Buy a Watch Abroad? Don’t Do It!


Don't buy a watch abroad! Jaeger LeCoultre Polaris

There is an enormous temptation to buy a watch abroad. You’re on holiday. The bills are at home. Factory tour? Sure! The horological urge is equally strong at the airport duty free shop. Or that fancy foreign watch boutique you entered “just to look around.” Don’t do it! Don’t buy a watch abroad. Here’s why . . . [UPDATE: UK VAT Rebate Still Dead – US Watch Buying Discount Down to 11%]

“Duty Free” is a hassle

 A foreign watch dealer is required to charge you Value Added Tax (VAT or sales tax) on your watch purchase. After you pay the tax, you can claim it back from the government (even at “tax-free” locations). To reclaim your cash, you have to follow the government’s instructions to the letter.

Some merchants will reimburse your credit card on the spot, or you may be able to take your paperwork to a nearby third-party agency to get an immediate cash refund (minus a commission for the quick service; these tend to be located at money-exchange counters near touristy shopping areas — think the Champs-Elysées).

Tax Free logo

In either case, you may need to get the documents stamped at the border, then mail them back; if the shop or agency never receive the documents, they’ll charge the refund amount to your credit card.

What could possibly go wrong? Even if nothing does, even if you enjoy filing paperwork, there’s another reason you don’t buy a watch abroad: Uncle Sam.

U.S. Customs duty limits watch “bargains”

“Duty free” purchases are exempt from taxes imposed by the home country – but not the U.S. Uncle Sam allows returning Americans to import up to $800 worth of merchandise without having to pay duty ($1600 from the U.S. Virgin Islands). Everything above that requires a customs declaration and incurs import tax.

Don't buy a watch abroad - customs declaration

Customs and Border Patrol charges a 3% import tax on the first $1000 beyond the $800 exemption. They charge 6.5% on any amount above the first grand.

Assuming you don’t take the $800 exemption (because you’ve made other other purchases and I hate doing math in public), the feds charge $290 on a $5k watch. They hit you up for $1265 on a $20k watch.

The U.S. is home to over 11k tax jurisdictions. Most of them charge both local and state sales tax. If you buy a new watch in Austin, Texas, for example, the total combined sales tax is 8.25%. On a $5k watch, that’s $412.50. On a $20k watch, you pay the governor and mayor $1650.

Don't buy a watch abroad!

Bottom line: in Texas, you’d save $122.50 by buying a $5k watch abroad, and $385 on the $20k watch. You’d save more in higher tax jurisdictions, but enough to cover your expenses and the hassle of paperwork? Not IMHO.

[NB: avoiding U.S. Customs duty (a.k.a., smuggling) is a criminal offense.]

Watches purchased abroad miss out on authorized dealer love

Authorized dealers offer customers hidden value. If the manufacture needs to put something right, an authorized dealer has more juice (access to the corporate mothership) than you do.

They’ll usually pay for shipping and insurance when needed. AD’s also have watchmakers on call who can offer quick fixes and sage advice on which watches don’t suck.

Don't buy a watch abroad! Buy it from a local dealer like Korman Jewelers Austin

AD’s also have access to information on new models, and the new models themselves. If you’re hunting a grail watch (e.g., a steel Rolex Daytona) every watch you buy at an AD brings you closer to the Valhalla. I scored a Rolex Explorer from a dealer in one week thanks to previous purchases.

Don’t buy a watch abroad. It’s not worth the hassle, the savings aren’t significant and you miss out on AD goodwill. If you want to save big bucks on a luxury watch, buy pre-owned, discontinued or “black market” models from a reputable stateside source.


  1. Seems to be a bit of misinformation here. I bought a timepiece worth over Euro 4,000 in Spain in July 2018. I paid VAT of course and was given all the paperwork for the purchase. At the Barcelona airport, I went to the VAT refund desk and showed them the paperwork. Within 5 minutes I got my VAT payment refunded to me in CASH. Got to the US and did not pay any import duties at JFK.

    • Jerry, I may be wrong here, but did you not have to mail a form to the original seller showing that the watch was declared at customs in the U.S. (i.e. proving that it left Spain)? I’ve read that if you don’t do that within several weeks, the foreign retailer will charge your card on file for the amount of the VAT

  2. If you are buying a high value Swiss mechanical watch, it if often worth having it shipped, as when the paperwork is completed properly there is not import duty/tax on Swiss mechanical movements. This means that if you were to buy a watch with a tax free price of say $30,000.00 ($36,000.00 inc tax), the movement could make up to 80% of the cost of the watch so the case would be valued at $6,000.00 on which you would be charged 6.5% or $390.00 with shipping costing about $800.00, so saving about $1000.00 against just declaring it on entry to the US. Now for the crazy part a $500,000.00 Patek Philippe minute repeater will have a similar case value the amount of duty would be the same, the shipping would be more for the insurance (maybe $2,000.00) but you would still only have to pay about $500,00 Tax/duty and then have paperwork to show the watch was tax paid.

    • Tony – that’s helpful. I plan to visit Switzerland soon. I’d like to get (don’t laugh) a Rolex Daytona Panda. I think they’re about $15k USD, IF one can be found. I guess ship it back to California rather than carry through customs?

  3. Sounds like some watches are far to expensive for this average retired wage earner…. I thought a couple of hundred dollars would get me a reasonable time piece…

    • Anonymous: I totally agree with you there! I just love how some folks call a $700 dollar watch “affordable”! Sure, if you’re an instagram “model” or funky YouTuber, they’re affordable. BUT there are those of us who pay rent, taxes, medical bills, etc., can’t afford to plunk down 700 bucks for a watch! Good news, though. There are nice microbrand (and non-microbrand) watches under $400 out there, AND a whole bunch of these with sapphire crystal and 100-300 meters water resistance. You just have to make time to surf the web and search.

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