Ordering by Mail ; (Lack of) Free Trade with Thailand.

One source of entertainment we lack in Bangkok are the popular (all over Europe) British television crime series. Fortunately at present TrueVisions TV broadcasts some quite old episodes of 'Midsomer Murders'.

We decided to spend some money, and ordered basically all the episodes of 'A Touch of Frost', a slow paced British crime serie with some British humor and a human touch. The price, when ordering with Amazon U.K., was around 270 baht per episode (of about 100 minutes), which we found a bit pricey, but still acceptable. This was actually the first time we ordered something from Amazon

The items were dispatched by 'surface' mail, and arrived within the next two weeks. The first batch comprised about 6 DVDs, and was delivered by the postman, who charged us 7 baht for his efforts.

'A Touch of Frost'. Available online by Amazon and recommended. But not coming without import duties and extra value added tax in Thailand, increasing the price by about 40 %.

A few days later the main bulk of DVDs arrived (14 DVD in all) in a package weighting about 1.1 kg. We had to go and pick this up at the Phrakanong Post Office. With it came a note from Customs indicating we were to pay 900 baht in import duties (30% of the estimated value of the items) and on top of that another 300 baht of value added tax (VAT). So the price of our little online order was raised by about 40%, which was a little unpleasant surprise. Most likely the size and the weight of the package 'caused' these extra costs, which were not charged when receiving a smaller package. On the other hand, from experience in the past we know that custom charges can be rather arbritrary. We remember from ordering 'vitamins' online years back that sometimes they were delivered without any added import duties, sometimes with a rather hefty surcharge.

Surely, import duties all over the world, have not yet been abolished. We know that Thailand was negotiating free trade agreements with various countries, though these talks seem to have been mostly suspended after Thaksin Shinawatra disappeared from the scene. What we did not expect was that there would still be such hefty surcharges on simple consumer goods such as DVDs. And remember, this happens while pirated DVDs, including many recently produced movies, and long-running TV series, are available at cheap prices along Sukhumvit Road (and likely many more places in Bangkok).

Maybe one advice could be : when you order a collection of items online, such as books of DVDs, have them delivered piece by piece (may cost more though), not as one bulky item. Most likely the size of the package makes the goods more likely to be charged with custom duties (and value added tax).

The Customs Department is responsible for the collection of customs taxes and duties. The following other responsibilities are also listed on their website :

  • Collection of other import and export taxes on behalf of other government agencies such as value added tax (VAT), excise tax, and municipal tax;
  • Supervision of imports and exports to ensure compliance with relevant laws and regulations;
  • Prevention and suppression of smuggling, tax and duty evasion including other Customs offences;
  • Promotion of manufacturing and export through tax measures; and
  • Facilitation of international trade.

If you go to the website, then choose English language, and go (menu left close to buttom) to Integrated Tariff Database, then click Custom Tariff, then click Decree 2550, you will find the tariffs for a multitude of goods. We browsed through it just a bit (could not find the tariff for DVDs actually) and were quite amazed when noticing that tariffs on some very ordinary goods are still very high. Many tariffs are in the 30-60 % range, but tariffs of 100% are also mentioned.

Examples of Custom Tariffs :
Coffee 40%
Carpets 100%
Tableware, kitchenware, porcelain 80%
Nuclear Reactor (really, mentioned as such) 30%
Cars, Hearses and Prison Vans 200% (Ambulances 30%)
Pianos 40-50%
Paintings, Drawings and Pastels 60%
Tobacco 60%
Contact lenses 35%
SLR cameras 40%
Wrist-watches 40%
Most footwear (including leather shoes, and sport shoes) 100%
Vacuum Cleaners 80%
Shavers 40%
Microwave Ovens 40%
Headphones 60%
Washing Machines 30%
Refrigerators 60% (Asean only 5%)

One can conclude from the above lists that certain items, if possible, should not be bought while in Thailand. Of course, one might need a refrigerator and microwave oven, and luckily these items may also be produced in Thailand.
On the other hand, it may be better to buy your expensive camera or wrist-watch outside the country. One caveat : VAT rates in Thailand are fixed at 7 % for most goods sold. In many countries (like in Europe) VAT rates may be more like something close to 25 %, negating most of a potential benefit. But surely, even then you would find much cheaper sports shoes in your home country.
The best way to find the 'correct' price of an item, is probably to do a search online and see for how much goods are sold there. Of course, you can not import them for that price, but at least you know how much you are paying more than you would possibly want to.

Add-on (and correction) : we received an email from a reader, which pointed this out.

The following information is separately given regarding Postal Parcels in particular. I guess this covers most 'imports' that are not obviously business-related. Postal parcels are divided into three groups (group 3 comprises 'other parcels'). This info is copied from the Customs Department website.

Group 1 : Postal items sent by mail and the value of each does not exceed 1,000 baht, or trade samples of no commercial value are exempted from duty. The Customs officers will deliver such items to the Communication Authority of Thailand for further distribution to the consignees.
[this explains why small parcels can be received without paying customs charges]

Group 2 Postal items, regardless of the number of packages, sent by mail as personal effects, gifts or trade samples of no commercial nature sent at the same time by one consigner to another consignee or arrived simultaneously with a declared value not exceeding 20,000 baht and regardless of the implied amount of duties payable, the customs officers will independently make assessment of their value and deliver such items to the Communication Authority of Thailand for delivery to the consignees from whom duties will be collected on behalf of the Customs.
[comment on 'independently make assessment' : this clarifies why the amount of customs duty can be different from what you would expect after reviewing the customs tariffs database, there is apparently an arbitrary component]