Thursday 7 December 2023

International Mail needs Customs Forms - or else!

Readers will be aware that treatment of the mail changed when we left the European Union (1 January 2021), and again in July of that year when the EU countries introduced the same rules.

Customs form CN22

I wrote (edited):

In effect this means that all goods bought from outside the EU are subject to local VAT.  In practice letters containing a few stamps are - as at present - less likely to be examined and charged by local customs authorities who are likely to be concentrating on bigger fry.

Note that if you (in the EU) buy from UK sellers on eBay, eBay will automatically add your local VAT to the price you pay in most cases.  Collectors in the UK buying from outside the UK on eBay have the same problem.  The one ray of light is that you no longer have to pay the Royal Mail/Border Force £8 examination charge.
Further changes introduced recently require customs labels for any goods, including gifts.  Royal Mail would dearly like to have all this done online, but the way remains open for offline processing using adhesive labels, with details input by Post Office staff at the branch counter.  [This has already started causing delays in branches as people send Christmas gifts - with no preparation before they arrived.]

From the Royal Mail website (slightly edited)

A customs declaration is an official document that lists and gives details of goods that are being imported or exported, for more information about why a declaration is needed please click here 

If you are sending goods or any items of commercial value (including gifts and samples) to a country outside of the UK you will need to complete a customs declaration and associated electronic pre-advice must be supplied. The easiest methods of doing this are via Royal Mail Click and Drop or via the Post Office as outlined below.

You will need to complete a customs declaration (CN22 or CN23) for any gifts and goods sent abroad. Items sent without a customs declaration (CN22 or CN23), associated electronic pre advice, or are incorrectly or partially completed may be delayed or returned to sender. It is your responsibility to verify that any items you send meet relevant customs requirements at the time of sending and your item/s are compliant.

Items containing Personal Correspondence do not require a CN22 or CN23. Personal Correspondence is letters, brochures, catalogues, C4 and below addressed to an individual (that are not sale of goods), postcards§, braille letters, individual invoices/statements. 

For example, items such as individual university prospectus/brochures/catalogues sent in A5/A4 envelopes with a personalised covering letter addressed to the individual enclosed making it clear to customs authorities what is contained inside.

This example is interesting in the light of an email received from JE of the British Postmark Society (BPS) today.  The Society's quarterly journal was returned as non-compliant, using an orange label not previously seen - CN15(c)

Returned To Sender C4 envelope with CN15(c) added

CN15(c) Returned to Sender label for Customs non-compliance.

I'm not sure how this differs from the University prospectus examples in the Royal Mail website. It probably didn't have a covering personalised letter.  JE didn't say whether it was opened or not: if it wasn't, how would anyone know that the contents were not 'Personal Correspondence', it's very close to being a Catalogue.

Royal Mail's advice on the link shown is:

Since your item cannot be processed through customs, we have returned it to you free of charge. If you choose to pay for it to be sent again, please ensure that you familiarise yourself with the customs requirements to prevent your item being refused by the destination customs authority.

I doubt that the label is peelable, but if it is covered, it seems that the BPS can send the package again with CN22 added and no additional postage, as Royal Mail have omitted to cancel the stamps the first time.

Another Returned to Sender form CN15 or CN15(b) is applied to mail which has reached a destination country which has been returned to sender for other reasons of non-delivery or non-collection (insufficient address, gone away, not collected, deceased, etc).    Here are two examples of the pink form.

CN15 Return to Sender form from Ukraine 2016
CN15 Return to Sender form from Germany.

This is another example of Postal History being made; the new orange label is the latest in a long line of similar labels which are now codified (presumably) by the UPU.

If you have any experience of having mail returned because of a failure to comply with new Customs requirements, please let us know.  For a form to be printed there must be a need, ie there must be many examples of this.



  1. I have had a lot of problems with FDC's sent to Ireland with customs forms on them. Some seem to have been returned because they have CN22's which do not have a barcode. It seems to be just down to pot luck as to whether they get sent back or no.

  2. I've had a (large) letter returned to me with a big orange label, but I crossed through it with a Sharpie and sent it again and it arrived to the recipient. Now I wish I had photographed it!

  3. According to my local Post Office in Scotland, the barcoded CN22 is no longer acceptable. Initiallt there was also a non-barcoded version for use with "registered " items which had their own barcode. However only the non-barcode is valid and the Post Office puts on a barcoded label.

    John Embrey

    1. Yes, I was told that at Dereham, but they were using the old ones, and still putting a new barcode over it!

  4. The worst countries I have experienced with items either not reaching their destination or being returned due to 'insufficient' customs forms are Austria and Mexico. Austria where parcels are concerned and Mexico - pretty much everything.

  5. That Ebay adds VAT does not guarantee an item from the UK will go without being charged. PostNL (Netherlands) will charge € 6 service fee plus 9% VAT (BTW) on top of the (usually) 22% charged by Ebay, unless data have been entered into the database correctly. They, frequently, claim the seller did not enter the correct information in the IOSS database. I cannot tell whether Ebay does not check whether the seller enters correct data or whether the PostNL customs clearance officers fail to do their job properly and just claim someone else is at fault.

  6. In a south London post office a few years ago, sending a Christmas gift, I was asked by the counter clerk to fill in the customs form as it was 'going overseas'. Destination - Isle of Wight.

  7. The only customs form I've been asked to fill in lately was sending a passport application to Ireland - not sure if the post office clerk was over-keen to avoid returns or just badly trained, as my understanding is that this would count as personal correspondence and not goods.

  8. The international economy service is only available for destinations outside Europe, and I understand that such mail is sent by surface. The cover illustrated has an airmail label on it and I wonder if this is why it was intercepted?


Thank you for reading the blog and commenting: please use an identity (name or pseudonym) rather than being Anonymous; it helps us to know which 'anonymous' comments are from the same person to avoid confusion. Comments are moderated to avoid spam, but will be published as soon as possible.