How to slash the cost of sending gifts overseas – is it cheaper to send directly from retailers?

As getting together with overseas relatives looks unlikely this year sadly, many will be posting treats instead. Whether you want to send make-up to Melbourne, a wetsuit to Warsaw or a toy T-Rex to Texas, the obvious answer's to scurry to the post office – but the cost can add up, especially for heavier parcels.

However, it's possible to save an absolute packet (sorry) on sending prezzies overseas, as it's often cheaper to send directly from a UK retailer.

The key principles for slashing the cost of sending gifts abroad

This blog covers these main principles for sending presents to loved ones in foreign climes:

Buying from an online UK store? It's almost always cheaper to have it sent directly, eg, from Asos to family in Australia (sometimes it's even FREE)

If you're buying a gift from an online store, it's almost always cheaper to get it sent directly to the recipient, especially as over a certain amount (normally £20-£50 depending on the retailer) it's free. Plus many stores let you write gift notes to the recipient so you can personalise it.

This can really help with heavier gifts as Royal Mail and parcel firms charge by weight, while shops don't tend to charge more for extra weight – it's normally based on the underlying cost of the item. Even where there's a charge it's usually only a few quid.

For example, when I checked sending a 1kg game of Monopoly to the USA, it would have cost £21.18 to send via Royal Mail, but House of Fraser were charging just £3.33 to send it direct.

Plus you've the benefit of only one delivery charge, not having it sent to yourself first. Sending via an overseas retailer's often cheaper still, but we're not experts on comparing these – though we've sending via international retailer info below to help if you want to.

Sending an item yourself? The cheapest option likely depends on the weight

There are a lot of variables when it comes to parcel delivery, eg, location, package size, delivery times etc so it means we can't give you prices as it'll vary enormously – but based on our research, we've spotted some trends based on the weight of the item you're sending. 

Less than 1kg? Royal Mail usually wins, but check. For example, items such as socks, lipsticks or necklaces are likely to weigh less than 1kg. To get an idea of costs, Royal Mail has a handy calculator – just tap in a country and weight to get a price.

For example, when I tested sending a 600g parcel to Spain it was £8.25 via Royal Mail vs £19.49 by courier. But this isn't a universal rule, so you do always need to check.

1kg or more? Discount courier sites are usually cheapest. Rather then going direct to the big courier firms, go to special discount courier websites (see how to find courier firms and how to compare them below).

For example, when I checked the cost of sending a 3kg parcel to Spain using standard delivery, the cheapest discount courier was £9.40 vs £37.02 for Royal Mail. For Ireland, it was £9.17 for the cheapest courier vs £17.70 Royal Mail. For India, it was £24.45 for the cheapest courier vs £71.50 via Royal Mail. From my tests, sending via discount courier beat Royal Mail on every occasion, but because there are so many variables with parcels, it may not be universal, so always compare.

How to find courier firms and how to compare them

This isn't about going direct to the biggies such as DHL or UPS. Instead, use special discount courier websites which do two things:

1. They buy spare delivery slots from the big-name couriers and then flog those slots cheaply.
2. Alongside that, they allow you to search for and compare those discounted slots with the big firms to find what's cheapest.

Here is a list of discount courier websites and which firms they compare:

While we've focused on Christmas here, the same techniques work for Chanukah, Eid and others too.

Sending 3kg of make-up to Australia cost me just £6

To further show how this all works, here's how I saved £59 sending presents abroad just last week (warning to nieces – contains spoiler)...

I wanted to send two make-up sets to Australia from UK retailer Revolution Beauty. The prezzies weighed a total of 3kg together, and Royal Mail wanted £65 to deliver, while the cheapest web courier was £28. However, Revolution charged just £6 to send it all direct to Australia  that's £59 less than Royal Mail.

Sending gifts abroad – the need-to-knows

Here are some important pointers to read before sending your goodies:

  • However you send, be sure to check the final dates you can post your goodies by to arrive on time. For example, for Royal Mail international standard delivery, it's Friday 4 December for Australia, Wednesday 9 December for Africa and Saturday 12 December for Poland. See its full list.

    When it comes to retailers, John Lewis, for example, says delivery to Poland can take up to six days, Canada up to nine and Australia up to 10.

    That said, it's worth adding a few extra days to these dates this year. Some countries are quarantining goods for certain periods due to the pandemic – typically for two or three days.

    Of course, couriers and retailers may have different dates, so it's important to check these. Also bear in mind if you're buying a gift online and sending it on yourself, you'll need to factor in time for it to get to you, and then go through the delivery system after you've sent it.

  • A word about customs – if you're sending items from the UK to EU countries this Christmas, the recipient won't pay any customs duty. However, some other countries charge import duty on items worth over a certain amount (the recipient pays this).

    In some countries, gifts sent directly from one private person to another can have a higher customs duty threshold than gifts sent from a retailer. For example, in Canada you can import up to $20 from a shop before paying duty, but $60 if it's a gift.

    However, sometimes it's the other way around. In the USA, people can usually receive gifts worth up to $100 before paying duty, but orders from retailers worth up to $200.

    This is a complex area, so it's worth chatting to family and friends about how it works in their locale, as well as checking the local government's sites. As a rule of thumb, a small toy's much more likely to get through than a pricey camera.

  • Look for the best deal overall, and not just the cheapest postage on offer. In the same time it takes to search one department store, comparison sites whizz through scores of internet retailers. We find Google Shopping is the most consistent at tracking down the cheapest price. See our Cheap Online Shopping guide for full tips.

  • Be aware that not every product's available to send everywhere. Size, customs or product licencing issues can mean retailers won't ship certain things. The retailer should flag this up when you put in the delivery address.

  • If you're a keen present wrapper, some companies will gift-wrap presents for you at an extra charge. Many retailers let you include a gift note for free – it's worth looking for these options at the checkout.

  • If you need to, you'll often have the option of paying extra on top of the standard delivery cost to have your item sent quicker. The extra cost will vary depending on who's sending it, so it's worth comparing the costs and factoring this in.

  • M&S and Next work a little differently. You can send their products abroad, but you have to buy via that country's site, eg, Australia, Canada, Israel and New Zealand. See a full list of M&S and Next sites.

    You pay in the local currency, so use a Top Overseas Card if doing this (see pay the right way below). Also, do the maths and compare the product prices with those on their UK sites.

    Certain M&S and Next international sites include local customs duty, eg, for M&S, customs duty is included in Australia, the USA and Canada. However, some don't. For M&S, to establish if duty's included, go to that country's page, scroll to the bottom, click on 'Ordering and delivery' and see 'Do I have to pay any customs?'.

    For Next, scroll to the bottom of the page, then 'Shipping information', then 'Will I be charged customs fees?'.

  • While goods are often pricey, Selfridges offers unlimited international deliveries when you buy a Selfridges+ Pass. It's like a delivery season ticket and costs £10/year for deliveries within the UK/EU (no minimum spend) and £40/yr worldwide (£40 min spend on each order).

    For example, delivery to Poland normally costs £15 with Selfridges, so if you sent to Poland just once, the pass would win (Royal Mail charges £9.40 to deliver a 1kg parcel to Poland). Delivery to Pakistan is normally £25 with Selfridges, so if you sent more than one gift a year it would win (though Royal Mail charges £16.55 for a 1kg parcel).

    On the downside, Selfridges is not known for being a bargain basement. When we checked, it was selling a Playmobil Back to the Future car set for £50, but the next cheapest we could find online was £40.50 (including delivery). A Jellycat toy dragon was £20, but the next cheapest elsewhere was £18.44 (including delivery).

    So while you can usually find the products cheaper elsewhere, we're including this here, as it might be useful for some.

    Selfridges says the majority of products are included with the pass, but certain brands are excluded. These include The Real Flower Company, Tumi, Astley Clarke and Bang & Olufsen. See full terms.

  • A few pointers on packing your festive parcels:

    - Nab free cardboard boxes from supermarkets and pad with screwed-up newspaper.
    - Always weigh and measure accurately. Don't be tempted to shave a bit off – you could be hit by excess charges.
    - Include a return address on your parcel, so it can get back if it can't be delivered.

Send directly from international retailers – good for pricier items, but requires extra research

Another postage-minimising trick is sending directly from stores in your loved one's country. This can avoid customs charges, especially on pricey items.

Delivery's usually cheaper than any of the methods we've already been through above. However, do keep your wits about you and only buy from trusted sellers. As a UK site, our expertise isn't in comparing international retailers, but if you know what you're doing, you can save big.

For example, when we checked, posting a game of Monopoly from the UK to Australia with Royal Mail cost £19.80. However, on it was free (costs vary by item though). Bear in mind that whether this option's cheapest compared to buying in the UK depends on currency fluctuations and the price of goods within that country.

Tips for buying and sending directly from international retailers

  • Use price comparison sites to find the cheapest deal. We found Google Shopping is the most consistent at finding the cheapest price in the UK – to compare prices in another location, just go to Google Shopping, then click 'Settings', 'Search Settings', 'Region Settings' and change your country.
  • Don't trust websites you've never heard of. Your best bet is to go for a big name or ask advice from a friend or relative in that country. They may be able to recommend a trusted local florist, book store, toy shop etc that has a website so you can support an independent retailer.
  • M&S and Next have international sites you can ship from. See more info.
  • Use a top travel credit card to avoid non-sterling exchange fees. We've more on this below.

To give you an idea of the savings, I looked at sending a 1kg game of Monopoly via Royal Mail or courier, compared with shipping it from other countries' Amazon sites:

When I checked, here's what it cost to deliver a game of Monopoly (1kg)

Country Royal Mail (1) Cheapest courier Local Amazon site
Australia £19.80 £15.50 N/A Free
Canada £16.80 £13.05 £22.42 £3.94
France £9.95 £8.70 £5.27 Free
Spain £9.65 £7.93 £6.71 £3.55
USA £21.18 £16.65 N/A £4.48

(1) Via Royal Mail's international standard service.

Pay the right way

When buying from another country in their currency, use a top travel credit card. Most debit and credit card firms get a near-perfect exchange rate from Mastercard or Visa, but then add a 3%-ish 'non-sterling exchange fee' to what they charge you, so £100 of US dollars costs you £103.

Yet a few specialist credit cards have no exchange fee, so you get the same near-perfect rate the banks get – but ensure you repay IN FULL each month to minimise the interest you pay.

Credit cards also usually have Section 75 legal protection for items costing £100-£30,000. This means the card firm is jointly liable with the retailer, and that's powerful, eg, if you buy a bracelet in Brazil and there's a problem, you can simply ask the card firm to sort out a refund.