Customs Law for Private Individuals

Zollrecht für Privatpersonen

Customs law for private individuals is of particular interest to you when you leave the EU during your trip. Customs duties become applicable whenever your destination is outside the European Union. On your return to Germany, the question arises after you have picked up at the baggage belt whether you should leave the area through the red or green marked exit. Regularly, many returnees choose the green exit without much thought, overlooking that the consequences of choosing the wrong exit can lead to a nasty surprise. The outcome of a false choice in any event will be expensive, and criminal proceedings may also be initiated.

What is there to consider?

Under the so called “Einreise-Freimengen-Verordnung” (Entry Exempted-Quantity Regulation), each traveler has certain allowances of goods which he is allowed to import duty free and without payment of import value-added taxes. A prerequisite is that the items must be transported in personal luggage. This includes carry on bags, checked baggage, body worn items and items carried in a mode of transport used to enter the customs territory (e.g., a car or aircraft). For products other than tobacco products, alcoholic beverages, medicines or fuels, the law provides an exemption for items valued at 300 euros or less, or 430 euros or less for air and sea travel. These are so-called exemption limits, i.e., if the limit is exceeded by only 1 cent, customs duties and import value-added tax are due on the entire value.

Practice Tips on Customs Law for Private Individuals:

Should a vacationer proceeding through the green exit be directed by customs officials to submit to an inspection, the question arises whether criminal liability can still be avoided for customs evasion on undeclared goods. In criminal tax law, , one may negate criminal liability by self reporting the violation (Section 371 AO). In that case, the vacationer still must pay the import duties and taxes which are due.
Self reporting is no longer an effective remedy if an official has appeared for a tax audit. It is questionable whether a request by a customs officer to inspect constitutes such an official appearance at a tax audit. This issue has not yet been adjudicated. For this reason, the traveler should attempt to make full discloser to the customs officer immediately after his request to inspect. To this end, it is necessary to provide as much information as needed to fix the import duties due on items you are importing. Accordingly, the items should be identified and you should provide corresponding cash register receipts. Ideally, all documentation should be at hand immediately. This requires appropriate preparation on your part.

What are returned goods?

Imported goods that the vacationer did not purchase abroad but instead already had in his possession in his luggage on his exit from Germany are not subject to custom duties or import value-added tax. As these items are being returned to Germany, they are referred to as “returned goods.” The vacationer must prove to the customs authorities that these goods were already packed in your luggage at the start of your trip.
Practice tip: In case of doubt, you should consider at the start of your trip whether you really need to take your most current clothes with you, especially those which are primarily available in third countries or those which you could have purchased in earlier trips outside the EU (e.g., items from Abercrombie & Fitch). Ideally, you will be able to establish through receipts, emailed order confirmations or witness statements that you have not purchased the items outside the EU but instead had them with you as you left Germany at the beginning of your trip. It is important to establish also that the returned goods were not altered while you were abroad.

The Old Trick with the Rolex

Often, wrist watches of premier brands are purchased abroad (e.g., in Switzerland) because they are less expensive there or they are limited editions which cannot be bought in Germany. The watch must then be properly declared to customs if its value exceeds the value limit of 430 euros (which is to be assumed). Unfortunately, this often does not happen in practice, and the returning travelers are at risk of being discovered. Annoyingly, the travelers tend to fall into another trap by sending the empty watch box from abroad to their own address in Germany. Customs officials are alert to this trick and regularly find the empty box and open criminal proceedings without hesitation. If this occurs, it is interesting to hear what stories vacationers come up with to convince customs authorities that they did not intend to smuggle the watch into Germany. You can be sure that customs now knows every story.

We would be happy to advise you on the subject of customs law for private individuals.