Back in the good old days of air travel, you used to be able to check 2 full-sized suitcases when you flew internationally. When I first studied abroad, I was able to bring 2 huge suitcases with me for no fee, importing all of my worldly belongings for my year in France.
But airline profits were plummeting, and carriers wanted to find more ways to nickel and dime customers. Sometime during the year I was abroad (January 2008), the rules changed, and most airlines dropped the baggage allowance to one 23 kilogram (50 pound) bag.
Luckily for me, I had bought my return ticket before the rules changed, and my two suitcases and I were grandfathered in to the old baggage allowance.
Now, if you want to bring another bag with you to study abroad, you pay. If you go over the allotted 50 pounds, you pay. (Although I’ve gotten up to 26 kg before the flight attendant at the counter told me I had to take stuff out or pay a fee).
So studying abroad for a year, with only 50 pounds of stuff to your name, is getting harder and harder.
If you’re not sure you can make it a whole semester without your stuff (shoes are heavy!) then you may be thinking about sending some of your belongings via the mail as “personal effects.”
Or, if your parents want to send you some nice gift while you’re abroad, and the €45 limit on “unsolicited gifts” doesn’t cut it, they may be thinking about sending it to you as a “personal effect.”
But sender beware.
Customs imposes very particular regulations on the label “personal effects,” specifically to avoid people trying to circumvent the gift rules with alternative labeling practices.
And if your package doesn’t meet the requirements, you’ll pay – a hefty 20% TVA tax on the estimated value of the goods, PLUS on the cost of shipping the package. Ouch.
Here are some tips for sending your “personal effects” to make sure they make it through customs:
1) Only send actual “personal effects,” not gifts.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but the rules for sending personal effects are very different from the rules for gifts. Personal effects are defined as things for which you have already established long-term ownership. This means that clothes have been worn, items are used, and nothing appears new.
To make the package labeling abundantly clear, avoid mixing personal effects and unsolicited gifts in the same package. Otherwise you’ll risk confusing the customs officials, who don’t want to sort through the box to figure out what’s what.
Confused customs officials are 83% more likely to impose taxes on your package. Fact.
2) Only send items that you have owned for more than 6 months.
The official rule on “personal effects” is that it is only admitted to France tax-free if you have owned it more than 6 months.
What does that mean for practical purposes?
Send it with a receipt or proof of purchase, ESPECIALLY if it’s electronics or anything of value. If your personal effects are generic clothes that look worn or items that look used, they’ll probably pass through as long as nothing of value confuses the customs inspectors.
Technically, this rule applies to customs checks through the airport as well, but fortunately, everyone travels with a laptop, a tablet, and a smartphone these days, and there’s no way to check everyone’s receipts.
3) If you have to send electronics or anything expensive, get customs pre-clearance.
According to the official FedEx rulebook, personal effects of value should be accompanied by proof of purchase that identifies the serial number, to prove the item is more than 6 months old.
To avoid the burden of proof when you send such an item, you can opt to have FedEx or another carrier pre-approve the item for customs clearance by filling out a customs declaration with the item’s serial number and receipt. This can be done at any airport, or, presumably, with any international shipping company.
The document, once signed, will serve as proof of “personal effective-ness” each time it goes through customs, expediting the clearance process once in France.
4) Fill out the customs declaration properly and completely.
To avoid problems at customs, complete the customs form with detailed information on each item, including how long it has belonged to you. You can list a value of what the item would be worth in “used” condition, such as a few dollars for a pair of jeans or shoes.
If you’re having trouble valuing your items, look at the standard amount the IRS allows for a tax deduction for similar items when they’re donated to charity. You’ll find a complete list of household items and estimated value in the instructions for form Schedule A of the current year’s tax forms.
5) Avoid insuring the package.
As with “unsolicited gifts,” insurance on a package – especially insurance that specifies a high value – is a tip-off that the package may be commercial in nature. Don’t insure the package above the carrier’s standard insurance offering, or, if you do, insure it only for the declared value.
Anything else will hold up your package at customs while it’s inspected, and you’re more likely to get a tax bill.