How to Avoid Customs Charges from the UK to the USA

If you’re receiving a package from the USA whilst living in the UK, it will have to be cleared through customs before it can be delivered. 

If, like me, you’ve been stung with a “surprise” charge when your parcel arrives, you’ve probably wondered how best to (legally) avoid these sorts of customs charges when you get a delivery from the USA to the UK.

I’ve dug into ways of avoiding or reducing this charge, legitimately.

First you should know the actual rules – you will be charged customs duty if the value of the goods exceeds £135, unless the duty value comes to less than £7. The charge varies and is determined by the value of the goods, their origin and how they’re classified under the UK Trade Tariff.

If you need to pay customs, you’ll be contacted by Royal Mail or the courier service and have 3 weeks to pay the full amount before the goods are returned to the sender.

Some custom charges are unavoidable, but there are ways to lessen your customs charges legally. Here’s how!

Buy Cheaper Alternatives of the Same Product

Goods under £135 usually have no customs charge when imported from the USA. If what you’re looking to purchase is under this value, it’s unlikely that you will be charged extra at customs. 

If you’re looking to purchase items over this amount, look for cheaper alternatives or “dupes” of the goods to keep the price under this. 

There are loads of blogs about the best “dupes” – a good example is our very own articles on Olaplex dupes and Foreo Luna Dupes (though these are for UK buyers, but you get the idea).

Split Your Orders (If Delivery Is Cheap Enough)

This is one of those “obvious” ones that gets overlooked because people want all their items to arrive at the same time.

If you want to purchase multiple items, and don’t mind them turning up at different times, then order them at separate times rather than all in one go. This way, each parcel will be under the customs and duty threshold and you shouldn’t incur any extra charges. Remember, you’re charged per parcel, rather than per order.

Another option is to order at the same time, but ask the sender to send your items separately, or in fewer parcels. You’ll need to do some calculations on your customs and duty savings vs what you might pay in separate delivery charges, but sometimes it’s well worth it.

sending parcel as a gift to avoid custom charges

Have The Parcel Sent As a Gift

If your items are above £135, but below £630 and classed as a gift you will pay a lower charge at 2.5% and possibly even lower for some goods. 

If you have a friend or family member in the USA, you can get them to buy the goods on your behalf. Then, you can have them send the goods to you as a gift. HMRC will count the goods as a gift if this has been declared on the customs form. Note that some retailers won’t do this if you ask them – which is why it pays to have American friends!

Buy Direct From Individual Traders

Another way to minimise the customs cost is to have the seller send the goods directly to you. The government defines a gift as something bought and sent between two individuals.

Therefore if you’re buying from a platform like Etsy or similar, where usually the “company” is a one-person business, then you can ask them to send it direct from them to you.

However, when a product comes from a company these rules do not apply. Again, some individuals may or may not want (or be able) to do this, but it doesn’t hurt to ask!

Declare Some Goods as ‘No Commercial Value’

Having items sent as no commercial value rather than goods is another way to lower your customs cost. There are a few goods that are not subject to customs charges when sent this way. 

These goods are:

  • Children’s toys
  • Maps
  • Books
  • Antiques
  • Music

These goods do not actually cost a lot, so, therefore, many are classed as of no commercial value meaning that they are not subject to customs charges. If it’s a larger order, you’re probably better off checking with HMRC first about the exact rules, but it’s worth knowing that “NCV” or “No Customs Value” exists.

customs control zone

Import the Goods for Your Business

Although this isn’t strictly a way of reducing customs charges, it’s still a saving. If you’re a UK business owner and are importing goods from the USA, you will not have to pay the US sales VAT as long as you are a VAT registered business.

Instead, the standard UK 20% will be charged on import. This amount can then be claimed on your tax return as an expense. This will lessen the VAT you have to pay when importing American goods. 

However, bear in mind that the customs duty can not be reclaimed as a tax expense. Only the VAT and delivery charges can be! 

Buying When You’re In the USA

If it’s not urgent and you’ve got a trip planned, you can wait to buy the goods until the next time you’re on holiday in the USA, so you won’t have to pay customs duty at all if you are under the allowance set. You can bring in goods up to the value of £390, or £270 if you arrive by boat or private plane. 

If you exceed this allowance, you will have to pay tax, customs allowance and duty on the whole amount rather than just the amount that exceeds it, so it’s not worth trying to bend the rules. 

However, if you have worn the clothing item or have taken it out of its box depending on what it is, this will count as a used item. If there is no receipt and the tags have all been removed, then it is unlikely that you will have to pay customs duty.

Ensure that you have done all your research before using this method, as if your bag is searched and tags are found on the clothing then it will not count as a used item.

Some people just do not declare what they have bought overseas and hope that they don’t get stopped. We would not recommend doing this as you may end up paying a hefty amount, compared to what you would have paid if you had declared them in the first place. 

man coding goods

Ensure You’ve Coded Your Goods Correctly

The codes on goods are known as Customs Procedure Codes (CPCs). These identify the customs that goods are being entered and removed from. There are also commodity codes, which classify what the goods actually are. These codes are then used to calculate the customs duty that must be paid. 

Some goods are more difficult to classify than others, meaning that you may end up paying more custom charges than you would due to incorrectly coding them. 

The goods that are harder to classify include:

  • Computers and software
  • Edible goods, including fruit
  • Electrical equipment
  • Ceramics
  • Shoes and footwear
  • Herbal medicines and supplements
  • Leather
  • Organic chemicals
  • Leather
  • Iron and Steel
  • Plastics 
  • Rice
  • Textiles
  • Tobacco
  • Vehicles and parts
  • Wood

Therefore if it’s a large order and you’re not sure what customs code to use – it’s best to ask HMRC or an experienced shipping or customs agent. Some codes are far less than others, and some even 0% due to free trade deals, so it’s always worth checking you’ve got the right customs code.

Choosing Sea Freight vs Planes

Sometimes, VAT and duty amounts are often dependent on the mode of transport used to ship the goods to the UK. When importing, you can choose to use either sea freight or planes. However, the length of time to receive the goods may vary depending on the method that you choose. 

Sea freight can take any time from 3 – 6 weeks to arrive in the UK, depending on what state the goods have been shipped from. Once they arrive within the UK, they typically take a few days. This tends to be more cost-effective for clothing goods or bulk goods.

cargo ship loaded with goods

The other option, planes, will usually take 2-3 days to deliver your goods into the UK, or 10-12 days if you go for a cheaper option. Again, once within the UK, your goods will take a few days to be delivered to your address. 

The most cost-effective version of shipping will depend on the size and weight of your package. Air freight tends to be the cheapest option for goods weighing up to 300kg or high-value goods.

Weight is less relevant for sea freight and is instead calculated on size. If your goods are larger than 2 cubic metres, but less than 15 then sea freight is a cheaper option.

For items larger than this size, you may have to purchase your own container to bring the items across. Discover the freight costs for both sea freight and air freight, from the USA to the UK, provided by Transporteca. 

Where to Get Help with Customs and Duty

If you are planning on purchasing and importing anything mentioned above, it’s best to get help to ensure you are coding it correctly. You can hire a person to deal with customs for you, or get in touch with HMRC for non-legally binding classification advice.

You can also ask HMRC to give you a legally binding decision on your goods. This can be a good option if your goods are hard to classify and informal advice has not helped. Or, if you’re receiving a new type of product. However, this decision can take up to 120 days to be made so it may not be suitable if you’re on a time limit.  

A Note on Excise Duty 

Excise duty counts on tobacco and alcohol products imported into the UK from the USA. The taxes are specific to the type of product and are dependent on the commodity code of the product, as detailed above. You’ll probably need specialist help (as mentioned above) if you’re importing large amounts of drink, cigarettes, etc.

I hope that after reading this blog post, you understand how to lessen customs charges better. As you can see, there are legal ways to lessen the customs charges when importing goods from the USA to the UK.

However, some charges are inevitable and you need to make sure that you are legally declaring anything that you have to avoid further charges or getting in trouble with the law. It’s always best to ask a legal professional for advice if you are unsure about anything. Happy shopping!


I'm an ex-BBC food co-ord and committed cuisine nerd. My specialties are travel (I've been to over 50 countries), food, drink, the outdoors, and any geeky tech!

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