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The truth about duty free

Duty free
4 min read

Duty free shopping is almost a ritual for many travellers and a great way to burn time while waiting around the airport for your flight to depart. Whether it’s an impulse buy or you’ve been waiting for those special deals to bag your favourite bottle of perfume, you’ll feel drawn, no compelled, to the brightly lit duty free sign in any airport.

But is duty free the bargain it’s made out to be?

The Association of Southern African Travel Agents (ASATA) takes a closer look at duty free shopping and some saving tips next time your money starts burning a hole in your pocket airside.

How it works

Duty free shopping quite simply means that the goods available for sale in duty free shops are products that would normally carry high taxes when bought in regular shops. You would basically pay for these items tax free, theoretically making it cheaper. The catch is of course that the items need to be taken out of the country for duty free privileges to apply.

For example, you’ve found an unbelievably priced Single Malt at Milan Malpensa Airport or the new iPhone X at Hong Kong International Airport. The benefit, you think, is that store won’t charge you tax on the purchase you make because you will be taking it back to your country of origin.

Sounds amazing, right? Not so fast.

Keep in mind that each country, including South Africa, has set limits on what you are allowed to purchase and the amount you are allowed to bring back with you to the country. For example, when it comes to consumables, there is an age limit on alcohol and tobacco products. According to the official SARS guidelines, all persons under 18 years of age may claim duty-free allowances on goods imported by them, with the exception of alcohol and tobacco products, whether or not they are accompanied by their parents or guardians and provided that it is for their personal use.

Yet another catch is that, when you return to your country of origin, customs officials may make it their business to ask you to declare what you bought on your travels. Now, depending on what you bought and what you paid for it – minus tax, can suddenly become plus tax in your own home country. To add to the hassle, the amount that you will have to pay will depend on even more variables which can leave you way over what you expected to pay.

In South Africa, travellers do have the option to pay duty at a flat rate of 20% on goods acquired abroad or in any duty-free shop to expedite their passage through customs. The total value of these additional goods, new or used, may however not exceed R20 000 per person. Flat-rated goods are also exempted from payment of VAT. If the value of the additional goods exceeds R20 000 or if you decide not to make use of the flat rate option, the appropriate rates of duty and VAT will have to be assessed and paid on each individual item. In addition, 14% VAT will be payable on the goods.

For more on the official SARS guidelines click here.

What can I buy at duty free?

Before you ditch shopping at duty free shops all together, there are some items that may still be worth splashing some cash on while saving a rand or two.

Most popular items globally amongst duty-free shoppers include sunglasses, alcohol, electronics, makeup, perfume and, dare we say it, tobacco products.

The good news is that, makeup and skincare products are often sold for up to 50% off at duty-free shops. If you are smart about your shopping habits, then you will also know that luxury goods such as perfumes, bags and sunglasses amongst others are often priced at rock-bottom, and other times, it is more expensive.

You can also consider shopping at a duty free shop when you are in the market for a rare or high-end product. You may find big savings, but you might also find none at all, it will depend on the value the item holds for you.


1. Before you plan on making any purchases big or perhaps smaller, do you homework and compare prices
2. If you are travelling to a destination that normally imposes a high tax on alcohol, you can save by buying a bottle at the duty-free store so you can have a drink at your accommodation.
3. If you are transiting through a destination when travelling you can often buy basic local goods at the airports like signature chocolates, tea etc. Just keep in mind the rules and regulation of what you are allowed to bring into your forwarding destination.
4. If you do not want the hassle of exchanging foreign currency upon your return, duty free shopping is an excellent way to spend coins or low-domination bills you didn’t use during your trip
5. If you forgot something at home or at your hotel, duty free can be a lifesaver.