How My Two WOLF STREET Beer Mugs “Were Disappeared” in Spanish Customs: Gift Turns into Kafkaesque Ordeal
Many people report similar nightmares trying and failing to get their packages from non-EU countries out of Spanish customs.
By Nick Corbishley, for WOLF STREET:
In October last year, Wolf Richter, the publisher of this site, decided to send me two of his beautiful WOLF STREET beer mugs, emblazoned with a bedraggled Wolf howling the timeless pearl of wisdom, “Nothing goes to heck in a straight line.” Meant as a gift in recognition of my years of writing for WOLF STREET, the two mugs were dispatched in early October. They were supposed to arrive at my Barcelona apartment within 7-10 days. But they didn’t. Instead, I received a text message to my mobile phone from Spain’s postal service, Correos, informing me that Customs had withheld the package, as import duties had not been paid on its contents.
Thus began a Kafkaesque ordeal that has caused untold frustration and consumed countless hours of my time. I’ve tried phoning the organization indicated in the text message — ATD Postales, a specialized division of Correos responsible for processing the parcels withheld by Customs — eight times and have only been attended by an operator on two occasions. The other times, either the call was not answered at all or I would be passed from one department to another, one operator to another, until the line eventually went dead. On the two occasions I did get to speak to an operator, I did not receive the follow-up call or email I was promised.
The same thing is happening to increasing numbers of Spaniards who buy goods or receive gifts from non-EU countries, only to find themselves trapped in a hellish labyrinth of delays, red tape, and extra costs that eventually lead many of them to simply cut their losses and abandon their efforts. In 2015 alone, around 490,000 packages were abandoned by their owners, according to El País.
If you live in Spain and buy anything from outside the EU worth more than €45, you’re supposed to pay 21% sales tax, along with a 2.5% import tariff. If you’re importing a product that is specially protected by even higher EU duties, such as a bike from China or a kimono from Japan, the tariff can be as much as 48% of the product’s value. The costs don’t end there. If you actually get through the whole bureaucratic rigmarole, pay the import dues requested and your package is finally released, you will probably also have to cover so-called “administrative costs” and the postage charges for the parcel’s delivery from Barajas Airport to your home.
This is all a necessary part of the fight against fraud and piracy, says Spain’s Tax Agency, which runs the customs service. An estimated 14% of counterfeit brand products enter Europe by post and express deliveries. And that number is apparently growing all the time. But so, too, is the number of Spaniards buying goods from outside the E.U. The tax agency’s response is to demand ever larger amounts of paperwork.
The problem is not just the volume of paperwork but also the procedural chaos that accompanies it. As I’ve discovered in the last three months, ADT Postales’ online platform has an annoying habit of crashing at the most inconvenient of times. Three times I’ve tried to upload a signed form chock full of personal data and information on the beer mugs (their provenance, estimated value, purpose…) onto the vintage ’90s website, only for the screen to freeze at the very last moment. Now I can’t even log on to the platform, as it no longer recognizes my password.
A Correos spokesman says the company is aware of the problems faced by people buying goods or just receiving presents from outside the EU, and even concedes that many of its own employees are not absolutely sure about the paperwork required sometimes. “We’ve even thought about preparing some kind of guidelines regarding the procedures for collecting packages,” he says. Now there’s a thought.
The decision on whether to hold onto a package depends on a host of factors including the origin of the goods, the route they have taken, and their value, says Spain’s Tax Agency. One postal worker in Barcelona told me that mostly it’s stuff ordered from Chinese online retailers or packages sent from Latin America that get held up, but in the last year-and-a-half — more or less since the EU’s trading relations have soured with the U.S. — the same fate is befalling more and more packages from the U.S.
If you don’t have a receipt for the contents of the package, which is generally the case when receiving a gift, getting the package released is apparently even harder. Even if the contents have little or no material value, you need to be able to prove what they are and how much they are worth.
Such was the case for José Baena, who before leaving Thailand sent himself a package that included books from a meditation course he’d studied there, his yoga instructor’s certificate, used clothes, a new t-shirt for his three-year old nephew, some photos and a few other mementos from his 18-month stay in the South East Asian country. On its arrival in Spain, the package went straight into limbo. Given its sentimental value, José did everything he could to get it back, including phoning ADT Postales once or twice a week every week for eleven months. In the end, his perseverance paid off.
Nacho Miñambres was not quite so “lucky.” On a trip back to Spain from his adopted home of Taiwan, he forgot to take with him his Taiwanese residence card. Since he needed the ID to be able to reenter Taiwan, his Taiwanese girlfriend sent the card to him by registered post in a small package together with a couple of cheap presents (sweets and a little teddy bear). The package never arrived. Nacho received a letter informing him that it had been withheld by customs. After weeks of emailing and phoning ADT Postales, he was finally told that the parcel had been sent back to Taiwan, where all trace of it was lost. Nacho ended up suing ADT Postales for damages.
The anecdotes are endless. Sol Domingo was told to pay €40 in administrative fees for a package whose contents (used clothes, sweets, dried chilli peppers…) were worth around $10. Luis Martínez had to pay €100 in duties and fees for a blanket that had been hand-woven by a friend in the U.S. My Tai Chi teacher says that every time he’s tried to order martial arts equipment and accessories from the U.S. in the last couple of years, they’ve been stopped by customs. The list goes on and on.
Affected victims have even set up an online advisory group to help other people navigate the maze. I’ve read a few of their threads over the past week, and will try to put some of their advice to work in the coming days, including a suggestion to bypass ADT Postales altogether and contact the Tax Office directly. My patience may be running out, but I’ve not yet lost all hope of being united with my two WOLF STREET beer mugs. If I do give up, this generous — and let’s face it, extremely practical — gift will either be “destroyed” (whatever that means) or get auctioned to the highest bidder. And that’s a fate I’d rather avoid. By Nick Corbishley, for WOLF STREET.
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