Shoppers looking to bag Christmas bargains overseas this year should beware import costs and taxes before they buy, HM Revenue and Customs is warning.

Travellers going abroad to do Christmas shopping, or those staying at home buying goods online from outside the EU should check how much they can buy before customs duty or import VAT is applied (see our Christmas Bargains guide for tips on cutting festive costs).

HMRC says shoppers must also be cautious with websites which say they'll undervalue your goods so you won't pay VAT, or offer famous brand names at very low prices. HMRC says it knows about these sites, and shoppers who think they have found a bargain may end up paying more or having their goods seized.

HMRC head of customs policy Angela Shephard says: "We know many people like to go abroad at this time to buy their Christmas gifts, or buy online from non-EU countries, and think that the 'cheaper' price they see is always the price they finally pay.

"This is a reminder to everyone about how much they can actually bring back from abroad or buy from an online overseas seller without having to pay customs duty or import VAT."

Here's what you need to know:

Martin Lewis
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I'm buying goods worth under £15 from outside the EU via the internet or by mail order. Is there a charge?

There's no charge for this, unless the goods are alcohol or tobacco products, in which case the relevant excise duty is applied. See HRMC for a full list of alcohol and tobacco excise duty rates.

I'm buying goods worth over £15 but under £135 from outside the EU via the internet or by mail order. Is there a charge?

You'll be charged VAT by HMRC at 20%, which is calculated based on the total package cost, regardless of how many items are in it.

VAT is charged on the full price of the package, not just the value that exceeds the £15 limit.

I'm sending someone a gift worth under £36 from outside the EU. Is there a charge?

There's no charge unless the goods are alcohol or tobacco products, in which case the relevant excise duty is applied (see the links above).

To qualify as a gift, the item must be sent from one private individual to another, with no money changing hands.

I'm sending someone a gift worth over £36 but under £135 from outside the EU. Is there a charge?

If the value exceeds £36, VAT at 20% will be charged on the full price of the item, not just the value above the £36 allowance. VAT will be collected from the recipient, not the sender, by the courier service delivering the item, which will then pass it on to HMRC.

To qualify as a gift, the item must be sent from one private individual to another, with no money changing hands.

I'm buying goods or sending gifts over the value of £135 from a non-EU country. Is there a charge?

You may have to pay customs duty on top of VAT, depending on what the goods are and where they have been sent from. If the amount of customs duty due is less than £9, it'll be waived.

There are around 14,000 custom duty classifications for products, with average percentages between 5% and 9%. Custom duty can sometimes be as low as 0% or as high as 85%, depending on the goods in question.

As explained above, goods or gifts costing less than £135 won't have customs duty applied, but they will have VAT applied if they're worth over £15 for goods, or over £36 for a gift.

If the items costing over £135 are tobacco or alcohol products, then excise duty will also need to be paid (see the links above for details of this).

I'm buying alcohol and tobacco products online or by mail order from outside or within the EU. Is there a charge?

Yes. Excise duty is always due on these items, although this varies depending on the product (see the links above for the full details).

I'm bringing goods into the UK in person from the EU. Is there a charge?

There are no charges and no limits on the amount of duty and tax paid goods, including alcohol and tobacco, you can bring back from the EU providing they are for personal use.

HMRC says questions may however be asked if you exceed certain alcohol and tobacco amounts, for example, if you are re-entering the UK with more than 90 litres of wine or 800 cigarettes.

I'm bringing goods into the UK in person from non-EU countries. Is there a charge?

If you're arriving in the UK by commercial sea or air transport from a non-EU country, you can bring in up to £390 worth of goods for personal use without paying customs duty or VAT. But this excludes tobacco and alcohol, which have separate allowances. See HMRC for the full info.

If you're arriving by other means, including by private plane or boat for pleasure purposes, you can bring in goods up to the value of £270 without paying customs duty or VAT.

Above these allowances and up to £630, you may have to pay a customs duty flat rate of 2.5% depending on the item and its origin. For goods over £630, the duty charged depends on the type of goods.

For all goods above £270 or £390 (whichever is appropriate) you may also have to pay VAT at 20% depending on the item.

For more information on import charges and travellers' allowances, visit the HMRC website.

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