The truth behind Duty Free shopping

Just what are Duty Free stores in airports and when is Duty Free shopping a savings?

Since there seems to be some confusion on the terminology, here are the differences between U.S. customs, duty free shops, tax-free shopping, and VAT refunds.

Those Duty Free Shops that you pass through in airports and cruise terminals, or the Duty Free catalogs they flog on you on board planes and ships, are offering to sell you items without the local government sales tax (or "duty") added in.

That is to say, it is the local VAT tax you are avoiding , which can range anywhere from 7% to 33% and is normally figured into the price on the tag (not added on at the register, as in the States). Essentially, it's like getting your VAT refund before you buy.

This loophole dates back to Shannon airport in the 1960s, when someone got the bright idea that, since air terminals represent a kind of no-man's land between being and not being in a country, people passing through should be able to purchase items (usually goods of luxury or vice: jewelry, alcohol, and tobacco) without paying the standard import duty—so long as they're in the process of leaving the country.

However, though the Duty Free concept is still alive and well, it's not always the bargain it's made out to be.

Is duty-free a bargain?

Items of vice (tobacco, alcohol) often have high government duties, or taxes, so these can sometimes be cheaper at duty free shops.

Lately, though, duty free shops have gotten greedy and now often charge the same, if not higher, sticker prices than the shops downtown. That means they are really ripping you off, since they're pocketing that hidden 7% to 33% extra that would otherwise be forwarded to the state as tax.

Play it safe: Know what the going price is on anything you intend to buy "duty free," as well as the local VAT, so you can tell if an item at the duty-free shop truly is a bargain. Also, check out prices at

Also, you should be aware that, for complicated reasons, you can no longer purchase duty free when flying from one European country to another within the E.U. However you can still buy duty free items if you are flying to a non-E.U. country, such as returning to the States.

"Duty free" has nothing to do with customs

Note that none of this has anything whatsoever to do with U.S. Customs and how much you can bring back home without paying a duty—though people constantly confuse the two.

You may have avoided paying the the French or Italian or British duty on those bottles of Jim Beam, but the U.S. customs reserves the right to charge you tax on it once you try to bring it back into the States—if you have more than one liter.

For more on that issue, click here.

Duty Free is also distinct (not legally, but as far as you're concerned) from VAT tax refunds or Tax-Free Shopping. For the scoop on VAT and tax refunds, click here.

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This article was by Reid Bramblett and last updated in November 2011.
All information was accurate at the time.

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Copyright © 1998–2013 by Reid Bramblett. Author: Reid Bramblett.