I found a question on Reddit about customs charges. The answers were either not accurate or not helpful so I submitted my own answer. I’m reproducing an edited version here because UK customs charges is a topic that comes up a lot on podcasts and on blogs and people rarely seem to get it right.
There is a lot of misinformation about import charges around. I’m in the UK and have bought lots of pens from overseas and I’ve also taken the time to look here at the HMRC’s advice. This is what it comes down to.
If you buy something from outside the EU that is worth less than £15, you don’t have to pay anything. (In my experience, you can often get away with things up to around £20 but £15 is the rule.)
If someone sends you a gift, and it is clearly marked as a gift, and there are no markings or suggestions whatsoever that it’s from a commercial enterprise, you don’t need to pay anything.
If the value is above £15/£35 but below £135, you have to pay 20% VAT plus a handling charge. This is usually £8 but occasionally a pound or two less. I don’t mind paying VAT but the handling charge really annoys me – being charged extra so that someone can charge me extra is irritating. The HMRC calculations are supposed to include shipping – this is, I think, due to many eBay sellers who charge £1 for something but with £50 shipping – that doesn’t work. However in my experience if the shipping is reasonable it’s not generally included in the calculations.
Above £135 and you have to pay customs charges. I’ve never bought anything above £135 from abroad (I wish!) so I’m not sure how that works.
You pay VAT on everything but you only pay the handling charge the once per package. So you’re better off grouping purchases together if you can (but not so they add up to more than £135).
It is not a coincidence that many products cost about 20% and shipping more in the UK than they do in the USA.
None of this applies if you buy from within the EU. That’s the idea of the EU (or at least was originally).
Every now and then you do get away with not being charged. You cannot assume this will happen (it hardly ever does) and so must add in the above charges when buying outside the EU. Every now and then you will be charged when you shouldn’t have been – when customs think the value is above what you said, or that it wasn’t a gift when you said it was. There is a right of appeal. Good luck with that.