In a departure from common international practices, Australia allows both residents and travellers duty-free purchases under the Tourist Refund Scheme (TRS). Even if you plan to return to Australia with the purchased goods, you can still claim back the tax.

I dropped my phone before a recent overseas trip and so I claimed back the duty on its replacement when I travelled. This made the phone slightly cheaper to purchase outright and somewhat softened the blow of breaking a 9-month-old phone.

When travelling overseas it is possible to claim back the tax on purchases made within Australia totalling $300 or more including GST using the Tourist Refund Scheme (TRS). With an invoice and an international boarding pass you can claim the tax back even if you have already opened the packaging or started using the item.

This post recounts my latest TRS experience, but keep in mind that rules and regulations can change, so it’s advisable to check with Australian Border Force (ABF) beforehand.

What you need to make a claim

You must purchase the goods within 60 days of departure, obtain a tax invoice and spend at least $300 including GST. It is possible to buy the goods in multiple transactions so long as the total of all invoices for each retailer is $300 or more.

You could buy three different items from JB HiFi on three different invoices so long as all the ABNs matched across all three invoices.

“You cannot claim on goods wholly or partially consumed in Australia such as food, drinks, health supplements and perfumes” (Tourist Refund Scheme: Common Questions). This also only works for goods purchased in Australia from an Australian business.

You should make sure that you have:

  • the article/goods you are claiming for (you can even use it beforehand)
  • passport
  • boarding pass/proof of international travel
  • original invoice (in good condition) with
    • an ABN, retailer name and address
    • your name (and only your name) as it appears in your passport
    • description of the goods
    • the amount of GST paid
    • the date of the purchase

For more details on this you should check the Australian Border Force TRS page and the associated Common Questions page.

I bought a phone and used it for over a week before flying out and claiming the duty on it. Importantly, just the phone was required at claim time - you do not need the original packaging - just the item you are claiming on so “long as the officer can verify the goods against the corresponding tax invoice when the TRS claim is processed” (TRS Common Questions).

In some cases it is possible to put the goods in your checked luggage at the airport or where they must be handled as dangerous goods, but it is best to have them with you at the time of the claim. This way the border agent can sight the goods and verify them against your invoices. It has been a source of spurious claims and fraud in the past so having it handy to show them is a good idea.

How much will you get back

Before making a purchase you can calculate the amount that you will get back by taking the total price and dividing that by 11 (assuming GST is still at the current rate of 10%). For example, with a purchase amount of $1,600 it would be a refund of $145.45 ($1,600 / 11 = $145.45).

There is also a GST calculator on the Australian government Moneysmart financial advice website.

After the purchase you can refer to the GST amount indicated on the invoice for the product to determine how much you stand to claim back.

How to claim

On the day of departure you need to find the TRS desk at the airport with time to spare as all claims need to be processed no later than 30 minutes before your flight. Depending on your luck there can be long queues for the TRS service so it is a good idea to complete this step as soon as you have cleared security.

It is best to fill out the claims online beforehand and you might be able to use a dedicated queue, which could well be quicker. This is especially true where you have multiple invoices. If you don’t and they are busy then they may ask you to step out of line, complete the claim online and then return to the back of the queue.

I only had one and they processed it at the desk, but he reminded me to use their phone apps or the website in future. He also asked me to show him the phone I had bought. This was simply a visual check and he did not even hold the phone let alone check the IMEI number against the invoice.

The staff you are claiming from here are Australian Border Force officers - in fact I saw the same officer that processed my claim checking passports on my return to Australia.

Keep the receipt you are issued for the refund by the officer in case you need it upon your return to Australia. I just tucked it into my Australian passport so I would have it handy at arrivals.

When you return

If you bought the items as gifts for family overseas and the items are not returning with you then the usual border process applies, but if you do bring the items back into the country with you then you might need to declare them.

On the Incoming Passenger Card (IPC) you must declare that you have goods that you purchased tax-free in Australia if the total of all goods you are returning with is over $900. That is all goods, which means those purchased during the trip and those you claimed under TRS at the point of departure. At the time of writing this is completed on the first page of the card as question 3 under “Are you bringing into Australia:”.

Don’t forget that this is effectively statutory declaration/affidavit and the penalties for falsify or incorrectly completing it can be high. It is definitely cheaper to declare and pay back any GST owing than to get caught mis-declaring and cop a fine.

As you pass through the border control desks at the airport you will be asked why you have declared and you need to tell them you made a TRS claim. I simply said that I had claimed for a phone on departure and the border officer directed me to the exit. That was it. I did not need to pay any tax back or, in this case, even show the goods in question on return.

If you do get stopped and they check the value of the goods then it is important to know that you cannot bring more than $900 of general goods into the country duty free as an adult and $450 as a child.

Pooling your duty-free allowance with others

When travelling with family you can pool your goods allowance so for two adults travelling together that is $1,800 for example. This is where a family is defined as:

A family includes a person and his or her de facto partner (including same-sex couples) and any of their children under 18 years of age; or a husband and wife, and any of their children.

Paying back the duty

If you have claimed over your allowance then you may have to pay back the GST that you claimed through the Tourist Refund Scheme on arrival in Australia.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that unless you’re a regular customer or otherwise flagged for high value items that, generally, the border officers will allow you through without checking too thoroughly. That is not to say they won’t check and you should be prepared to pay back the GST if you’ve brought in more than the allowance.

It should be noted that despite what forum users might write to the contrary there is in fact no consideration for depreciation on the items when they return. You will pay back the GST amount that you claimed on the item.

If the item is over the allowance then you will pay back all the GST on that item or items exceeding the allowance. You cannot just pay back the GST on the amount that exceeds the duty-free allowance.

So in the case of a single person with a phone that cost $1,500 including GST originally ($1,363.64 excluding GST) they would pay back the full GST amount of $136.36 because the total excluding GST exceeds $900. They could not just pay back the GST amount on the portion of the price over $900 and they would need to pay the whole GST amount. However, if the item was $990 including GST ($900 excluding GST) then on return you would not need to pay or declare (so long as it was the only duty-free item you had in your possession) because at the time of importation it is deemed to be $900 for tax purposes.

In my case I had pooled my allowance with my partner and the phone was well within that combined duty-free allowance should they have checked.

Fly safe

Of course, it goes without saying, that I am not a border agent or a specialist in tax matters so you should verify everything beforehand and make your own decisions.

Thats it! Have a great flight and enjoy the little extra bit of spending money for your holiday.