Buying electronics in Europe is for idiots

At least every six months, I cram myself into the fetid belly of a Trans-Atlantic 747, spend 12 hours trying not to fling to the ground and jump on the spine of the small child rhythmically kicking the back of my seat, and fly back to my home town for a couple of weeks. I have my reasons: steak-and-cheese subs and Taco Bell. The seduction of home town girls who were too good for me in high school. A beloved nonagenarian uncle who seems likely to explode into a poof of dust at any moment, despite the fact that all the evidence I have so far indicates he is probably immortal. But as the dollar tanks, I find myself increasingly scheduling my trips home according to gadget release schedules.

This can be maddening. For example, right now, I’m looking to make a trip home sometime in June. The cheapest tickets are from the very end of May to about June 12th, at which point, the prices jump up a couple hundred bucks. But here’s where it gets tricky: I want to update my old first-revision MacBook Pro when I’m home. Now, according to Appleinsider, there’s a good chance we’ll see new MBPs soon. Apple is also holding a developer’s conference from June 9th – 13th. So basically, if they announce a new MBP and Jobs says “And you can get it now!” it’s probably too late to get one. So is it worth spending another couple hundred bucks to travel home at the end of June? Well, sure… provided Apple releases a new MBP in mid-June. Otherwise, it’s a waste of money.

In a simpler world, I would just buy my new laptop in Europe, but buying electronics in Europe is for land-locked fools. For some reason — and that reason is an industry-wide indifference to gouging European customers and an enthusiasm for making them subsidize their American customers — the suggested retail price of a piece of electronics is always translated at a 1:1 exchange rate from dollars to euros. A $2,000 laptop will cost you €2,000. There was a time, when the dollar was a little stronger, that you could justify it to yourself. Sure, you were paying a 20% increase in the price, but that was roughly accountable for by VAT. But now that the dollar is worth 0.62 European cents, that two thousand dollar laptop will cost a European $3,186.18. The discrepancy is the price of almost two round-trip tickets to the States!

Keep this in mind next time you see a gadget blog optimistically translate the price of a new piece of European tech from Euros to dollars at the official Oanda exchange rate: it is the sort of simpering naivete that only an American gadget blogger — buying his tech at half-price with a currency imbued with the strength of sopping toilet paper — could ever have.

There’s no two ways about it: buying electronics in Europe is for morons.

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22 Responses to Buying electronics in Europe is for idiots

  1. zo says:

    BUGS: If you order online, try and ensure that they indicate on the packaging that it is a GIFT or USED BOOKS or whatever.. this is hard or impossible with a large retailer, so, ebay and amazon can be your friends.

    In the past I had a couple times where I received stuff from the USA and the idiots put what the real contents are (new iPod, etc) and so I had to pay local VAT (in Europe, average is about 20%!!!).

    So, getting a laptop sent over can be tricky, but not impossible. If possible at all, get it sent to a friend, have them “use it” a bit and even change the packaging if possible.

    Re the packaging.. see, what customs DOESNT want you to do is RESELL it.. because then the State doesn’t get their cut. So, if you bring a brand new laptop from USA in its original packaging.. well.. yeah.. they’re gonna ask questions.

    DO THIS WITH NEW CLOTHES AS WELL!!! Take off all tags and whatnot from all the new clothes you buy!!! If customs feels like it they will ALSO MAKE YOU PAY for your brand new Diesel jeans and if you don’t have a receipt, they’ll make one up for you..

  2. Bavi_H says:

    Just to nitpick: 0.62 euro cents = €0.0062; 62 euro cents = €0.62.

    The difference matters, say, if you’re quoting a wireless data rate. :)

  3. Anonymous says:

    Try having a friend or relative buy it for you in the states then ship it overseas. Problem solved, you get your new tech, and avoid the currency gouge, or mabye it’s a break-even thing. Just a thought.

  4. Freddie Freelance says:

    @Matt J.: Brownlee pointed out that if you’re buying a big ticket/small sized item like a MacBook Pro you’re saving nearly enough for a round trip ticket to NYC/Boston/Philly/DC/etc.

    My Aunt saves enough on clothes & small electronics (she buys for the whole family) to make flying from London to LA every year or two worth the trip.

  5. murray says:

    In any case, get your tickets ASAP. Air fairs are about to shoot up at least 15%; probably more.

  6. Fnarf says:

    Avoiding legitimate tax you can afford to pay when you use the services it pays for is a little dubious, if you ask me. It’s no different than, say, fare-jumping.

  7. bex says:

    if you take the crazy amount of tax we pay in the UK there is a $100 dollar premium on a base macbook hardly worth traipsing across the Atlantic for that moron seems a bit harsh we do get stung though on most stuff

  8. enrico says:

    what about warranty?

  9. nex says:

    I’ve noticed the 1:1 ‘currency conversion’ more and more lately, but in my experience it’s absolutely not true that this had already been happening when the dollar was actually stronger — definitely not for devices from US companies. Let’s see, we have to ship the stuff across the Atlantic, translate everything into ten different languages, localise some technical aspects too (think wireless frequencies), hire lawyers to adapt the EULAs, and at every step we’re going to round up quite a bit, because, oh, Central Europeans are willing and able to pay a bit more, so it’d be stupid not to take advantage of that.

    But why is that so? Well, wages are a bit higher, too, over here. So from the European perspective stuff isn’t necessarily hugely expensive here, it’s just cheaper in the States. Sometimes so much cheaper that it pays off to import US versions and pay the tolls and tax, but often not. It’s been like that forever.

  10. Milarepa says:

    WTF?
    I find it offensive that you actually call all europeans who buy consumer electronics morons.

  11. Anonymous says:

    @Freddie: What about those who refuse to travel to the US on account of the insane restrictions put on foreign nationals over there? Are we doubly “morons” for not travelling to the Land Of The Free (Unless You’re Foreign)?

  12. Kestral says:

    Fnarf: At least in the US, if you can avoid taxes legally, you have the right to do so, according to the Supreme Court. Their official position is that every person has the right to pay the lowest legal amount of tax they can. Emphasis on the legal.

  13. Matt J says:

    Not all of us can afford to fly half way round the world just to buy a new gadget. I think calling anyone unable to live your lifestyle a moron is a little harsh.

  14. Charlie Stross says:

    Kestral is correct, and the law in all EU member states is similar — you have the right to pay the lowest legal amount of tax.

    However, if you buy goods above and beyond the duty-free allowance outside the EU and import them into the EU, even for your personal use, you are supposed to pay tax on them. So ditching the packaging and pretending you owned them anyway isn’t tax avoidance, it’s tax evasion.

    Now, everybody does this, and I make no comment on the morality of the activity — but if you’re planning on doing it you ought to be aware of the legality (or otherwise) of what you’re doing, and plan accordingly. In theory, you’re actually supposed to approach the customs desk and tell them you’ve been buying stuff and owe tax; in practice, as long as you don’t actually do something stupid like lying to them if they pull you out of the queue, nothing worse will happen to you than having to pay some tax and a processing fee.

    But. Don’t lie to them if they pull you unless you’re sure you can back it up. Because? Worst case, if you piss them off, is they can prosecute you for tax evasion.

  15. Charlie Stross says:

    Kestral is correct, and the law in all EU member states is similar — you have the right to pay the lowest legal amount of tax.

    However, if you buy goods above and beyond the duty-free allowance outside the EU and import them into the EU, even for your personal use, you are supposed to pay tax on them. So ditching the packaging and pretending you owned them anyway isn’t tax avoidance, it’s tax evasion.

    Now, everybody does this, and I make no comment on the morality of the activity — but if you’re planning on doing it you ought to be aware of the legality (or otherwise) of what you’re doing, and plan accordingly. In theory, you’re actually supposed to approach the customs desk and tell them you’ve been buying stuff and owe tax; in practice, as long as you don’t actually do something stupid like lying to them if they pull you out of the queue, nothing worse will happen to you than having to pay some tax and a processing fee.

    But. Don’t lie to them if they pull you unless you’re sure you can back it up. Because? Worst case, if you piss them off, is they can prosecute you for tax evasion.

  16. zo says:

    You’re very right.

    And you can actually pay the price of the flight with the difference you would save instead of buying in Europe. I’ve done this on several occasions.

    Another area where you save bundles is photography equipment.

    If you’ve ever been to BH Photo Video in Manhattan you’ll see that the VAST majority of people in there are all foreigners, coming to the AV Mecca of the world, gauging on new equipment.

    Remember, however, DO NOT FLY BACK WITH ORIGINAL BOXES. In Paris at least, customs are very severe sometimes. They’ll ask for receipts, etc. I’ve seen a LOT of people get busted for not declaring items they just bought abroad.

    I personally either mail myself the folded box and receipts or just keep the receipts.

    Obviously, USE the equipment (take a picture or two, have that iPhone/iPod loaded with a few songs). Basically, prove that you’re not going to do some reselling.

    Customs officials try everything to make you pay up.. but just keep insisting that it was already used and that of COURSE you don’t go traveling around with the receipts of all the stuff you buy. They will (usually) eventually just tell you to go on your way.

  17. Anonymous says:

    If you want to buy Wacom tablets, you’ll find that they’re actually more than twice as expensive in many (most?) European countries.

  18. Rob Beschizza says:

    Yep, the trick is to discard any evidence of arbitrage tourism. I know it’s hard with Macs and their beautiful boxes, but it’s actually somewhat liberating to do so. Getting rid of your box, and those little sheets of translucent polystyrene, reifies the entire package’s diffuse abstract majesty into the simple embodiment of the thing itself.

    I have to go an lick up some dog vomit from the back yard. BRB.

  19. Anonymous says:

    It’s unfortunately also not an option for people who do not relish spending hours in immigration with fun cavity searches no lawyers and then being sent back because they have an arabic surname and arab visa in their passport…

    TH (who refuses to register at yet another website. support OpenID already…)

  20. Bugs says:

    This is something I’d been wondering about actually. What is the law regarding buying expensive toys outside Europe? I get the impression that if I ordered an expensie toy online from the USA I’d have to pay an import tax roughly equivalent to V.A.T.

    Is the law different if I fly out there myself to buy one? Why does binning the packaging matter?

    I have a slightly technophobic friend who works on a container ship. He clumsily types his emails and loses games of patience — or when he’s feeling particularly exciting, minesweeper — on the most powerful and toe-curlingly envy-inducing laptop I’ve ever seen, bought for almost nothing at the Taiwan docks. It’s a beautiful machine, but I live in fear of the import taxes. He ends up declaring everything brought home because for him getting caught breaching import laws would be a career-ending move.

  21. DeWynken says:

    What, we can’t even revel in the toilet paper soggery of our deflated dollar without erudiots complaining about it? Jeez!

  22. Downpressor says:

    Snark about the Dollar to Euro rate aside, its been like this forever as Nex mentioned. Besides the VAT that end consumers see, there have always been the higher import duties and other assorted fees that non European companies have faced in order to sell their goods in Europe. Before the Euro there was also the problem of pricing and settling transactions across two fistfulls of currencies as well.

    gadgets.boingboing.net is starting to have the same smell of shrill nonsense bitching that the main site has had for a while now.

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