As Covid restrictions continue, many families with relatives abroad will be prevented from giving presents in person again this Christmas and, instead, have to send them through the post.
As this is Britainâ€™s first post-Brexit Christmas, the rules for sending items to the EU have changed, and you now need to state the value of what you are sending. Then you can look for the best-priced option â€“ and also make sure the goods are not prohibited from the post.
Posting to the EU
If you are sending something from England, Scotland and Wales you need to fill out and attach a customs declaration form to your package. Anyone posting from Northern Ireland does not.
These forms are for local customs authorities in the country to which you are posting the item to make sure the goods are allowed in and to calculate if there are duties and taxes to be paid.
They explain what is in the package â€“ a gift, document or a returned item, for example â€“ as well as an exact description of what it is and the quantity, weight and value. Different forms are needed depending on whether the item is valued at over or under Â£270. Taxes, duties and a clearance fee may be due and depend on the value of what is being sent. Gifts from Britain valued at less than â‚¬45 (Â£38) are exempt from VAT or other charges.
Customs charges for each country vary and are set by the authorities there. For example, VAT in Austria and Bulgaria is 20%, while in Greece it is 24% and Hungary 27%.
There are numerous companies to choose from when posting abroad, from Royal Mail to many courier companies, all with varying prices. How much it costs depends on weight and size of your parcel, its destination and how quickly you want it to arrive.
The MoneySavingExpert website says the weight of the package is the most important factor. For items of less than 1kg, using Royal Mail usually works out the cheapest, it says, and heavier packages typically get cheaper quotes from courier firms such as Hermes, UPS, TNT and DPD.
For example, the cheapest option for sending an 800g package to France with Royal Mail is Â£9.50 while a courier (Hermes in this case) is Â£13.16, according to the ParcelHero comparison site. But if you send a 4kg package to France from the UK, the price is Â£19.72 via DPD, much less than the Â£32.88 quoted by Parcelforce Worldwide, which is part of Royal Mail.
There are a number of comparison sites where you can enter the weight and dimensions of your item and where it is going, which will them prompt prices from some of the main courier firms. ParcelHero, My Parcel Delivery and Worldwide Parcel Services all compare couriers.
MoneySavingExpert also highlights the fact that if you are buying a gift from an online retailer, it is almost always cheaper to get the company to send it directly to the recipient, rather than you getting the item and sending it on. It can even be free, as going over a certain threshold, such as Â£50, often prompts free delivery.
For example, sending a present of a Pictionary board game through House of Fraser to Ireland will cost an additional Â£5.83 in shipping costs. But if you buy the game and do it yourself, according to quotes from ParcelHero, the cheapest option is Â£12.64.
What cannot be sent?
It is common sense that some items will be banned or restricted from the post â€“ drugs, guns and fake currency are all unsurprisingly on the list from the Post Office. The lists are supposed to prevent customers sending hazardous, illegal or fragile substances, or lodging large claims for lost valuables.
Couriers reserve the right to refuse to carry such items or, if they discover the contents of a parcel are illegal or unsafe, to destroy them.
However, there are some less likely items. Aerosols, such as deodorant, cannot be sent in international mail, nor can lottery tickets, flowers, fresh fruit and vegetables. Some items can be sent within the UK, such as small bottles of gin and nail varnish, but not abroad.
Observer readers have been baffled in the past to find goods such as confectionery, designer shoes or photos banned by some courier companies. The Post Office tells customers that everyday items such as aerosols and perfumes are considered dangerous under travel legislation, and says it is up to the consumer to check whether or not an item is prohibited, or restricted.
Getting it there in one piece
Citizens Advice last week called for the communications regulator, Ofcom, to issue fines to parcel companies which negligently failed to deliver packages in the UK. The call came after the charity announced a league table of all of such companies. It found none of the leading delivery firms rated highly in terms of customer service, with significant problems in getting problems resolved.
â€œWhile this should be a wake-up call for firms to strive to deliver a five-star service for consumers, we have serious reservations about how far they will improve if left to their own devices,â€ says Citizens Advice chief executive Dame Clare Moriarty. â€œOur findings show itâ€™s time for Ofcom to come forward and introduce tougher rules across the board.â€
The charity advised consumers to check the reviews of companies to find out how they dealt with complaints and refunds.
Discounts site Wethrift advises people sending abroad to use secure packaging, including bubble wrap and heavy cardboard boxes, as they will be passing through, at the very least, conveyor belts in two transport depots.