How to Claim VAT at the Airport

Get a tax refund on all of the euros you spent on merchandise during your vacation.
Get a tax refund on all of the euros you spent on merchandise during your vacation. (Image: Marangotidis Dimitris/iStock/Getty Images)

Your European vacation might seem dauntingly expensive. But that's only because the standard European Union VAT tax ranges from 15 to 25 percent, inflating the cost of every purchase. You can, however, get a portion of this tax refunded. All you need to do is bring the proper documents to the airport when leaving the EU.

Explaining the VAT Refund System

All 28 European Union countries charge Value-Added Tax, or VAT, but the percentage of tax varies from country to country. As a tourist, you are entitled to a refund of the VAT that you paid for material goods and some services during your stay inside of the EU. You cannot receive a refund for hotel stays or meals, but you can get a refund for clothes, keepsakes and jewelry. To receive a VAT refund at the airport, you need to be flying to a destination outside of the EU with goods purchased less than three months before you leave. You'll need the receipts and the right paperwork.

Make VAT Refundable Purchases

Not all stores sell VAT refundable items. And even if a store is eligible under the VAT refund plan, it does not mean that the retailer will accept the rules. It is a good idea to seek out stores that know how the VAT refund system works. Usually, they'll advertise VAT refunds on their storefront and these stores can usually be found in heavy tourist areas. Some countries enforce a minimum single purchase amount for VAT refund eligibility, which can be up to several hundred dollars. Find a refund-friendly store and ask to be walked through the process. When you complete your purchase, the store will give you a receipt and a VAT document, often called a "cheque".

Purchases Your Items the Right Way

Don't leave the store until you are certain that the VAT refund document is filled out completely. If there are any blank spots, ask the store clerk if they need to be filled out. You may have to fill in blank spots on certain documents. Do not open, use or wear your eligible items inside the EU. Refunds are intended for unused items only. If you are staying inside the EU for an extended period, make all of your purchases toward the end of your trip. The EU enforces a three month time limit on VAT refund eligibility. And to meet the single purchase spending minimum, try to buy the bulk of your items in one store.

Claim Your Refund

Get to the airport especially early and bring your passport, goods, receipts and VAT documents. Find a local customs office and be prepared to wait; getting VAT documents verified can take a long time, especially in smaller airports. If you plan on storing your merchandise inside checked baggage, get the goods verified before checking your luggage. You have a few options once your documents are verified and stamped. You can find a third party refund service inside the airport, such as Global Blue or Premier Tax Free, where you can receive cash on the spot in exchange for a low percentage of your refund. Or you can wait and mail your documents to a third party company operating inside the U.S., such as Vat It or Euro VAT Refund. These companies process your refund claim with European tax offices for a commission. You can expect your refund in the mail within three to 12 months.

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