How to avoid paying airport tax on your laptop or cellphone

25 May 2018 - 08:51 By Timeslive
File photo.
File photo.
Image: Gallo Images/iStockphoto

A businessman who was fined R1‚500 to bring his own laptop back into the country after a trip abroad has highlighted a little known requirement that Customs officials are now enforcing at South Africa's airports.

Travellers do not have to declare personal items but those wanting to avoid the hassle of potentially being questioned by a customs officer can stop at the Customs office before Passport Control to fill in a form called TC-01‚ prior to leaving the country.

Toler Wolfe-Coote wrote a letter warning "unsuspecting citizens" that on his return from Vietnam recently‚ he "was made to pay R1‚500 to bring my own laptop back into the country‚ although I have owned it for many years and can prove this".

It has always been the case that Customs can enforce the payment of VAT and duties on brand-new electronic devices that are purchased abroad by bargain-hunting South Africans.

The South African Revenue Service said the businessman traveller was given incorrect information‚ as a DA65 document was phased out for travellers many years ago. "Today it is only used within the commercial cargo environment‚ for example where goods are temporarily exported for repair abroad‚" the tax authority added. Sars advised that it had provided practice guidelines to front-line staff "as a result of recent incidents".

Here‚ Sars explains the process for travellers flying with high-value personal items:

"In terms of Customs legislation‚ South African residents travelling abroad are not required to declare their personal effects when leaving the country‚ nor upon return. 'Personal effects' is defined in legislation as including items such as personal laptops‚ iPads‚ cellphones‚ golf clubs‚ cameras and/or other high value items forming part of the traveller’s possessions when leaving the country.

"However‚ upon return to South Africa‚ the traveller may be challenged by a Customs officer to provide proof of local purchase or ownership."

A Customs officer will want to establish whether the goods are new or used goods purchased abroad.

The proof may be in the form of an invoice‚ an insurance record‚ or in the case of a laptop‚ even the content on the laptop.

The alternative is for a traveller to fill in a form called a TC-01 (Traveller Card)‚ "notifying his or her intent to register goods for re-importation".

"This is presented to the Customs Officer who will then capture this online on a Traveller declaration system (TRD1). The traveller authenticates the declaration by signing on a digital signature pad. A copy is printed for the traveller to retain as proof of registration. Following this process saves the traveller the burden of having to be questioned on their personal effects when they return‚" said Sars.

If the traveller is a frequent flyer‚ this remains valid for six months.

Sars further advised: "Where a Customs officer is not satisfied that proof of local purchase or ownership can be established‚ the officer will advise the traveller that the item will be detained until proof can be presented. Alternatively‚ duty and VAT is charged and penalties possibly imposed for non- or false declaration in the event that the traveller has no proof."