You’ve probably had to deal with customs in South Korea at one point or another when purchasing goods from overseas into South Korea. You may not realize it, but every time you buy something from an online seller located outside of South Korea, you become the importer and them, the exporter. It then has to pass through customs, and you may or may not have been hit with a tax bill.
It was all very confusing when I arrived. In the United States, most of what I needed was located stateside, and if I ordered anything online from overseas, it was rarely ever over the $800 threshold. This tax-free threshold in South Korea is down to a measly $150 — an intentional move to protect domestic industries.
So, I’ve bundled everything that I know about importing goods for personal use into South Korea, and what I wish someone told me when I arrived. I’ve also just recently found out about the EU-Korea Free Trade Agreement (FTA) which could have been saving me so much money when shopping these last few years. I will preface this by also saying that I’m not a tax expert, so this is based on information that I’ve gathered from various government tax sites regarding importing goods for personal use only.
You won’t need to provide any additional documents or pay any taxes as the recipient of the package if the package is clearly marked as a gift from a residential address and the package is within the low-value threshold of under $150-200. The package should not have any trouble going through customs in South Korea.
A few tips to remind your relatives/friends when sending a gift to Korea:
- Try not to throw in high-ticket items with any price tags still on as it risks being scrutinized upon arrival.
- When your friend or relative drops off the package at their local post office, make sure that the item is marked as a gift.
- Try not to overdeclare or underdeclare the item. Be reasonable with the estimate.
- If the item is used, mark it as such.
- Make sure that your Korean phone number is marked clearly on the package in case the customs office needs to contact you. Ideally, this phone number is tied to your name.
Usually, if you’re using a shipping service like DHL, FedEx, or UPS, you won’t have to fill out any additional information unless they reach out to you to confirm anything. They should contact you to tell you how much taxes/duties are due upon arrival if the value of the goods is above $200 (if coming from the US, $150 if coming from elsewhere). If you don’t hear from them, see below, What do I do if my package is stuck at customs in Korea? The shipping service should also tell you how to pay for the goods. If it’s DHL, you can check How to Pay for Customs Tax via Giro with KEB Hana Bank in Korea.
Do I need to fill out an import declaration?
In most cases, no. An import declaration is an official document in which you, the importer, specify details about the goods that you import. According to the Korean customs website, there are three types of declarations for postal items that ship to South Korea: a listed declaration, a simplified import declaration, or a general import declaration.
When buying goods from overseas sellers for personal use in South Korea, I find that most shipping couriers or sellers will take care of the import declaration for you, if needed. You will only have to worry about paying the customs duties/taxes when the shipment arrives. Below are instructions in case you ever do find yourself in need of filling out the form which may happen with some items shipped via international post and not an express courier like DHL, UPS, FedEx, etc.
Listed Declaration (Less than $150/$200)
If the value of your goods is less than $150 USD ($200 for the US) and they aren’t on a restricted list, you don’t really need to do anything. The package can be cleared with just an invoice with “the names, phone numbers and addresses of the [consignor] and the consignee, and the description, price and weight of the goods. In this case, the resident registration ID number (including personal clearance unique code) of the owner is not necessary.” (Guide to Customs Declarations, 2015)
Simplified Declaration (Under $1,000)
For products valued between $150 ($200 in the US) and $1,000 USD, the customs office in Korea needs a simplified import declaration, however, if there’s a commercial invoice or receipt inside of the package, that will usually tell the customs officer everything that they’ll need to know to determine the value of the goods and how much to charge in customs duties and VAT.
In most cases, I’ve never needed to fill out a simplified import declaration manually after buying items online or receiving items as gifts. Again, most of what the customs officer needs are on the invoice/receipt inside or outside the package. The shipping service (DHL, UPS, FedEx, etc) will often handle any paperwork on your behalf and will notify you when it’s time to pay the bill.
In rare cases, you may need to fill it out when receiving international postal mail and not an express courier service when the customs office needs more information about what’s inside.
How to Fill Out the Simplified Import Declaration in Korea
If you do ever need to submit a simplified import declaration, you can submit it electronically here or fill out the appropriate form and fax it to 032-722-3816 or mail it to: 인천광역시 중구 공항동로 193번길 40-32(운서동) 인천공항국제우편세관 우편통관과 (Incheon Airport International Postal Customs, Postal Customs Division, 40-32, Gonghangdong-ro 193beon-gil [Unseo-dong], Jung-gu, Incheon).
The fastest and easiest way? The simplified import declaration for international mail items is available on unipass.customs.go.kr by clicking 업무지원 (Business Support) -> 국제우편물품통관 (Customs clearance for international mail)
I still recommend filling it out electronically, but if you’re having trouble with the Unipass website, I’ve also attached the simplified import declaration form below as a PDF to download.
General Import Declaration (Over $1,000)
If the value of your goods is above $1,000, then you’ll need a customs broker. If you’re ordering a product that is over $1,000, it’s likely to be shipped via an express shipping service like DHL, so they will probably be the one handling the paperwork regardless.
How much tax will I pay when buying goods from overseas?
The rule of thumb is, generally, over $150*, you’ll have to pay taxes (customs duties + 10% VAT) on it. Less than $150*, and you won’t have to pay taxes. The total taxable amount also often includes shipping fees, so if you paid $100 on an item plus $20 in shipping, the total taxable amount would be $120.
* $200 if coming from the United States. More information about the US-Korea FTA is below.
If two or more packages arrive on the same day, your customs bill would be the total of all items received on the same day. I usually stagger my orders for this reason.
What a lot of people don’t realize is that because of free trade agreements with Korea, if you can also prove that the origin or the product was made in the US, EU, or the UK and were shipped from the respective country, then you will only have to pay the 10% VAT as long as you have a declaration of origin or equivalent. Keep reading for more information about the FTA because this little detail could’ve saved me so much money.
Customs Duty Calculator
According to the Naver calculator, you can see different tax rates for goods coming from the US for common categories below:
- General clothing, incl. shoes: 13% in customs duties and 10% VAT
- Sunglasses: 8% in customs duties and 10% VAT
- Cosmetics and Perfume: 6.5% in customs duties and 10% VAT
- Candles: 6.5% in customs duties and 10% VAT
- Tea: 40% in customs duties and 10% VAT
- Cookies: 5% in customs duties and 10% VAT
- Cheese: 36% in customs duties and 10% VAT
- Honey: 20% in customs duties and 10% VAT
- Household Tools: 8% in customs duties and 10% VAT
- Smartphones and PCs: 0% customs duties and 10% VAT
- Household Electronics, incl refrigerators and vacuums: 8% customs duties and 10% VAT
The tax rate for some foods from the US to South Korea may seem ridiculous, but if the total is under $200, there is no tax due to the US-Korea FTA. What are you really doing with over $200 of cheese anyhow?
Take note that the tax rate on a luxury handbag and a general handbag is different. A luxury handbag is defined as over 2,000,000 KRW, so if you choose the wrong category — a general handbag, in this example — on the customs calculator, it will show as a lower tax rate, but this will not be the case when you receive the bill from customs.
DDP vs DDU
If your products are shipped DDP, or Delivered Duty Paid, that means the seller (exporter) is responsible for any duties, import clearance, and any taxes in order for it to arrive at its destination. Some high-end stores like Farfetch ship their products DDP and factor that into their pricing. You can usually check the seller’s FAQ or help section beforehand to see how goods are shipped internationally.
However, most stores ship DDU, or Delivered Duty Unpaid, which means that you’ll be responsible for paying all taxes upon arrival.
How To Get a Personal Customs Code in Korea
If you’re buying products from overseas, sellers will often ask for your personal customs code (PCC) in Korea. You can often get away with just supplying your passport information and/or resident registration number in South Korea, but if you do need a PCC, you can apply for one here.
The benefit of a PCC is that you’re not sharing sensitive personal information with strangers.
Free Trade Agreements with Korea
What is a free trade agreement?
According to Investopedia, “A free trade agreement is a pact between two or more nations to reduce barriers to imports and exports among them. Under a free trade policy, goods and services can be bought and sold across international borders with little or no government tariffs, quotas, subsidies, or prohibitions to inhibit their exchange.”
Which countries have signed free trade agreements with Korea?
There are quite a few free trade agreements with Korea, including the US, UK, Chile, India, Turkey, Norway, Singapore, and the EU. If you want the full list, you can find it on the Korean customs website.
The new UK-Korea FTA, signed after Brexit, also has much of the same terms as the Korea-EU FTA. You can read more about it on Chosun.com. I don’t do a lot of my shopping in the UK since the GBP is not a winning combination with my weak KRW, but it’s worth noting.
Korea also just entered the RCEP FTA on February 1st, 2021 which includes Japan. You can read more about it on Yonhap News Agency.
How does this benefit us, the consumer?
As individuals, we can import goods from countries outside of South Korea that have signed FTAs without paying as much import taxes. Depending on the free trade agreement signed, it will either eliminate or lower customs duties.
What do I need to get preferential tariffs?
The product needs to be made in a country that has an FTA with Korea
The product needs to be made and sent directly from that country where Korea has signed an FTA. You may also need a certificate of origin or a declaration of origin.
It’s worth noting that FTA agreements don’t apply if you’re trying to buy an Italian-made product in the US and applying for the EU-Korea FTA, or if you’re buying a US-made product, shipped from Germany, and applying for the US-Korea FTA. It needs to be made and directly imported from the country of origin.
You must ask the exporter (seller) for the certificate of origin or equivalent, according to the FTA
Depending on the agreement, only certain free trade agreements in South Korea allow for “self-issued C/Os” (certificates of origin). “Self-issued C/Os” are those that were issued by the exporter (seller of the goods usually), otherwise, they would have to be issued by the country’s local customs authority.
Exporters, or sellers, in the following regions, can provide a “self-issued” certificate of origin that satisfies the FTA agreement: Chile, EFTA (Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein), EU, Peru, and the US.
You can also find a full list of templates for certificates of origins for each country with a current FTA with Korea here.
You must apply for preferential tariffs (reduced tax) when importing the product
But here’s the issue that I’ve noticed: 99% of the time when I buy a product from overseas, even if the product was made in — let’s say — the EU and shipped from the EU to South Korea, because I didn’t ask to APPLY for the FTA, I was charged regular tax rates.
So, in the future, if you KNOW that you’re eligible for reduced tariffs through an FTA, make sure to get the certificate of origin for the product and notify the shipping service immediately. I can’t stress this enough.
US-Korea Free Trade Agreement (FTA)
Less than $200
Regardless of whether your product is made in the good ol’ USA, if the product is shipping from the US and the total value is less than $200, you won’t need to fill out any extra forms to get the tax exemption. It’ll automatically apply and zip through customs.
Between $200 and $1000
If the total value of the product(s) are between $200 and $1,000, and you know the product(s) are actually *MADE* in the USA, you can apply for a preferential tariff (reduced taxes) through the Korea-US free trade agreement.
In this case, if the taxable price (product price + all overseas fees + shipping cost) is less than $1,000, you don’t need a special certificate of origin if the products are clearly marked as made in the USA on an invoice and/or product labeling.
More than $1000
More than $1,000, the US-Korea FTA is applied only after receiving a confirmation of origin on the commercial invoice that includes the following information:
Make Sure to NOTIFY the Shipping Service Preparing the Customs Documents
I thought that if you were shipping something in via FedEx, DHL, or UPS, they would automatically take care of this for you, but no. You MUST inform them, otherwise, you’ll get taxed at the regular rate — customs duties plus the 10% VAT like normal — without the US-Korea FTA. Why make it easy for us when you can tax us more, y’know?
EU-Korea Free Trade Agreement (FTA)
Why is this important as a consumer? Because even though we’re not importing goods in bulk — my shoe hauls don’t count — the EU-Korea FTA basically removes the customs duties from our tax bills from Korean customs if we can prove that our goods were manufactured (made) in the EU.
If you can prove it, then you only need to pay a 10% VAT in South Korea versus customs duties PLUS the 10% VAT. And boy, do they add up. I’ve literally bought so many shoes from Spain, Italy, and France that I now feel weak in the knees thinking about all the money I’ve basically just thrown into a big bonfire and can never reclaim because I never knew about this before.
I used to think that if it’s marked on the product, then the customs officer should see it, right? But I’m now starting to realize why personal shipping agents are a thing.
Keep in mind that the product must *actually* be manufactured in Europe for this to apply. I’ve bought many items from European countries or the U.S. only to realize that they’re actually made in China. Globalization.
If the value of the exported goods is over 6,000 euros, only approved exporters (sellers) are entitled to “self-issue C/Os”.
How do you get the document for the EU-Korea FTA?
So, not every online seller is willing to do this, but you just have to make sure that before shipping the product, the seller needs to include an FTA invoice. Some larger businesses tend to ignore my messages when requesting this document, don’t know about this, and/or their logistics are fully automated, so it’s a no-go. Still, it’s worth a try.
The text of the invoice declaration (origin declaration):
“The exporter of the products covered by this document (customs authorization No…) declares that except where otherwise clearly indicated, these products are of … preferential origin.“
이 서류(세관인증번호…의 적용대상이 되는 상품의 수출자는, 달리 명확하게 표시되는 경우를 제외하고, 이 상품은…의 특혜원산지상품임을 신고한다.
The product needs to be clearly marked as made in an EU country and written on any customs invoices. You can ask the seller to write in all caps, the message above in English, filling in the origin country and the. You can read more information in this PDF provided by the European Union.
The above text also applies to the Korea-EFTA FTA (Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein). You can double-check this information with the Korean customs website, but it’s all there.
Sample email to the online seller, providing the product:
Like, I am literally screaming that I did not know about this sooner because I’ve been paying an arm and a leg in customs fees when I’ve been shopping in the European Union.
What is the duty-free exemption at the airport in Korea?
If you’re traveling to South Korea as a resident of South Korea and you purchase goods abroad, you’re allowed up to $600 USD worth of goods without being taxed.
Do you know the little declaration form that you get on the plane upon arrival? Well, if you declare it, you’ll be fine and you get up to a 150,000 KRW “discount” (30% of the customs duty) for voluntarily reporting it. If you don’t declare your goods — that’s literally smuggling — and they find out, you get hit with a penalty up to 40-60% more. Rumor has it that Korean banks are obligated to report large overseas purchases to customs, but I don’t know how true that is. Choose wisely.
The official duty-free allowance in Korea:
- 1 bottle of alcohol (1 liter, under $400)
- Perfume 60ml
- 200 cigarettes
- Other items under $600 in total
* Agricultural, forestry and livestock products, herbal medicines, etc. are limited to 100,000 won or less, and quantity or weight is limited by item.
* Domestic goods also bought at the duty-free shops in the arrival hall also count towards this limit.
Can I buy a luxury bag overseas and bring it with me to Korea?
You can, but you’ll have an expensive tax bill that may make that purchase questionable.
As you can see below, the tax bill for buying a luxury bag overseas and bringing it back to South Korea is still crazy high. Of course, if you have about 10 grand to drop on a bag, you probably can afford the tax bill (but it still hurts).
- Luxury bags and wallets (bags that exceed 1,852,000 KRW) would be taxed at 37,400 KRW + 50% of the amount exceeding 1,852,000 KRW
- Non-luxury bags (under 1,852,000 KRW) are taxed at 20%
Here are two examples:
If it’s been around the block, they may not be able to catch you, but I’ve also heard of people having to pull up old receipts for used luxury bags that they brought on their trip.
How much alcohol can I bring on the plane to Korea?
You can bring as many bottles of alcohol as you’d like in your check-in luggage — restricted to the airline’s individual policy — however, only one bottle will be tax-exempt or duty-free. Every additional bottle you bring will be taxed upon arrival in South Korea. The one bottle that is tax-exempt must be under $400 and under 1 liter.
You can use the tax calculator to estimate how much taxes you’ll have to pay for liquor at customs.go.kr upon arrival in South Korea.
I know what you’re thinking! Alcohol, particularly wine, in South Korea is expensive. I’m not talking about the cheap soju at the convenience store, but a proper bottle of wine. I thought the same myself and figured it would be possible to sherpa in wine either via friends visiting or when I travel abroad, too. The thing is that you may or may not get “caught”. If you do, you’ll get a heavy tax bill from the customs agent at the airport.
If you declare the liquor on the airport declaration form, you’ll get a little “discount” on taxes: “In case of self-report, 30% of customs duty (up to 150,000 won) can be reduced or exempted. In case of non-compliance, a penalty of 40% or 60% of the amount of tax paid (those who fail to comply with repeated declaration) is levied.”
So, if you declare it, you’ll get a little price break in taxes, and if you don’t and they catch you, they may decide to hike up that tax bill even more as punishment.
Here’s an example:
Here are the import tax rates for bringing in liquor through the airport customs office in Korea:
- The tax rate for whiskey or distilled spirits (non-wine) is approximately 155%
- The tax rate for cognac, brandy, or alcohol distilled from wine is approximately 145%
- The tax rate for wine is approximately 68%
- The tax rate for beer is approximately 177%
Because remember, you’re technically importing the alcohol into Korea by bringing them with you from outside Korea.
Again, sometimes they don’t check, and sometimes they do. I’ve gotten away with sneaking bottles in without realizing that I needed to pay taxes but some of my friends haven’t been so lucky. So, choose wisely. Is that bottle really worth it?
What do I do if my package is stuck at customs in Korea?
Oh, boy. You may receive a text message or a letter in Korean, so be vigilant. There are several reasons outlined below why your package may be stuck at the customs office in Korea. This has happened to me several times and usually can be resolved by contacting them directly.
Sometimes, they are unable to contact you because of a mismatch in personal identification on the package. When I order things online, I tend to put my personal customs code in the business name field, and I triple-check my phone number. And even then, something always goes awry. You’ll need to contact the customer service team at the shipping service used, and if that fails, contact the customs office directly.
Customs Fees Unpaid
The other likely issue is that you may not know or have not paid any customs fees due. I’ve fallen into this, waiting for someone to contact me about customs fees to get my package through but no one ever does. In this case, contact the customer service team at the shipping service (DHL, UPS, FedEx, etc) first, then the Korean customs office directly.
You can also read more on paying customs tax in Korea in How to Pay for Customs Tax via Giro with KEB Hana Bank in Korea and below, How do I pay customs fees in Korea?
How to Contact the Customs Office in South Korea
For the customs office, you can leave a note on their Q&A, or you can go to their Korean-language site and either call them or use their internet consultation option. You should get a response within 48 hours (weekends and holidays excluded.)
Checking the International Mail Status
If the package was sent by international mail (and not an express service like FedEx, DHL, or UPS), you can sometimes check the status at epost.kr. For international mail and not an express courier, I would wait at least a week to see if it moves through customs as it tends to move at a snail’s pace versus all my DHL and FedEx packages that fly through.
Account for extra time if there’s a courier strike — like there is now — or any major holidays. One of my parcels that arrived January 25-26th is still stuck at the customs office as of February 9th, 2022 due to the Lunar New Year holidays, but I was contacted on February 7th, 2022 to pay the customs fees, so there’s hope.
If you need to call the Korean post office, their English phone number is 042-609-4295 if calling within Korea and +82 42-609-4295 if calling outside of Korea. You will connect to an operator after pressing 8 for English, and they will call you back with someone who speaks English to resolve any inquiries.
How do I pay customs fees in Korea?
Paying Customs Fees for an Express Courier (DHL, UPS, FedEx, etc) Parcel
Once a customs invoice is issued, you can pay customs fees/taxes on international packages in a few ways:
- Contact the shipping company and they will pay on your behalf after you transfer money to them domestically through your bank (EASIEST, IMO.)
- Pay the tax through your local Korean bank account online*, however, sometimes the parcel isn’t linked to your Korean registration number and the tax obligation won’t show up. You can also search by the customs invoice number if you have one.
- Pay the tax through the www.cardrotax.or.kr website.
* The option to pay customs fees are usually only available on the Korean-language banking website and NOT the English-language banking website in Korea.
Recently, I ordered something via FedEx and I received a text message from their customs clearance team asking to verify my information and parcel contents. The (very long) text message will be in Korean and, at the very bottom, in English.
It is important that you have filled in the correct email and phone number when ordering the product so that the shipping courier is able to contact you if they have any questions regarding your parcel. If you do not receive a text message a day or two after the product has shipped, send them an email.
Paying Directly to the Shipping Courier
If the item(s) were shipped through an express shipping service like UPS, DHL, FedEx, etc, you can usually pay customs fees through the shipping service. This is probably the easiest way if you don’t speak Korean.
You can reach out to a customer service agent within South Korea, and they’ll often give you the option to do a domestic bank transfer to their Korean business account and transfer the money on your behalf to the customs agency. I’ve had to call UPS customer service in Korea to give me the right bank account number to do so as the information isn’t plainly available.
Paying Through Your Bank Online in Korea
If they don’t give you the option to do a simple domestic transfer, you can often pay the customs fee via online banking in South Korea. Try to look for National Tax (국세) > Customs Payment (관세납부) or Pay Utility Bills (공과금 납부) > Fund/Treasury (기금/국고) > Fund/Treasury Payment (기금/국고납부) in the banking menu. Most, if not all banks, in South Korea have an option to pay customs tax online. The option isn’t available in the English version of KEB Hana, for example, but it’s 100% there on the Korean language site. Why make it easy for foreigners, right? You can read more about how I was able to do it (with screenshots) in How to Pay for Customs Tax via Giro with KEB Hana Bank in Korea.
Side note: If you need to check the parcel information through the customs office, you can go to unipass.customs.go.kr, go to 화물진행정보 (freight progress information) on the right side of the screen, click M B/L – H B/L (right radio button), and enter your shipping invoice number.
Paying via Credit Card Online
You can actually also pay the customs fee tax via credit card with a small fee on top, however, I personally haven’t used this option (yet).
PC Payment: Go to www.cardrotax.or.kr > 회원가입/공인인증서 로그인 (Member Registration/Login with Official Certificate) 〉국고금. 관세 (National Treasury. Customs duties) > 조회 (Inquiry) > 납부 완료 (Payment Completed)
Mobile App Payment: Download the app, “모바일 지로” (Mobile Giro) > 회원가입/로그인 (Member Registration/Login) 〉 조회/납부 (Inquiry/Payment) =〉관세（통고처분）[Customs Duties (Disposition of Notice)] 〉조회 (Inquiry) 〉납부 완료 (Payment Completed)
Paying Customs Fees for International Mail/EMS Parcels
When paying the customs fee for international mail items (not an express courier like DHL or FedEx) that was imported with a simplified declaration form, you’ll get a text message from the customs office in Korea with the amount due, the transfer account number (Nonghyup Bank, or National Agricultural Bank), and a service charge of 4,000 won to the customs office for payment processing that is paid separately.
You can choose to pay via a virtual bank account that they set up in your name. In my case, I transferred the 67,300 KRW due to the account that was listed in the text message.
Enter the tracking number that looks like “EG135850133JP” and then your item will come up. There is an English button that will make it easier to pay the customs processing fee of 4,000 KRW and you can choose your payment method.
Do I need to pay customs fees on gifts or used goods shipped from relatives or friends?
I find that most of the time, I won’t have to pay customs fees if a friend or relative is sending a package to me in South Korea as long as they have mailed it themselves, the value of the goods isn’t above $150-200, there are no receipts inside to determine the value of the items inside, and no new packaging. What I mean by this is that if the package is coming directly from an online retailer or store, the package will include a commercial invoice and will be eligible to be taxed.
Even when my mum fumbles around and over declares the item above $200, it has made it through without a hitch. It may also have to do with the fact that she has literally put canned tuna inside her care packages which I’ve spoken to her about afterward. But I have never needed to fill out any special import form for that kind of low-value (under $1,000) package.
Of course, if you’re trying to smuggle a Chanel bag or an iPhone through customs by ripping off all the tags, I’m sure that the customs officers have all seen that one before and may inspect it a little more carefully. As far as I know, goods valued at above $1,000 are when you start to face some complications with the customs office. But generally speaking, for most goods, you’ll be fine.
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