Have you anything to declare?

Fax machines, CDs, alcohol - it's all too easy to sail through the green channel and inadvertently into trouble. Ian Hunter explains how to stay on the right side of the law
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The Independent Online
Only a maximum of three summer holidays to go before the duty- free concession on journeys within the European Union expires. Yet many travellers have only a limited knowledge of what it takes to make a smuggler. Harry (not his real name) does not look like a smuggler. The respectable professional became one after he recently took a fax machine through the green "no goods to declare" lane at Heathrow airport. He comments: "It did not feel like I was committing an offence."

Harry's attitude to what he did is not uncommon. Nevertheless, it is an offence, with a range of penalties: goods can be confiscated, fines levied and prison sentences imposed.

Every visitor to the United Kingdom is allowed to import some tobacco and alcohol free of excise duty. The alcohol allowance for each trip is two litres of still wine, a litre of spirits or two litres of fortified wine, or a further four bottles of still wine. Smokers are allowed 200 cigarettes, or 100 cigarillos, or 50 cigars or 250g of tobacco.

Duty-free goods are available on cross-Channel ferries and on aircraft. Eurostar rail travellers, by contrast, are not offered such goods on board or at the terminal. Such goods are only available from Euro Tunnel (as opposed to Eurostar) at the terminals at either end of the tunnel for travellers on Le Shuttle.

Apart from drink, tobacco and perfume, visitors from the EU can buy up to pounds 75 worth of goods in the duty-free shops. Those arriving from outside the EU can import goods worth up to pounds 145 from duty-free shops or elsewhere.

Since the arrival of the single European market, goods bought in ordinary shops, subject to local taxes, are no longer liable for duty. Drinkers can import up to 110 litres of beer, 20 litres of fortified wine and a further 90 litres of still wine. This quota can be exceeded if the Customs officials are convinced it is for personal use.

The Customs and Excise leaflet Smuggling is a Criminal Offence comments: "If you are carrying goods above any one of these levels you will, when challenged anywhere in the UK, have to satisfy Customs and Excise officers that they are for your own personal use. If you cannot do so, all your alcohol and tobacco goods may be seized and you may face a civil penalty or criminal prosecution."

Customs duty is levied at between 4 and 24 per cent on various categories of goods, although most goods fall within the 5 to 15 per cent band.

If the pounds 75 or pounds 145 allowance is exceeded, duty is charged on the value of any goods that straddle the limit and all that exceed it. VAT is then levied on the combined value of the goods and the duty paid. This total can be paid by credit card at the point of entry.

Duty is assessed on the price actually paid for the goods. Customs and Excise officials will normally request a receipt as proof of purchase. Some receipts are treated with caution. The Customs & Excise officers usually know the real value of goods imported, particularly new goods, where the manufacturer can provide guidance.

Obtaining a false receipt is unlikely to deceive. Secondhand goods are more difficult to value. However the Customs & Excise department retains experts to value unusual purchases. These experts are unlikely to be convinced by a receipt indicating that the goods were bought for a tenth of their real value.

Customs officers keep an eye out for regular travellers they consider to be potential smugglers. George, a management consultant, comments: "I was flying regularly to New York and decided while I was there to stock up with CDs - which were much cheaper than at home. I was stopped by a Customs officer in the green zone carrying pounds 200 worth of CDs. Luckily, I was only made to pay the duty owing. But they did caution that they would keep an eye out for me in the future."

George was one of the fortunate ones. It is open to Customs officers - as an alternative to merely levying duty - to inflict more serious financial penalties. Smuggled goods can be confiscated and become the property of the Crown. As an alternative to taking the smuggler to court, the Customs officials may impose a financial penalty by a process known as compounding. The penalty levied is related to the price of the goods seized, and the duty and VAT that would have been paid if the goods had been declared. Once the on-the-spot fine has been paid the goods are returned to the smuggler.

More serious cases can end up in the magistrates' court where a fine may be imposed. The very serious "bootlegging cases can result in a Crown Court appearance with the possibility of an unlimited fine an up to seven years in prison. Anything to declare?

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