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COST OF LIVING

Switzerland: How to get money back when cross-border shopping in Germany

Crossing into Germany to go shopping is usually cheaper - and that’s before you add the tax savings. Here’s how you can claim back tax when shopping in Germany.

Shopping trolleys lined up at a German supermarket. Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
Shopping trolleys lined up at a German supermarket. Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

There are a range of reasons why most things are cheaper in Germany than in Switzerland. 

While there are some exceptions to this – the most notable one being petrol – generally speaking you pay a premium on goods purchased in Switzerland. 

EXPLAINED: Why is Switzerland so expensive?

If you shop in Germany, you can also save on VAT, which is generally 19 percent and added to most goods. 

Here’s what you need to know. 

What are the tax rules for shopping in Germany? 

Residents of Switzerland, as a non-EU country, do not need to pay VAT in Germany on purchases over 50 euros. 

Your country of residence rather than nationality is important here. 

Therefore, a German living in Switzerland and shopping in Germany does not need to pay the tax. 

A Swiss living in Germany however would need to pay the amount. 

Importantly, you need to physically be in Germany when you make the purchase. 

In order to qualify for the tax exemption, you must bring the goods back to Switzerland with you. 

The specific rules for this are laid out by German Customs here, but they need to be either in your carry on or checked baggage, or in a car that you are travelling in personally. 

These rules are to ensure people are buying the goods for themselves rather than intending to sell them on. 

What kind of goods? 

Goods bought in Germany and taken back to Switzerland are exempt from VAT. 

You will generally however be required to pay tax on services rendered or completed in Germany. 

For instance, bus or train tickets in Germany, restaurant bills, hotel stays, massages etc. 

There are also a range of rules which apply to vehicles. 

If you are getting your car repaired, filling up with petrol, affixing bumpers, mirrors or other additions or even getting a car wash, you will need to pay VAT. 

How do I get the money back? 

Unfortunately, you do not get a discount at the place of purchase.

Instead, you need to claim the money back after you have purchased the product on which you paid the tax. 

In most large stores or shopping centres, you will be able to do this on site. 

You need to have a copy of the receipt and fill in the VAT refund form (Ausfuhrschein) with your name, address and Swiss residency permit number. 

You can get one of these forms at larger stores or you can download it and print it here. 

You will need to do one for each invoice. 

Once you have done that, you can take the completed form to the German customs office (Zoll), which you can find at most border crossings and get the paper stamped. 

Then, you need to return the paper to the place of purchase, where they will issue with a refund of the VAT. 

Some stores require you to return after three months, some six and some 12, so be sure to check the store policy. 

Note that some online stores will automatically deduct the VAT if you have a Swiss delivery address. 

Cost of living in Switzerland: How to save money if you live in Zurich

One thing to keep in mind however is that Switzerland charges its own VAT, which is either 2.5 percent or 8 percent. More on that below. 

What’s with all this paper? 

For anyone who’s spent even a few hours in Germany, the country’s reluctance to embrace digital methods of payment and record keeping is clear. 

While cash remains king in many stores and restaurants, claiming back money from shopping in Germany is also a paper-heavy endeavour. 

Fortunately for people not so keen on paperwork, a change is afoot – although exactly when it will take place remains unclear. 

In February 2022, the German government announced it had kicked off a project to make a digital export certificate possible. 

In addition to saving time and paper, the government indicated it expected to save around 6.2 million euros in personnel expenses as around 100 customs officers are currently assigned to the Swiss border alone. 

No deadline has been given for when the change will come into effect. 

Cost of living: How to save on groceries in Switzerland

Swiss customs rules

When bringing goods into Switzerland, you will need to pay VAT if the amount exceeds 300 francs. 

While border patrols are rare, those who make a habit of exceeding this amount – even if it is for goods for personal use – run the risk of falling foul of the authorities. 

There are several different rules in place for bringing in different items, including meats, cheeses and alcohol. 

The limits for each of these items can be found here. 

Keep in mind that while the CHF300 applies now, Switzerland is set to reduce this to CHF50 in the future – although final approval of this has not yet been secured. 

Tax change: Switzerland to introduce 50 franc limit on cross-border shopping

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COST OF LIVING

EXPLAINED: What the steep rise in Swiss interest rates could mean for you

The Swiss National Bank (SNB) raised the key interest rate by 0.75 percentage points, putting it back in positive territory at 0.5 percent.

EXPLAINED: What the steep rise in Swiss interest rates could mean for you

As announced by Switzerland’s central bank on Thursday, the rate change applies from Friday, September 23rd.

“The bank’s aim is to counter the renewed rise in inflationary pressure and the spread of inflation to goods and services that have so far been less affected”, according to SNB.

The SNB has not said how long the current rate will be in place, but noted that “it cannot be ruled out that further increases in the SNB policy rate will be necessary to ensure price stability over the medium term”.

READ MORE: Swiss central bank announces big rate hike in inflation fight

Inflation rate in Switzerland currently stands at 3.5 percent. While it is much lower than in the eurozone, where it exceeds 9.1 percent, it is still higher than its usual rate of below 1 percent.

Why has the SNB raised the interest rate for the first time since 2015?

For the same reason that other central banks have done so, including the European Central Bank and the Federal Reserve in the US: price stability

In general, central banks see increasing interest rates as a response to rising inflation: higher rates help reduce the overall level of demand and, subsequently, also the upward pressure on prices.

Whether this strategy will work is another matter.

The SNB rate hikes will “have a fundamentally dampening effect on inflation”, Felix Oeschger, analyst at Moneyland price comparison platform, told The Local.

“However, it is far from clear whether these alone will be enough to curb inflation”, he added.

One for the reasons for this uncertainty, Oeschger said, is that “the energy crisis and the high prices of some agricultural commodities, such as wheat, are a result of the Ukraine war. These prices are more difficult to influence with key interest rate increases”.

In its inflation forecast, the SNB predicted the inflation will drop to 2.4 percent in 2023.

But “considering that the SNB has continuously revised its inflation forecasts upward since December 2021, it is quite conceivable that inflation in Switzerland will continue to rise or at least remain high”, Oeschger pointed out.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: The groups most affected by inflation in Switzerland

Will the Swiss consumers benefit (or not) from the higher interest rates?

It depends on what you are looking to buy.

If you are planning to buy big-ticket items that are usually purchased with credit — like homes — then you may have to dig deeper into your pockets.

If you already have a fixed-rate mortgage, then you are safe from rate increases for the term of your mortgage.

But for new buyers or those with variable-rate mortagages, things may be more problematic.

“It is not excluded that mortgage interest rates will reach 3 to 4 percent next year”, from the current 2.6 to 3.1 percent, according to Donato Scognamiglio, director of real estate platform Iazi.

What about rents?

Tenants may not be better off than homeowners.

Many have already received notices of higher rents to compensate for increased costs of energy.

Now another charge could be added as well, though probably not immediately.

“Rents will go up, but only when the reference interest rate itself is raised”, Scognamiglio said.

The benchmark interest rate is the average of all mortgage interest rates. If the reference rate increases by 0.25%, tenants will have to pay 3 percent more rent. “I expect this to happen next year”, he said.

But it is not all bad news; higher interest rates will yield some benefits as well.

For instance, if you have certain types of investments, you may see more money coming in.

“I expect yields on fixed-income financial products such as bonds to continue to rise”,  Oeschger said.

“In the case of medium-term notes issued by Swiss banks, we have already seen significant increases since the beginning of the year”, he added.

As for savings accounts, however, “the banks have so far been very hesitant to raise interest rates, but if monetary policy tightens further, we can expect interest rates to rise slightly here as well”.

Generally speaking, what will become cheaper and more expensive for consumers?

The bad news here is that everything that has to do with energy, even indirectly, will become more expensive.

This includes “heating, transport costs, electricity and also food”, another Moneyland expert, Ralf Beyeler told The Local.

READ MORE: Pasta up by 13 percent: How food and energy prices in Switzerland are rising

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