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Hey big spender - now you’re an importer

Ecommerce is exploding in South Africa and many people, having had good experiences with local sites, are sampling the delights of overseas-based retail sites.

Women holdi ng her credit card
Pexels / Bruce Mars

Listen to this week's consumer watch or read the details under the podcast.

Mike Hibbert is among those who enjoys buying goods from international sites, and he plays it safe by sticking with the biggies - such as Amazon and Alibaba, which include all the extra costs - shipment, customs duties, VAT - into the purchase price.

But he and others who’ve had it all figured out when it comes to buying from international e-commerce sites have recently come across a new obstacle… Right now he has two packages, both personal use items, “stuck” in customs in Cape Town. When he contacted the couriers - UPS and Aramex - he was told that because he’s brought more than three items into SA this year, he has to go to SARS and apply for an Importers Code.

Read: Have you ever come across a UFO (Unappetising Foreign Object)?

Understandably, he’s not happy about it.

"I pay my import duties against my ID, so what’s the problem? Why do I need an import code? I am an individual consumer just buying stuff for me; not an import company. It just doesn’t make sense.”

SARS’s media office confirmed it for me. “Please note that…if a person brings goods into the country more than three times a year, irrespective of whether it is for personal use or not, then they will indeed have to apply for an importers code.” That’s a calendar year, and it’s provided for in the Customs and Excise Act.

The Act is dated May 2013, but Mike said a SARS import/export representative he spoke to said it was implemented only in April this year.

Read: #Consumerwatch: Audis ablaze

For those whose fourth online purchase “import” arrives in the country and is red flagged by SARS, the process of getting that Importers Code is not a simple one.

Mike did find a company which was willing to spare him the schlep, but the service came at a cost of R1600, so instead he took time off work last week to get that code himself, without which he can’t lay claim to his two purchases.

Here’s what you need to apply for an Importers Code:

  • A completed DA 185 form (from SARS).
  • A certified copy of your ID card.
  • Front and back proof of address, such as a utility bill.
  • A recent tax clearance certificate.
  • A stamped letter of good standing or bank statement from your bank.
  • A consent letter or affidavit confirming that all the information is true.
  • Mike says it took him four hours just to get his tax clearance certificate.

So be warned - if you want to avoid having to go the Importers Code route, make sure you don’t order more than three items from foreign-based websites in a calendar year.

"SARS appears to have done a really bad job of informing the public of this requirement, leaving many of us to find out the hard way,” Mike said.

Big thanks to him for alerting the rest of us.

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