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Germany cheats tourists

Wherever you go in the EU, shops advertise the VAT-free export scheme for tourists. I live in Russia, so I sometimes take advantage. I have never had a problem getting my form stamped by a customs officer when leaving the UK, France or other EU countries. Germany, however, is a different matter. Some years ago I bought some jewellery on a trip there as a present. When I came to leave the country, all customs offices at the airport were closed. With €750 at stake, I ran to the office at each terminal to establish that; arriving sweaty, angry and robbed at my plane. I wrote a polite letter of complaint to the Federal Customs Service but received no reply.

At Frankfurt Airport a year or so later a German customs officer refused to stamp my form. She said my passport should somehow have been endorsed by the British authorities to show that I was permanently resident elsewhere. I showed her my Russian work permit and pointed out that Britain had no such system of registering citizens' residency. She said that could not be true as all European countries did. I pointed out I was an English lawyer and knew our system. She puffed out her chest and countered "I am a German customs officer" (I kid you not). Eventually, I involved her supervisor and the form was stamped. I now carry a letter from the British Embassy confirming that Britain has no such system in case I meet that proud and imaginative lady again.

Yesterday, I gave Germany its third and final chance and had a similar experience. I had bought a watch in Berlin and went to the Customs Office at Berlin Tegel airport's Terminal C to get the form stamped. It was closed. Its opening hours are published nowhere but on a board outside. I ran to Terminal A to try there, as €1,000 was at stake this time. The office was poorly signposted, hidden in a cramped area behind some shops and took much time to find. The queue, of course, was long.

This time the Federal Republic did not succeed in bilking me. But it involved much running and the risk of missing my flight. It is absolutely clear that Germany is deliberately cheating tourists by advertising a tax-free scheme but maximising the difficulties of collecting the refund. How many millions a year does it steal from less determined tourists by this shabby trickery?

Visit Germany, by all means. It's a beautiful country and the people are charming, helpful and friendly. But don't be conned into buying anything in the belief you will get your VAT back. The German Customs Service will do all in its power to cheat you.