Please note: This article was originally written in 2018. While we still believe these tips will help you reduce costs, we no longer believe they will completely save you import fees. Unfortunately, in recent years, import fees (sometimes as low as 3€ and other times as high as 80€+) on personal packages have become the norm when receiving international packages in Spain (from outside the EU).
Dear Mrs. Williams,
As your daughter has moved halfway across the globe for this amazing experience of living abroad in Spain, I can imagine you might be wondering about sending her a few things in the mail. It’s such a sweet gesture (that will, no doubt, be greatly appreciated). However, there are definitely some tips and tricks you should have in mind in order to avoid astronomical costs for you and her!
In our early years living abroad in Spain, we received numerous packages from family and friends at no cost to ourselves and didn’t understand the horror stories we were hearing from other expats about correos, or the postal service here in Spain. Of course, that all changed the first time one of us experienced it herself…let us set the scene for you:
Dani had JUST been home in the US for Christmas and had picked up some Fannie Mae Mint Meltaways to bring back to her friends as a souvenir. However, she didn’t have them set aside with the rest of my stuff to be packed and promptly forgot them. Her mom said “no worries, I’ll send them along! They’ll be there in no time.” Little did either of them know, it would take a month-and-a-half and 86€ in fees to receive them. Without thinking anything of it, her mom decided to also include a pair of boots and a couple extra tops she hadn’t been able to bring back with her (all of which were Dani’s own, used clothes) but which made the package larger.
We don’t know if it was the size of the box or the fact that her mom had chosen ‘gift’ as the overall description of what was in the package, but correos decided that they needed to hold it at customs in Madrid until Dani applied to receive it. An entire fiasco ensued as she needed to set up an online account with correos in order to claim the package. This was further complicated in Dani’s case as she had to use her roommate’s identification number (it would not accept Dani’s because foreigner’s cards have a different numbering system than those of Spanish citizens). And then there was the fee to pay as well. Thankfully, she finally got my package and her friends finally got their candy…but it was one of the most expensive token gifts she’s ever given!
Moral of the story is that it’s probably going to be expensive for you to send you packages to start with. However, you can avoid making it even more frustrating and costly by following a few simple tips.
How to avoid excessive costs while sending packages to Spain
Do not ship in a box, use a large envelope: We generally say “manila envelope” so that people can imagine the size we’re talking about, but your post office will likely have a variety of this kind of envelope in more durable (think plastic, sometimes with bubble wrap) materials. We’ve rarely had anything sent in an envelope like this held at customs, but boxes are regularly searched and charged import fees.
Be very conscientious about weight: Granted, the above recommended packaging option is going to limit what you include in your package to begin with, but that’s probably for the best in terms of weight. Keep in mind that the heavier your package, the heftier your shipping fee—and it’s usually a higher fee that you might imagine. Over the years, Dani’s mom has sent some amazing ‘care packages’ of favorite foods, cosmetics, clothes, etc but we’ve learned that beef jerky is a much more viable option than corned beef hash, just as the snack size bag of Cheezits is preferable to the larger bag of Ghardettos—you get the idea.
Be selective about how you define the contents of your package: When filling out the paperwork to send a package, you will need to indicate what the package contains (i.e. documents, gifts, personal items, etc). Our personal advice is to not use the ‘gift’ option. It’s hard to know how true the anecdotes are, but from what we hear, the people who end up having to pay import fees for their packages are often the ones receiving a package labeled as a ‘gift.’
Likewise, we recommend toning down the cost of your contents as well. The postal service understands that you won’t be coming with a receipt of the exact price of every item included in the package. Even though a package may have 15 separate items, it’s preferable to condense the contents list into two or three broad categories such as “clothes: $10, candy: $5, magazines: $2.” No one has ever come after us because the magazines actually cost $5. No matter what, keep the contents of your package below $100 (for peace of mind as well as lower likelihood of getting held up in customs).
Do you research about what can and cannot be shipped: All that being said, please don’t imagine that following these simple steps will allow you get around import laws about what can be shipped into the country and what is on the “prohibited” list— which includes perishable food, drugs (including prescription and over-the-counter medicine), and many seeds, among other items. Keep in mind that sending these items, similarly-looking items, or even just wrapping your items so thoroughly that an agent suspects you are shipping prohibited items could lead to your package being stopped at customs.
As a final note, we want to clarify that following these tips will not guarantee you cheap shipping costs and/or that your child will be able to receive the parcel without any fees. These are simply a few things that have worked well for us and our families and may help you avoid added hassle, headaches, and cash as well.
Let us know if there’s anything we missed that’s worked well for you or if you have any questions or concerns! We hope to be a resource to the parents (and family in general) of those adventurers here in Spain as well so please don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any questions or need anything!