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That customs charges a ton of duty on a wedding gift of jewelry. Doug goes out to the main airport in Thailand to pick up his import parcel and pays duty after duty after duty.

Home / Lifestyle  /
Wedding Gift Shakedowns
wedding gift

Someone has to charge you extra for what you already have.   Thai Customs thinks it might as well be them.

[To see me shaken down on film, click here.]

Eons ago, when the original Mrs. Knell was still alive and the future Mrs. Knell a high school student in a far away continent I'd never been to, my mother was putting on some of her jewelry and remarked to me that one day, my wife would lay claim to some of it.  Sounded great,  in the way that solving world hunger sounds great.   It'll be fantastic when it finally happens but you're not obsessing over it now. 

I'm not a jewelry wearer myself.   I don't wear any rings, earrings, necklaces, bracelets.  I tried all that at differing times in my past, and none lasted.   Up till about two months ago, I wore a watch on my left wrist, that was it, and my wrist never liked it much.  Watch bands broke with regularity.  After my most recent watch broke with just two weeks' usage, I didn't bother replacing it.  

After my recent marriage, my sister contacted me to ask if there was any particular jewelry of my mother's that my new wife wanted.   The wife likes earrings.  I haven't seen her wearing anything else.   I agonized over the purchase of an engagement ring for her, worried about spending too much for a ring she'd never wear or like.  A package was dispatched in record time.  Before I could provide any pointers on the protocols of mailing to Thailand, I received an email from my brother-in-law to expect a package the following week.

Sending packages to Thailand is a problem.  The country does not delineate between packages sent clearly for commercial uses and those sent as gifts.  The classification is made more by where the parcel originates.  From ASEAN countries: no duty.  From Japan and Australia, less duty.  From everywhere else, highway robbery extortion duty. 

It's frustrating.  Two years ago, I had some samples mailed over to me from the U.S.   These were bottles of a detox solution I would either be using personally for my own health or giving out as samples to prospects.  It wasn't as if there were hundreds of bottles in the package, putting me in a position where I couldn't argue they weren't for resale.  Drug enforcement agencies differentiate between an amount for personal use and amount in excess for dealing.  They slap down infinitely harder on the dealers.  Thai customs doesn't care.   They arbitrarily chose a new, higher value for this parcel, levied me 35% duty on this new value, and 7% value-added-tax (VAT) on top of that.  

Here's how I got reamed on that package.   I'd really paid $180 for it, but the seller had revalued it at $18 on the invoice form.  Thai customs had no idea what it was or what it was worth, but revalued it at $100.  35% duty added another $35 to the cost, now officially $135 total.   The VAT is assessed on this $135 -- an extra $9.45.   On a $100 package, you'll pay over 44% in taxes.  It's more like 46-47%.  All these transactions are actually going on in the Thai currency.  As the packages gets converted from U.S. dollars to Thai baht, the Thais will be sure to use an exchange rate several percentage points above what you'd really get.  So if the real exchange rate were $1 = THB 30, the $100 parcel is worth THB 3,000.  Thai customs would use a rate like $1 = THB 31.  The parcel is now worth more instantly, and the duty and the VAT go up along with it.

Especially disconcerting is to be assessed heavy fees on something you or your family have owned free and clear for decades.  I wasn't importing a brand new motorbike from Japan or exercise gear from Scandinavia, something in which licensed importers of those items in Thailand would always have to pay duty.  Jewelry is an item that you can walk right past customs at the airport and never pay duty.  It would have been very easy for my brother-in-law, when sending, to have valued the jewelry at $50 or $75.  Thai customs wouldn't or couldn't have known the true value, not with jewelry.  How can you discern, as an innocent layman or government bureaucrat, if what's in your hand is an imitation glass bead necklace or one composed of precious gems? 

I looked up jewelry in the Thai government tariff databases online.   The figures aren't pretty.  The ceiling rate is 60%, but they can duty as 'low' as 20%.  The decision is theirs to make, and it could be as arbitrary as the spin of a roulette wheel.  The jewelry had been sent to Thailand by UPS.  UPS rang me the day the parcel arrived and followed up with an e-mail offering to be my customs clearance agent for 'just' $70.  This fee would not include duty and VAT charges. 

I politely declined.  First, I thought that customs clearance didn't involve much work.   When duty had been assessed on parcels mailed to me from overseas in the past, the package was frozen at the post office, obtainable after I paid the duty to an official 5 minutes later.   With the new airport train, I figured I could be out to and back from the airport with my parcel in under 90 minutes. 

And second, I knew UPS wouldn't go out of their way to see that I paid the lowest duties.  What did they care?  I wouldn't be surprised if UPS gets a kickback in commissions from Thai customs, acting as sort of a customs duty "sales agent."  

In retrospect, the only easy part was getting out to the airport.   Once there, I had to stumble around to find out where to go next.   The customs office telephone number was never answered, so I went to the customs valued-added-tax refund office located in the departure terminal.  This is normally where transient tourists go to get back taxes they've paid in Thailand on expensive items.   The VAT Refund Office sent me to the Special Zone, a shipping, distribution, and warehouse area accessible to the airport by shuttle bus.   All the big shippers plus smaller ones operate here.  It's a row of mid-level office towers housing an endless torrent of paper pushers helping the engine generate cash from suckers like me. 

I was immediately besieged by folk brandishing Special Zone badges.   Could they help me, they asked?   I didn't know if this was Thai customs' effort at superb customer service or if these were touts seeking to stake out their piece of the pie created from government bureaucracy. In Southeast Asia, touts spring out of nowhere to offer "victims" assistance in doing things that, most times, the person could do quite well on his own.  Toutster asked for a tip to guide me from office to office, and at the time I was thinking "Sure, no problem."  What was $3-5 for helping me wade through the process when UPS wanted $70 to do the same thing?

The first place Toutster took me was right back to UPS, the first of many back-and-forth trips to be made this day.  I had scans of the original invoices and shipping documents from their e-mail, but this wasn't enough to move on to the next level in the parcel retrieval chain.  I needed the originals.   UPS charged $13 to hand me these 2 pieces of paper, an ingenious scam.  UPS charged my brother-in-law for the parcel postage going out, and now they were charging me for it coming in.    The official charge was "Expedited Delivery."   I don't see how me paying after the parcel arrived had expedited anything.  The real charge was "UPS Reaming Fee,"  but this doesn't look professional on a receipt. 

Toutster took me back to the main building and we were quickly joined by his buddy, Shakedowner.  Shakedowner and Toutster led me upstairs to the second floor and brought me before one official.  "You will pay tax on this," she said.  I nodded my head in assent.  "Yes, I know. Twenty percent," like this was the only figure, and she just agreed with me and drew up some preliminary figures based on that 20% .  An alternate scenario, with UPS acting as my clearance agent, might've had the UPS official saying to the same lady, "Our client owes 60% duty." 

Toutster and Shakedown, I found out now, had just been marinating me up till this moment.   They walked over to a desk area to finally devour me.  "How much you pay us?" Shakedown asked.   For what?  "To register you in database and to fill out paper work."  They showed me the forms, only in Thai.  I would need a bit of assistance and knew it.   I offered $6.  They laughed.   Then $10.   They howled.   $70 was their going price.   Now I laughed and howled.  For $70, I could've hired UPS, their $12 Reaming Fee included, and I wouldn't have had to come out to the airport at all.  "How much you offer then?" Shakedown continued.   I tried $16.  They shook their heads.   I doubled the offer, take it or leave it.   They left it. 

With Toutster and Shakedowner out of the picture, the only idea I had was to revisit the official they had first taken me to for the duty quotation.  In broken English, she told me to go downstairs and ask for the help of a certain special someone.  That someone had already gone home.   A clerk in equally bad English brought me over to another section.  I was sent back upstairs, yet again, with a Thai form to take to a specific individual.  This man wanted a photocopy of my passport.   Fortunately, I had one last copy in the knapsack. 

Back downstairs once more, I was asked to state the parcel's contents precisely.   I really hadn't any idea what was inside, but had I been honest about that, the retrieval process would have stopped right there and then. 

Off the top of my head, I told them there was a cloisonné necklace (my sister had asked if my wife would like a cloisonné but neither of us knew what it was), a ring, and a set of earrings.   They tallied up my duty with the 20% figure and VAT in inflated U.S. dollar-baht exchange rates.  I was billed an overtime fee, too.  Overtime starts at 3 PM in Thai customs.  I was instructed to go upstairs again and pay the bill, now about one third the declared value of the parcel.   Once paid I had to come downstairs again and deposit the receipt with them to pick up another form, the cargo retrieval form. 

I already mentioned I was in an area known as the Special Zone.  A security gate separates the Special Zone from the Cargo Zone, a space where parcels wait in limbo until clearance.  Visitors are not allowed to stroll into the cargo zone as their heart desires.  A security clearance pass must be purchased first for $1 on the seventh floor of some other building, and security guards standing in front of the gates to the cargo zone really do check it.

The Cargo Zone consists of open warehouse after open warehouse.  My shipping papers didn't state where to find the parcel.  It was up to me to walk the length and breadth of the cluttered warehouses to locate it.  Lifts unpacked, restacked, and transferred goods from one place to another in this buzzing and frenetic area.  I don't know how I did it.  I went to the very last warehouse, walked into the first office I saw, and showed my steadily increasing paperwork.   The official there boasted of his brother living in New York and working at the Waldorf-Astoria as he looked up my parcel and found its location.  Problem solved . . . after I first paid the cargo storage fee, another ingenious shakedown ploy.

Here's how that shakedown works.  Thai customs decides to hold a parcel for duty, so it must be stored until duty is paid.  The cargo storage fee payment office is located almost halfway back to the gate into the Special Zone, a fifteen minute walk for most.  This office demanded $20. 

I now had to walk all the way back to that last warehouse in the row of warehouses and produce my receipt of storage payment to lay claim to the parcel.   I couldn't believe, after over three hours, that the small parcel, generating myriad revenues for multiple bureaucratic offices, was finally mine; and I shouldn't have believed because it wasn't. 

From the last warehouse I had to walk back past the customs storage payment office, where I'd just been, and continue ten minutes further to the customs inspectors' offices and get them to sign a form.  It was at this point, exhaustion hit me and I began, for the first time, to realize why customs clearance agents have jobs.

The customs inspector's job here was to check each form to insure I'd been paying all the hands demanding greasing the correct amounts or more.  I opened up the parcel in her presence so she could be sure its contents where what I'd said they were.   I got uneasy over this part of the process.  If the contents didn't correspond to what I'd invented earlier, how much more money would be extracted from my wounded wallet as a penalty? 

I was fortunate.  There was a necklace inside plus two sets of earrings.  One set of earrings, if you didn't look very closely, resembled a ring.  I was off the hook there, but not completely.  The assistant pointed to the custom inspector's desk stuffed with 100 baht cash notes.  I was asked (i.e. ordered) to "tip" her for assisting in my own fleecing.

Was I free to go now after seven hours and $250?  Come on, get real.  I had to return again to the last warehouse and show them the customs inspector's signature before they would issue me my second cargo clearance permit.   No one is allowed to exit the cargo zone without one.  Remarkably, no one tried to charge me for this permit.   It was getting quite late by this time, and charging me might've added another 30-45 minutes to their workday.   Finally, I was free to leave . . . literally.   They didn't charge me an exit fee for leaving the cargo zone either.

The consultant Price Prtchett once said that "Change always comes bearing gifts."  I think he meant that gifts always come with extra change . . . for Thai customs.  

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