In late 2012, the Netherlands raised the standard VAT rate from 19% to a substantial 21%. VAT is the acronym for value-added tax, a consumption tax on the value added to an item at each step of its manufacture and distribution (as opposed to sales tax, which applies only to an item's eventual sale). Technical details aside, VAT means an extra cost to consumers; non-EU residents, however, are entitled to a VAT refund under certain circumstances—refunds that most tourists simply leave unclaimed because of the numerous steps involved.
Don't be one of them: follow these instructions to reclaim your money with a VAT refund.
Rules for Refunds
Shoppers must spend a minimum of 50 euro for each receipt on which they would like to claim a refund. Smaller purchases from multiple retailers cannot be combined to reach this minimum. The retailer must participate in the VAT refund initiative—be aware that not all stores do. Those that do will usually post an indication on the door, window or at the till; otherwise, be sure to ask anytime you spend upwards of 50 euro at any one retailer. (50 euro is the minimum purchase amount in the Netherlands; the amount varies for other EU countries.) VAT refund applications must be submitted within three months of the purchase date.
How to Claim a Refund: Step 1
The first step is to (1) request a tax-free application form or special tax-free purchase receipt from the merchant. The latter must mention your name, country of residence and passport number in addition to the purchase details (item description, price, and VAT); this may be printed or hand-written.
If you receive a tax-free form instead, be sure to fill it out in the store. Without the form or special receipt, the refund cannot be processed. Be sure to have your passport on hand, as you may be asked to present it upon purchase.
The second step takes place on the day of your EU departure or return to your country of residence.
If the Netherlands is your last (or only) destination in the EU, then this step will be completed at the Dutch border, and if you leave the country via Schiphol Airport, you're in luck, as all the facilities needed to apply for a VAT refund are located under this one roof.
(2) Visitors must have their tax-free forms plus receipts (or special tax-free receipts) stamped at the Dutch customs office. There are two customs offices at Schiphol, both at Departures 3: one before passport control, and another after passport control. You must present the necessary tax-free forms and receipts as well as the unused purchase items, your travel ticket, and proof of non-EU residency. (Note: If you miss this step, it's also possible to have your national customs office stamp your tax-free documents as proof of import.)
The last step varies by whether or not the retailer processes its VAT refunds independently or in cooperation with third-party refund services and which service it uses. Several refund services are stationed at Schiphol Airport to help travelers complete the refund process.
If you receive a tax-free refund form that is specific to a particular service, then your next course of action is either to (3) mail your documents to the refund service, or (if applicable) to submit them to one of the service's refund locations.
The refund services at Schiphol Airport all offer instant (cash or credit) refunds—a definite incentive to complete the refund process before take-off, as applicants otherwise have to wait some 30 to 40 days. The Global Blue service has three locations at Schiphol (Departures 3, Lounge 2 and Lounge 3), while the GWK Travelex at Schiphol Plaza is the refund location for both the Easy Tax-Free and Premier Tax-Free services.
If the retailer processes its own VAT refunds, you can mail the stamped documents back to the retailer, either from Schiphol or from your home country, and wait for your refund. This can be quite inconvenient if multiple retailers are involved, but with the correct paperwork, visitors can enlist a third-party service of their own to help out—namely, vatfree.com. For a fee, you can either enter your sales receipts online, then mail them to vatfree.com's postal address, or submit the receipts at the vatfree.com service desk (Departures 2) or in their handy drop-box next to the customs office.
That's it! While there are many variables (and a fair number of documents to collect), there are ultimately only three steps to a refund of up to 21% on your purchases.