One of the truly wonderful things about shopping in Thailand is claiming a VAT refund, something I’ve done many times when I’m in the country on a tourist visa. Currently a 7% addition onto most things you buy, getting a refund of that amount can really add up.
Before you rush off to claim your VAT refund though, there are certain things you should know. Who can claim a VAT refund on shopping in Thailand, how do you get all the relevant paperwork and where do you go to get it?
Who Can Get a VAT Refund in Thailand? – Thailand is actually quite lenient with their qualifications for a VAT refund. You must be a tourist , visiting business person, or other non-Thai visitor, you can’t be a member of an airline crew (any airline, not just Thai) and you must be leaving Thailand via an international airport within 60 days of purchasing the items.
Plus, the items must be leaving with you, (ie: you can’t buy them as gifts for someone in Thailand, they must be going home with you).
On top of that, you must have spent a total of at least 5,000 baht during your stay, (currently $166), at stores that display the ‘VAT Refund For Tourists’ sign.
If you fit into all these parameters, then getting a VAT refund will be pretty easy.
What Types of Things Qualify For VAT Refunds? – When you shop in Thailand, most things do qualify for a refund, but with some parameters.
a) You must spend at least 2,000 baht (currently $67) at any shop you apply for refund paperwork through. That means, if you get to the checkout, your purchase is 1,800 baht and you know you’re likely to spend the minimum 5,000 baht on your entire trip in Thailand, then it’s worth grabbing something else for 200 baht, to get to your 2,000 baht minimum. Don’t forget, 7% of 2,000 baht is 140 baht ($3.75) and is more than half of the 200 baht purchase price of the additional item you just grabbed.
b) Purchases at stores that display the ‘VAT Refund for Tourists’ sign are the only ones where you can get refund application paperwork. So, if you’re planning on doing shopping at local markets like Chatuchak Weekend Market, make sure you choose the larger stores, as some of them are able to process the VAT refund.
But, before you start thinking there’s a catch, stores that are able to offer the refund service include just about every store in every one of Bangkok’s more than 100 shopping malls. They also include jewelry shops, electronics shops, perfume stores, Thai silk stores, larger handicraft shops and on and on. In fact, when I’ve been shopping specifically to get the VAT refund, more than 80% of the shops I normally shop at already give it.
c) Items that do not qualify for refunds include anything illegal – so pirated software, computer games, DVDs, fake designer t shirts and Louis Vuitton bags etc – obviously, none of these qualify for a refund. Also, if you buy diamonds or other gem stones, these also don’t qualify. Finally, if you’re a gun fanatic and want to buy some cool Asian weaponry (firearms) on your trip, you can’t get a refund on those either.
You may also find the VAT officials are sometimes contrary on allowing applications on certain items. I met someone who couldn’t get a refund on a 200-year-old sword (legally bought at a high-end antiques shop in Chiang Mai), as he was told it came under the ‘fire arms’ section and not ‘antiques’. But, only a couple of months later, another acquaintance got a full refund for a similar item. No questions asked.
This is Thailand and where consistency may occur in most western countries, it doesn’t always happen here. Not much you can do about it.
What Must You Do Before Leaving the Shop? – Some tourists get confused about applying for the refund and think just showing up at the VAT Refund counter at the airport with valid receipts is good enough to get their money back. It’s not.
Once you’ve paid for your purchases, before you leave any store that displays the ‘VAT Refund’ sign, you must make sure the store gives you all the necessary paperwork and you must get this at every store you shop at.
Don’t worry though, it’s easy. All you need is your passport (or a photocopy, if you prefer to leave yours at your hotel) and the store will do all the rest. Once finished, they’ll hand you a completed and certified form with your receipts attached. Do not lose it, as without this, you cannot apply for the refund.
Where Do You Go to Get It? – Getting it couldn’t be easier. Simply show your receipts to a Customs Officer before checking in (the airline desk can show you where to go). This is so he/she can check your luggage if they feel like it, to verify you have the items with you. I’ve left Thailand four times though in the last 10 years where I had items that qualified for the refund and only once did the Customs Officer ask to check what I had bought, and that was in the case of a $2,000 laptop. I have heard however that they have become much stricter, so it’s likely the goods you bought will be looked at.
Do be aware though, on some of the higher end items, if the Customs officer inspects them and discovers they are not the same items you supposedly bought (ie: don’t try to substitute other lower value items after returning the higher priced ones, as some people apparently try to do), you will not receive a refund and, as it’s against the law in Thailand, you could end up not on your flight but in a Thai jail.
Once your items have been checked, check-in at your airline check-in desk, go through passport control and ask an airport employee where the ‘VAT Refund Office’ is. Give them all the forms you were given at the stores you shopped at, along with your passport and airline ticket and wait a couple of minutes. If your refund is less than 30,000 baht (approximately $1,000), they’ll give you the cash in Thai baht on the spot.
If however the amount is more than 30,000 baht, don’t expect to be given the money there and then. The VAT Refund Office will ask for your bank details and they’ll send you your refund via bank transfer.
You may also find, if you’re claiming a large amount of money, officials at the VAT Refund Office may ask to look at any of the items you’re carrying in your hand luggage.
I’ve never had that done, but I do know someone who had and they said it took less than 10 days to arrive in their bank account, minus a 100 baht fee (about $3.20) for the service plus the bank transfer fee every bank charges. (So, for instance, on their refund amount of around $1,500, they received $1,478 in their account – they just paid a $22 fee).
Photo – Siam Center fashion displays, Bangkok, Thailand