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EUROPEAN UNION

Why am I being charged to receive gifts in Italy sent from outside the EU?

Sending low-value gifts to Italy from outside the bloc should be exempt from VAT duty, but many people are still being asked to pay extra postal fees at the doorstep.

The doorbell rings and I skid on the floor tiles as I run to buzz in the courier, a childlike bounce in my half-jog-half-walk in anticipation of the package I’ve been told to look out for.

Receiving a little thought from loved ones back home is a highlight when you live in another country. It keeps you connected to each other and sometimes, a parcel just might contain something you’ve been craving and missing in Italy.

Crumpets, Yorkshire Tea and Marmite immediately spring to mind. Does that give away that I’m from the north of England?

I hop to the front gate, a smile on my face, arms outstretched to receive the bundle that will make me feel closer to the people I hardly see and realise the postman isn’t letting go of the package.

“That’ll be €27.57 please.”

“Excuse me?”

“€27.57.”

Without much more explanation than that, I asked why I was being charged to receive a gift and was told they’re just fees you have to pay. If you don’t want to pay, the parcel will be returned.

EXPLAINED: Why are residents in Italy being charged to receive small parcels from outside the EU?

As I’d been waiting for this package weeks after it was due to arrive, I shrugged, smile vanished replaced by a furrowed brow, and trundled off to get my purse, muttering all the way.

On handing over €30, he said he didn’t have any change.

Of course he didn’t.

This became a habit I unfortunately got used to over the following weeks. Gifts turned up, I had to pay anywhere between €3 and €30 and the person delivering it never had change. So naturally you have to round up and lose even more money.

Or I’d get home and receive a notice of missed delivery in the postbox. So then I’d have to take time out of my day to go to the post office (which in Italy is eventful itself and can take hours if they’re really on form), queue up and cough up the fees to collect the gift.

Not only are there fees, delivery can take weeks or months (if at all)

I’ve been particularly stung by these extra fees lately, as I got married in August and most people from England couldn’t make it due to travel restrictions. So they sent across a little present instead.

Then it was immediately my birthday, so there were more gifts I ended up paying almost the same value of the present to receive.

I’ve now spent around €150 in postal fees on delivery since July.

All in all, the cost to deliver a parcel for my family and friends and the charges I end up paying when it gets here matches or outweighs the value of the item.

Fees of €7.31 applied to a parcel labelled as ‘gift’ on the customs form for items worth a total of £20. Delivery charges paid in England are £14.10. Photo: Karli Drinkwater

We’re usually talking about something little, some tea and chocolates perhaps, but although low in monetary value, these items are priceless when you know someone has taken the time to think of you and send you a gesture.

But it’s now got to the point where I’ve asked people back home not to send anything, which is sad, let’s face it – especially as Christmas is coming and the exchanging of gifts is going to effectively come to an end.

Others have got in touch to say it’s happening to them too. Jess in Tuscany reported that she paid €35 for receiving an item marked as ‘gift’.

Only on Monday, I groaned as I received another notice of an attempted delivery of a parcel from England – with the fees due as usual. What was once a joy now has me belligerently swearing every time I tentatively open the mailbox.

I used to love the courier. They were the bearer of surprise and delight. Now I pull back the curtain and grab my purse in exasperation every time I see them clutching my goodies.

This particular parcel was sent over 9 weeks ago and was sent tracked with 3-5 days delivery.

Not only are residents in Italy getting charged for gifts, readers have reported that the delivery time is excessively delayed, which I have repeatedly experienced too.

In some cases, the parcel never reaches its destination with no clear explanation as to why.

For Jessica in Rome, she said her mum had sent her a present she had personally made by hand. It had “sentimental value”, which is something you can’t claim compensation for – and had it arrived, she’d have had to pay €5 to receive it.

I received news of another example of the procedure, where a resident in Italy paid €10 to receive a T-shirt from the UK.

Although not everyone has been hit by these charges, making the situation even murkier.

Mira in Rome managed to evade paying postal fees on her low-value parcels, even if based on others’ experience this seems to be down to chance.

Since these charges have only just started being applied halfway through the year on everything I receive from outside the EU, I wondered whether the fees on gifts in particular were a mistake.

Why are gifts getting taxed?

New EU regulations mean people now have to pay VAT charges on all parcels from outside the bloc, a measure that came into force on July 1st, six months later than scheduled due to the pandemic.

Nevertheless, despite the rule slipping in halfway through the year and it being applicable to all purchased items of any value, there is still an exemption for low-value gifts.

The EU’s taxation and customs union website reports that private packages with a value of up to €45 “are not subject to prohibitions or restrictions,” and the customs and finance authorities of various countries, including Austria, Finland, and Germany, also say on their websites that gifts of up to €45 are not subject to customs duty or VAT charges.

In that case, will these levies be recognised as an error and be dropped?

Looking at my receipts, there’s a breakdown of diritti postali (handling charge) and the VAT – which shouldn’t be applied. The handling fees of the post service or courier are always much higher. In the example of my first package, out of €22.57 of charges, €22.20 were for UPS’s handling fees.

In another, smaller item, I was charged €2.00 handling fee by Poste Italiane and €0.26 for the customs fee.

The website of the Italian postal service, Poste Italiane, stated, “If the item is not of a commercial nature (as the object is sent between private individuals on an occasional basis and without remuneration) and its intrinsic value is less than 45 euros, no charge is required.”

However, as we have experienced, that’s not been communicated yet as many residents in Italy continue to report paying fees on gifts of this nature.

Photo: Ina Fassbender / AFP

As of September 21st, The Local had not received a response from Poste Italiane to a request for clarification on why in practice Italian residents are being charged to receive low-value gift packages.

And it’s still happening on every single gift item I receive, whether that’s delivered by the Italian postal system or a private courier.

For now, it seems gifts are being bundled together with all items and no distinction is being made between goods purchased online and a hand-knitted scarf sent from your granny.

The EU taxation and customs website noted, “Customers in the EU will only receive the goods bought after the VAT has been paid.”

Online sellers need to register with the EU’s VAT ‘One Stop Shop’ to clear customs “in order to avoid VAT being levied upon importation and to therefore speed up the release for free circulation of the goods”.

So this explains why so many parcels are getting stuck and taking weeks and months to be delivered, but it only applies to sellers who may not have registered with the EU’s import system – and it doesn’t account for low-value gifts that shouldn’t be swept along with these changes.

Residents in Italy are in a frustrating phase of knowing these charges shouldn’t apply but having to pay them anyway.

For now, there is at least one item that can be sent without getting taxed at the door: the written word.

The Local spoke to VAT and tax experts Sarah Shears and Philip Munn, who both confirmed that there should be no charges on letters or cards.

So at least we’ll still be able to keep loved ones on our Christmas card list, even if there won’t be any tax-free figgy pudding.

The Local is continuing to look into the current rules in the EU and in Italy, and will provide updates as we receive more information.

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BREXIT

Driving licences: How does situation for Brits in Italy compare to rest of Europe?

As UK driving licence holders in Italy still wait for answers regarding another extension or a long-awaited deal for the mutual exchange of British and Italian licences post-Brexit, we look at how the situation compares to that of their counterparts across Europe.

Driving licences: How does situation for Brits in Italy compare to rest of Europe?

When Britain left the EU at the end of 2020, the British and Italian authorities hadn’t reached a reciprocal agreement on driving licences.

However, UK licence holders living in Italy were granted a 12-month grace period in which they could continue to drive on their British licences in Italy.

READ ALSO: Q&A: Your questions answered about driving in Italy on a British licence

This was then further extended for another 12 months until the end of 2022.

The UK government announced on December 24th, 2021 that British residents of Italy who didn’t convert their UK licence to an Italian one could continue to use it until December 31st, 2022.

That’s the latest official directive from the authorities, with no decision made on what will happen from January 1st, 2023.

The question on a UK-Italy driving licence agreement rolls on. (Photo by FABIO MUZZI / AFP)

The latest extension – while providing more time – hasn’t ruled out the need to take the Italian theory and practical driving tests and the clock is ticking again with just over six months left of this grace period.

READ ALSO: How do you take your driving test in Italy?

In fact, the authorities recommend sitting the Italian driving exams whatever the outcome, just in case. The process is known to take months, so UK licence holders find themselves once again taking a gamble on waiting for an accord to be reached or taking the plunge by starting preparations for the tests.

As things stand, the latest update to the driving guidance on the British government’s ‘Living in Italy’ webpage in January states:

“If you were resident in Italy before 1 January 2022 you can use your valid UK licence until 31 December 2022,” however, “you must exchange your licence for an Italian one by 31 December 2022. You will need to take a driving test (in Italian).”

The guidance then states: “The British and Italian governments continue to negotiate long-term arrangements for exchanging driving licences without needing to take a test.”

The Local contacted the British Embassy in Rome to ask for an update on the situation, to which they responded:

“Rest assured the Embassy continues to prioritise the issue of UK driving licence validity in Italy and we continue to engage with the Italian government on this issue.”

Presently, the UK’s new ambassador to Italy, Edward Llewellyn, is touring all 20 regions of Italy and no updates on the driving licence have been given in the meantime.

Could there be a deal which sees all UK licence holders in Italy – those who registered their intent to exchange, those who didn’t, those who did register intent but haven’t been able to finalise the process, and future UK licence holders who move to Italy – able to continue using their UK licences in Italy or easily exchange them for Italian ones without having to sit a driving test?

READ ALSO: ‘Anyone can do it’: Why passing your Italian driving test isn’t as difficult as it sounds

It’s still hard to say, as the authorities continue to advise UK licence holders to sit their Italian driving test, while stating that the two governments are still working on an agreement.

The embassy’s most recent announcement was a Facebook post in April acknowledging that “many of you are concerned” about the issue.

“We continue to work at pace to reach a long-term agreement with Italy, so that residents can exchange their UK driving licences without taking a test, as Italian licence holders can in the UK,” the embassy stated.

British residents of Italy can use their driving licenses until the end of this year, the government has confirmed.

British residents of Italy can presently use their driving licences until the end of this year. Photo by PACO SERINELLI / AFP

The embassy reiterated the need for UK licence holders to consider the possibility of obtaining an Italian driving licence via a test, stating: “It is important that you currently consider all your options, which may include looking into taking a driving test now.”

READ ALSO: Getting your Italian driving licence: the language you need to pass your test

So is it true that most European nations have reached successful agreements with the UK over reciprocal driving licence recognition and exchange and the Italian deal is lagging behind?

The evidence suggests so.

UK licence exchange agreements across Europe

As things stand, Italy and Spain are the only European countries where licence exchange negotiations are ongoing.

British drivers living in Spain are becoming increasingly disgruntled at the lack of solutions, as authorities have still made no decision on exchanging driving licences or reaching a deal.

UK licence holders in Spain are currently in limbo, unable to drive until they either get a Spanish driving licence or a deal is finally reached between Spanish and UK authorities for the mutual exchange of licences post-Brexit.

Since May 1st 2022, drivers who’ve been residents in Spain for more than six months and who weren’t able to exchange their UK licences for Spanish ones cannot drive in Spain.

French and British authorities reached a licence exchange agreement in June 2021, considered a generous one for UK licence holders residing in France as those with licences issued before January 1st 2021 can continue using their UK licences in France until either the licence or the photocard nears expiry.

Sweden and the UK reached a deal even earlier in March 2021. British people resident in Sweden can exchange their UK driving licences for an equivalent Swedish one, without needing to take a test, just as they could when the country was a member of the European Union. 

In Portugal, resident UK licence holders can continue to use their valid UK licences until December 31st 2022 but they must exchange their licences for Portuguese ones before that date.

Other EU nations which have decided to allow UK licence holders residing in their countries to swap their driving licences without having to take a driving test include Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Switzerland.   

There are slight variations in the conditions between countries, and some say you “can exchange”, others that you “must exchange” and most encourage UK licence holders to swap “as soon as possible”. In Greece, UK licences continue to be valid without any restrictions or deadlines for exchange.

That leaves Italy and Spain as the two EU/EEA countries where a deal on a straightforward exchange or long-term recognition of UK licences among residents is still hanging in the balance.  

The only question that’s left is why. 

Why are the driving rights of all Britons who resided in Italy before December 31st 2020 not part of the other protected rights they enjoy under the Withdrawal agreement? 

And why is it taking so long to reach an exchange deal?

So far, Italian and British officials have not provided answers to these questions.

The Local will continue to ask for updates regarding the use of British driving licences in Italy.

Are you a British resident in Italy affected by this issue? We’d like to hear your thoughts. Please leave a comment below this article or email the Italian news team here.

Find more information on the UK government website’s Living in Italy section.

See The Local’s latest Brexit-related news updates for UK nationals in Italy here.

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