You think it’d be easy to get free money from the government — but not. Claiming VAT refunds in France can be confusing AF — but the good news is nearly everyone’s confused, which means that there’s a lot of let’s say “gentle instruction,” from retailers and customs officials accustomed to dealing with people who don’t understand what’s going on. There are a ton of restrictions and exclusions, and the amount returned will vary on a bunch of different factors (not least how you want your money refunded, with cash coming at a slightly disadvantageous rate) — but know that if you stick with it, you’ll save about 12% on many of your big purchases. And note that if you’re buying luxury French brands, the savings can really add up — for example, the same exact pieces from Louis Vuitton can be 30% cheaper in France than in the U.S. Get shopping!
What is VAT?
VAT is an acronym for value-added tax. One of the ways governments make money is by taxing goods. In the U.S., that’s done transparently, in the form of additional sales taxes, usually paid to the city or state. In Europe, it’s done via VAT. VAT is included in the “final” price of a product — so when you pay 12€ for a book, you’re paying exactly 12€, not 12€ plus 6% or whatever your local sales tax might be. VAT in France typically makes up 20% of the price of a product. (For a complete guide to VATs around the world, see here.)
What are VAT refunds in France?
Pleasantly, many European governments offer partial VAT refunds to “visitors” to the country. That means you can request a refund for part of what you’ve spent on goods when traveling to France (and many other countries in Europe). There are, of course, all sorts of limitations to this.
How much is the VAT refund?
Knowing that the VAT is 20% of a good’s price, many visitors expect a refund of 20% of what they’ve spent. This isn’t correct: The refund is only 12% (on many/most goods, but not all). The other 8% goes to covering administration costs.
Who qualifies as a “visitor”?
You probably already know if you don’t qualify as a visitor. If you’re just a regular American, traveling to France on vacation, you’re probably a visitor. Unless you hold a residency permit and/or spend a substantial amount of time in France, you’re probably a visitor.
Students who are in France on a visa lasting more than six months are not eligible for VAT refunds.
What kinds of restrictions are there?
There are many, but a lot of them make sense. Purchases like meals and hotel stays aren’t eligible for VAT refunds. Purchases that would be very strange for a visitor to make — like a car — are similarly not eligible for a refund. Other purchases that don’t qualify: weapons, pharmaceuticals, tobacco, postage stamps, and “cultural relics more than 50 years old.”
Another one of the rules is that you must exit the country in question within three months of the purchase, taking the item with you.
The most important restriction is probably the minimum spend: In France, you need to spend 100.01 euros, at the same shop, on the same day, to qualify. This means that the authorities aren’t deluged with a million claims against 5€ purchases. It also means that you might want to be sure that the big-ticket shopping you do is concentrated in fewer shops, if possible — so one 240€ purchase rather than three 80€ purchases.
This can be more complicated than you might think, especially at department stores. There, concessions like Louis Vuitton or Diptyque aren’t fully financially integrated within the department store itself, so they’ll prepare their own tax forms. It means that if you spend 50€ at Vuitton (uh, unlikely, but you get the idea) and 60€ on books elsewhere in the store, neither purchase would qualify for the refund, because they’re considered separate purchases and don’t reach the 100.01€ threshold.
One more thing: Your purchase can’t be used (or worn) (or look like it is used or worn) before leaving. This is most frequently an issue if you buy luggage you want to use for your return trip. Practically, I know a lot of people who’ve bought luggage and claimed their refund, without any trouble.
VAT refunds in France: How does it work?
The most important thing is to go prepared. When making your purchase, you’ll need to inform the sales rep that you intend to claim your refund. You’ll need your passport (as proof of your visitor status). You might need to fill out a form with some of your details (this process is increasingly more digitized, so you probably won’t have to, like, hold or use a pen at any point.) You may also need to show your return plane ticket, as proof that you’ll be going home within the required three months, but it varies from store to store and anecdotally I’ve never been asked for this.
Some stores offer immediate refunds, but don’t count on this, as they’re the minority. More likely, you’ll need to hold on to your forms and deal with it later.
This sounds like a lot of hassle. Are there alternatives?
Yes! There are services for VAT refunds in France that will handle most of the details. The most popular is Global Blue, though there are newer, app-based services like Wevat. If you’re mostly shopping at luxury retailers, many of them use Global Blue, and the process is super quick and all digital.
You’ll need to validate your exit from the EU. Most likely, you’re doing this at an airport. (If you’re visiting multiple EU countries on the same trip, you can do it at your point of departure.) You’ll see signs all over the airport for tax refunds — be sure you have your passport, tax forms, receipts, and the actual goods purchased at hand.
The next part of the process is usually quicker and easier than it seems. First, you’ll validate the tax forms at the PABLO kiosks. (I don’t know why they’re called PABLO.) Everything should be submitted digitally, without the need to mail anything to anyone. You’ll receive your refund in up to a few weeks, though it can be as quick as a few days, either by refund to your credit card or bank transfer/check.
But can I get cash back for my VAT refunds in France?
You can, with Global Blue — basically you process all of your forms except the customs validation while still in Paris, get your cash, use your credit card as a guarantee, and promise to return your validated forms after going through the airport, within 21 days. Global Blue has an incredibly long case study on its website detailing the refund-centric adventures of “Anna from Russia [who] visited Austria with her friends and shopped in Vienna.” See here for more details.