Buying from the States? Beware of Royal Mail charges!

I received an item I'd ordered from the US valued at $25. According to HMRC their July exchange rate valued this in Sterling at £15.88 - therefore liable (by 88p) for Import VAT of £3.17. That's not so bad, however Royal Mail then decided to apply an £8 international handling charge. Outrageous! Not only is this vastly disproportional to the value of the item, it doubled the eventual cost of my purchase. I write in and complained, writing that I felt this doesn't represent the amount of work required to process the item of post. I remember a time not so long ago when the handling fee was only £5, then it slowly crept up to £6... then £8... And I have a feeling it's going to increase again soon.

Bizarrely shipments from places like Hong Kong seem (for the moment) almost immune of these handling fees (courtesy initially of the UKBA and HMRC) yet almost every single rateable consignment from the USA now has fees enforced against it. Simple way of the Revenue earning some extra coin? I don't mind about that given the Import VAT was only £3, it's Royal Mail's secondary bandwagon gouging of the customer that's disgraceful - no alternative but to refuse receipt of the item and have it returned to sender. Monopolistic behaviour and borderline scam tactics. The fact RM don't even scale the handling charge dependent on the declared item value (or the amount of VAT levied) is frustrating, that would be a much more customer friendly solution (so of course they do the exact opposite).

Given the low value of the item and the high cost of the handling fee, I asked if a credit could be issued for some or all of the handling fee. An £8 handling fee is simply not justifiable when it represents half of the item's value. Let's see if they respond...


NB that all mail handlers including private couriers will usually charge a similar fee unless the overseas seller has an arrangement with HMRC whereby they can collect the VAT at point of sale - which would sidestep these additional charges. I wish there was a way I could declare a purchase to (and pay) HMRC the VAT directly, the current situation is nothing short of extortion.

If you feel you've been overcharged Import VAT or Customs Duty, there's two forms available for you to complete and return to the relevant body to contest the charge. Which one you use depends on how you received the item; for items received through Parcelforce or Royal Mail, Google for the "BOR286" form which you need to send to the UKBA Office listed on the Charge sticker on your item. For consignments handled by any other third party couriers, you need the "C285" form (instructions here).

14 thoughts on “Buying from the States? Beware of Royal Mail charges!”

  1. First time visitor here...I stumbled on your site while reading around for a lengthy article I've written about this issue and I have to say your effort reads better than mine does!

    While it's not illegal, it's a lousy way for the Royal Mail to do business. I buy CDs, DVDs and guitar parts from abroad quite often and don't have any problem with VAT and postage. But getting charged so someone can fill in a form that I could easily do myself?! Ridiculous.

    What's even more disgusting is the fact that the law changed last year, allowing RMG to effectively hold your property to ransom until you pay whatever charges they feel like charging you. And take my word for it: Parcelforce are even worse. They can charge £13.50, and there's nothing you can do about it if you want your stuff delivered.

    Since the PO and PF are two parts of the same company, isn't this a monopoly? Do you reckon it's worth asking the Competition Commission about it? Basically, these two organisations (one organisation, in truth) can charge whatever they like and walk roughshod over customers who may not even WANT to be customers

    A ray of hope is that you can declare the parcel yourself: if the sender marks the customs note "goods to be cleared by importer" HMRC/UKBC contact you directly without Royal Mail's or Parcelforce's involvement. It's perfectly legal, but so far I've found that Parcelforce choose to ignore it and charge you anyway.

    1. Like you (I suspect) I've been stung on more than a few occasions since starting to buy online years ago. I've noticed a significant increase in US imports being targeted in this manner. Amusingly the RM guy I spoke to when I paid my customs charges noted that Hong Kong stuff is apparently being overlooked but all States parcels get pinged regularly now. The whole practice smacks of RM using people like us to subsidise losses elsewhere in the business.

      I saw a comment from someone online a while ago who allegedly worked for RM; he said that the £8 is justifiable as there's a lot of additional manual work involved segregating and dealing with the parcels. This is bunk as far as I'm concerned because they have a holding area for all nondeliverable SD and RD Signed For items which I'm sure is also usable for international UKBA charge levied items. And aren't the Mail making more and more money from people using them to receive goods ordered online now...? Perhaps they don't know what to do as their letters and small packets only business model has been exploded by larger parcels and jiffy bags. I do feel sorry for posties though and I know their workload on the AM sorting and mail delivery targets side of things has been pushed higher and higher. RM management sounds terrible.

      I'll have to investigate this "goods to be cleared" alternative; if PF choose to ignore it either out of obstinance or ignorance it could be amusing showing up to the Sorting Office with a letter declaring the fees have been paid and the item is to be released. If they continue to withhold the item of post at that point then would it not be the case that they would be (illegalyly) withholding private property from a rightful owner without due cause? That could be a potentially amusing court case.

      Incidentally I noted today in an online article on BBC News that RM will shortly be nationally rolling out a scheme whereby undeliverable post is instead delivered to your neighbour should you be out. The scheme as it stands at present will have every customer opted in by default. Wonderful news if you don't know or never speak to your neighbours and don't realise the scheme has been implemented for your address. Who holds liability in situations where valuable post is 'delivered' but goes missing?! Hilarious the extent to which they're trying to reduce the burden of undeliverable post, there's streamlining then there's desperate cost-cutting. And let's not forget about this year's postage price increases...

      1. I honestly feel sorry for the posties and depot workers - the rise of e-mail and online mail order shopping has really changed the nature of the business, and I'm sure they're the ones bearing the brunt of our frustration. Yes, the business model has to change with the times, and it's sad that apparently sneaking in trumped-up fees like customs handling/clearance fees is the solution to that. It's a management issue more than anything.

        Clearing parcels yourself should be fine in theory but I've yet to experience it observed and acted on. So far I've tried it once and its note was ignored and dealt with normally. I couldn't say whether it was deliberate or not! 

        As for the delivering to neighbours...that's another poor answer to an admittedly awkward problem. I've heard of posties making use of cat flaps when letterboxes are too small, but I'm not sure what the best solution to that is. Certainly not forcing a change onto the customers!

        I don't know if you read my overlong article, but I noticed that the PO and PF are both part of the same why are their fees different? Why does PF charge £5 for Saturday delivery and £1 for diverting items to the nearest PO when PO offer both of these for less (or for free)? It's a mess, and the two groups who are coming out of this worst are the ordinary employees and the customers.

        1. I did read all of your (very interesting) post Martin - I think it's a case of them simply doing whatever they feel they can as Parcelforce is their 'premium' brand and therefore subject to 'premium' fees. :-/ Likely a separate siloed management with its own policies, operating as a nominally separate business in all but ownership.

          Regrettably I have to inform you that I missed a regular delivery of a packet because it was apparently too large for my letterbox (ha, I know what it was and it would have fitted perfectly through any letterbox). I noted on the 'missed' card Royal Mail offered me the option of having it sent to a local Post Office -- for £1.50! So it's no longer free, at least from the Wolverhampton main sorting office near to my workplace. However these cards are standard stationery as far as I'm aware so in this narrow respect Parcelforce is actually cheaper than RM if they still only charge £1 for PO drop-off. Depressing huh.

          1. Indeed. I was actually starting to feel a bit sorry for the postal workers, until I stumbled on this quote that was attached to a WordPress referral link:

            "stop trying to rip off the Revenue and Customs by importing your tat from abroad then. Or stop whinging when you get caught."

            If that's representative of the sort of attitude Royal Mail has, their apparent indifference towards their paying customers is not surprising.

            In reply to Chris' story below: what a neat idea! It sadly highlights the problem with the postal system as it is now though: we don't have an alternative, and any negative publicity will only sour the relationship between postal workers and their customers. Even if you get your parcels delivered correctly in the short term (and I hope you do!), nothing is likely to change overall because there's no incentive for the organisation to change its ways. Best of luck, anyway!

    2. I know this post is quite old but I just thought I'd add, as this was at the top of my Google search of the topic, that if you choose to go with the "goods to be cleared by importer" route, then it will take a considerable amount of time due to them having to send the relevant form. You then have to send the form back before they will release the item for postage.
      Only do this when you are not receiving an item that you need within a certain amount of time. Last month, it took a month for customs to release my item, but it was a very early preparation for a birthday gift for someone, so I felt it was better to wait than to give the greedy RM any more money.

  2. I ordered some vitamins from the U.S worth about £16, and got stung for £3.12 in VAT, but also got hit with the £8 pound of flesh from the Royal Snail. Coincidentally, i'm taking mail mis-delivered on a regular basis to my address which was intended for an address at the other end of town (the street has the same name as mine but ends in 'road' and not 'street') clearly the posties cannot read nor understand postcodes. 

    Either way, after this little episode I will be charging the Royal Mail an £8 storage and handling fee for each piece of incorrectly delivered mail which I have to handle and repost on their behalf, and if they don't pay up, then i'll just take them to the small claims via and get the national press to cover it. 

    Believe me, their incompetence in mis-delivered mail is going to cost them a hell of lot more in my 'fees' than it cost me in theirs.

    1. Outstanding work sir. I suggest you set up a limited company to provide proxy storage and redelivery services -- you could provide your own final mile service to Royal Mail and bill them accordingly 😀

  3. Is the fee enforceable ? There is no contract for it, and if the Royal Mail prevents us recovering the goods, then isn't that theft ?

    In future I will be detaining misdelivered post

  4. FUCK ROYAL MAIL I hope they go under. They've got my parcel - a t shirt and are blackmailing me to pay £12 to get it back.

    1. Ugh, sorry to hear that. They got me for £12 extra recently on a charity t-shirt purchase from the US.

      I hate Royal Mail. I wish they'd never been privatised.

  5. What about the option "refuse receipt of the item and have it returned to sender."
    (as mentioned by Christopher in the main text).

    After I clicked the purchase button, there were quite some surprises
    (1. the supplement is priced at GBP ( ), but in the confirmation it was said it's USD 99 and subject to FX conversion. grrrr... Why do I make research online to compare prices?)

    2. (worse:) the RM delivery note several weeks later(!) says
    "There is a customs charge,
    Amount due: £22.35"

    I would n e v e r have ordered from this website had I known the full story.
    The company indicated the refund will be dealt with upon return.

    RM's notification says that customs items will be returned to sender after 21 calendar days. 

    Is my assumption correct, that they will NOT be able to charge the £22.35 if I don't collect the item? Think this is declared as "customs", so if the product is not delivered, the charge is obsolete.
    (it takes many more weeks before the sender receives the product back in the US, but that's okay).

    On the other hand, if the sender will be charged with this oversize "customs charge", then refusing receipt is the worst option ever.

    Don't like bad surprises 🙁

  6. I think this is extremely rediculous the charges to receive a parcel from the states.Not only is it a special time of year but I also have a Birthday at this time.Whether I receive a gift or not really does not matter to me but our family feel they want to share these occasions with us.
    It seems they & us a being made fools of.
    There are occasions when the cost of accepting our gifts is more like being punished.Especially when on many occasions the charge is more than the cost of the gift.
    However I for one will make sure my family & hopefully many more will refuse to partake in this ludicrous charge.

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