Shipping to Europe: No Food-Shaped Erasers, Please

Shipping to Europe is a competitive business, yet prices remain high compared to shipping within the U.S. or the UK. A number of peculiarities in assessing import duties and VAT has turned off many merchants from doing commercial shipping to clients in Europe entirely, and has resulted in countless personal packages returning to sender as well. But while the laws may be extensive and change seemingly month to month, shipping to Europe is manageable if you have some patience. For any commercial activity, having a local partner familiar with the import of goods is often key, and if one is missing, it could be a smart choice to hire someone locally on a temporary or part-time basis. Many recruitment agencies, such as Randstad in the UK, offer access to screened candidates in Europe with specific expertise in several sectors.

Shipping Small Parcels

For basic shipping of small packages door-to-door to Europe from the U.S. and UK, there are the United States Postal Service, the Royal Mail, FedEx, UPS and particularly DHL, which has a larger European distribution network than its competitors—but they all come at a significant, often shocking price. Unfortunately, there is no one way to know which company will offer the better deal nor service, as in Europe the service of each of them often varies from one postal code to another. Neither is the cost uniform across providers: some are cheaper for small heavy packages such as books, others for larger packages, still others for anything that fits in a standard size package, which is of course different by company.

Expats tend to rely on FedEx for extremely important documents, DHL for shopping from other European countries and the UK, UPS when it offers some sort of promotion, and the Royal Mail when time is not an issue but delivery is. In Spain and Portugal, MRW is an excellent local competitor relatively unknown elsewhere: it has localised branches where the delivery personnel know the neighbourhoods and usually at least one staff member who speaks English well. Just like in the UK and the U.S., sometimes delivery slips aren’t left so you have to track packages yourself—and packages do get lost, particularly, for some reason, books from the UK.


For shipments larger than a few boxes, there is a plethora of companies offering cargo shipments by boat. Many companies offer partial container “rental”, port-to-port, after which you have to arrange a courier to ship to the final destination or pick it up yourself. These vary widely country by country, and not always based on how far away the destination is from a port. Prices go up for larger sizes or refrigerated options, but also go down for bulk shipments, or if you opt to work with a manufacturer with an existing relationship with a cargo company. The containers vary in size, going up to 45 feet. The type and arrangement of your shipment is also affected by the difference in standards: European pallets have a base size of 120 by 80 cm. In the UK, the standard pallet is 120 by 100 cm.


There are no shortage of horrible stories of packages detained in customs. The worst is when shipping something of no monetary value, but for sentimental reasons or, used to insuring packages, declares the value as something symbolic, a nice round number like £1,000. You’ll have to pay customs duties on that. And VAT. And sometimes other “special” taxes. It adds up.

All European countries have a minimum threshold value below which no duty or tax will be collected: in Spain, for example, the minimum for duties is €150, but VAT is collected on anything over €22—except books. Germany collects a reduced VAT for books. Greece collects a set VAT on everything regardless of value. VAT rates across Europe vary from 6.5% to 22%. Most European countries impose anti-dumping charges: for bicycles made in China, it’s almost 50% of the value. Textiles, consumer electronics, alcohol all come with individual tariffs. Then there are examination fees, payable by the recipient, for anything that may require extra scrutiny, say, original artwork or medicines.

Needless to say, commercial shipping gets much more complicated and varies by industry and destination country. In most European countries, textiles are taxed differently not only whether they are “standard” goods or luxury items, but also depending on origin. Cosmetics are subject to technical inspections, carrying additional fees. Most favoured nations reciprocal agreements are different for every country.


There are obvious things you are simply not allowed to ship to Europe, radioactive material, live animals, and human corpses being the more likely candidates. Don’t even try to export anything made from a seal, walrus or sea lion to the EU. Or anything made from Liberian wood. EU’s food safety laws are often more stringent than in the U.S., and certain ingredients are banned outright. Some things are just plain strange: almost the entire EU has a ban on importing pornographic and obscene material—but many countries also prohibit the import of rubber erasers similar in appearance to food products that are easily ingested. Who knew?

Sectors: Wholesale & Retail
Countries: Europe
Topics: Distribution
Export Action Plan