead.
A breakdown of the simplified and custom tariff rates can be found at GOV.UK.
UK customs charges for commercial goods
You must declare to customs all goods being brought into the UK that you plan to sell or use in a business. This is because there are no personal allowances for imported commercial goods.
If you’re carrying commercial goods on your person, either in accompanied baggage or in a small vehicle — which have a value of less than £1,500 and weigh less than 1000 kilograms, and which are not restricted or excise goods — you can make a simple online declaration within 5 days of arriving in Great Britain. The rules slightly differ for Northern Ireland.
You’ll still have to pay VAT on ‘merchandise in baggage’ goods, but will have no import duty to pay if you’re bringing in goods that meet the rules of origin under the UK-EU or other UK free trade agreements, and you have documentation to certify that the goods meet these rules.
For goods over the £1,500 and 1,000kg thresholds, and restricted and excise goods, you’ll need to make a full customs declaration. Unless you’ve been granted permission by HMRC to submit a simplified declaration, you’ll also need to submit a full customs declaration for commercial goods imported by a freight forwarder or in a vehicle that carries more than 9 people or weighs 3.5 tonnes or more. You’ll either need to use a customs agent or buy specialist software to access the Customs Handling of Import Export Freight (CHIEF) system.
To make a declaration, you’ll need the right commodity code. You can use the online trade tariff tool to look up the correct code. You can also use this online service to check the import VAT and rate of duty for the commercial goods you’re bringing into the UK.
Can you reduce or avoid UK customs charges?
The level of customs charges payable will depend on what the goods are and where these are from. However, depending on what you’re doing with your goods, you may be able to reduce the amount of customs duty you pay. You may be able to reduce or even avoid customs duty if:
- the goods are covered by a preference agreement with the country you’re importing from
- you’re importing goods for processing or repair, and then putting them into free circulation
- if you’re temporarily importing goods such as samples, professional equipment, items for auction, exhibition goods or demonstration goods
- if you’re importing goods identified in the trade tariff as being eligible for end-use relief
- if you’re importing educational, cultural, medical or scientific goods
- if you’re importing goods for industrial or commercial research.
This list is not exhaustive. Additionally, as well as reducing the customs charges you need to pay, you may also be able to delay import VAT and customs duty. To check if you can delay your customs payments and declarations, you can use the online tool at GOV.UK.
What if you don’t pay UK customs charges?
If you refuse or fail to pay any customs charges due, unless you’re eligible to make a deferred payment, your goods won’t be released to you. For example, if you don’t pay the charges due on commercial goods brought into the UK, these goods can be seized. HMRC can also impose a civil penalty, on top of recovering any amount of import VAT or duty owed.
If you’ve been posted something from abroad and contacted, for example, by Royal Mail, to say that you owe fees, they’ll normally hold your parcel for around 3 weeks. If you’ve not paid the bill within 21 days, your parcel will then usually be returned to the sender.
UK customs charges FAQs
How are customs charges calculated UK?
Customs charges can comprise import VAT, customs duty and excise duty, on both commercial goods and certain goods for personal use, and are normally calculated based on the type of goods and their declared value.
What are the custom charges from India to UK?
The extent of any customs charges will depend on the nature and value of the goods, although there will be charges on gifts or other goods over a certain value being brought into England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.
Is there a customs charge from USA to UK?
There may be customs charges for goods brought into the UK from the United States, although import duty isn’t charged on goods sent by post under £135.
How much is import tax in the UK?
Import duty can vary, depending on the type of goods and what they’re worth. There are online tools at GOV.UK providing a breakdown of the tariff rates for both commercial and personal goods.
The matters contained in this article are intended to be for general information purposes only. This article does not constitute legal advice, nor is it a complete or authoritative statement of the law, and should not be treated as such. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the information is correct, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and no liability is accepted for any error or omission. Before acting on any of the information contained herein, expert legal advice should be sought.