I'm importing a guitar from the USA, where do I even begin?!

Reader note -  This article is from 2017 so may be a little dated now, especially in light of BREXIT and the effect on importation that has had. I will leave this article here on the blog for resource purposes, but I highly recommend researching with the official resources thoroughly before importing something from overseas yourself now. I receive a lot of e-mails asking for me to help with calculating importing costs of your privately bought gear. I unfortunately can't allocate the time to helping you all with your own imports, but hopefully the info covered in this blog post will help, it's the rules I follow when calculating incoming stock but is only here as a helpful guide. If you require current, specific details please contact the seller of the goods you wish to buy along with HMRC. This will ensure there's no nasty surprises at customs and you're completely clued up on your import. 

Over the years since beginning the shop, the sometimes baffling language of importing goods from over the pond has become almost like a first language to me..Almost! Due to the nature of what I do here, working with other small businesses like guitar, pedal, string etc makers, means there are no big distributors to provide a UK price. The calculator has to come out a hell of a lot to figure out what everything will cost to my door and whether it will be affordable to do so. It's a tightrope walk at the best of times. But because of this I very often get asked by followers of the Home of Tone for a little advice with players looking to import a guitar themselves. As I do totally understand that it can be scary doing this yourself, making sure there are no nasty unexpected bills from HMRC etc, then I'm always happy to help the best I can! So here's a handy little reference guide I've put together which may perhaps help you if you're planning on buying a guitar from the USA! These details and figures are correct as of 14th Sept 2017, so please note this if you're reading at a much later date as of course fees and percentages can change, and very often do!

Other than keeping an eye on the fluctuating exchange rate, there are some key details that are important to bare in mind when buying a guitar from the USA, for example.
Let's say you've seen a killer handmade guitar with the price of $2500 and go from there.

So let's break it down - 

This cost can vary from courier to courier, but in my experience, US prices for shipping a guitar sufficiently, in a case, boxed will vary from $150-$250. Even if a guitar is super lightweight, due to shipping box size, couriers will quote on the volumetric weight of the parcel. The cheaper end of the scale here will be an un-insured value service such as USPS, often quite slow too taking 3-4 weeks to arrive. The upper value will likely be a quick courier service like UPS or FedEx, this can even be as quick as 1-2 days and will likely be with the value fully insured. Use your gut feeling here and common sense is a must. You're spending your hard earned money on a essentially fragile guitar that has got to go on various planes, through a lot of hands and conveyor belts and finally via a delivery van to your door. That's a lot of points it could all go very wrong. So insured shipping is worth the extra, trust me! Be prepared for a $150-250 bill just for the overseas shipping.

Import Duty
Import Duty is a fee that is charged on goods coming into the UK with a value over £135. There are different 'bands' of duty depending on the value of the goods being imported, and the percentage of duty increases from 2.5% to 3.5%. There are then also variances in the Import Duty depending on the type of item, usually for Guitar related commodities, the import duty is around 3.5% - 4%. The last few guitars I have imported were charged at 3.5% so I'll use that for these examples today. This percentage is taken from the price paid for the item itself, so if the guitar you want to buy is $2500, then the Import Duty you will be charged is $87.50. 3.5% of $2500. You won't be charged the import duty for the shipping cost paid, only the value of the goods.

Import VAT
Then there is import VAT. All goods over the value of £15 imported into the UK from outside of the EU will be charged VAT, it's a pretty low threshold here!
This figure is calculated by adding the calculated import duty value (this example being $87.50 as above), adding the shipping price you have paid (let's say for example sake, $200 as above) and also adding the cost you have paid for the guitar (again this example being $2500). So!

$87.50 (Duty) + $200 (Shipping) + $2500 (Item value/cost) = $2878.50
20% VAT of the value $2878.50 = $575.50

For a guitar that is $2500, you are now looking at a final landed price into the UK of $3454. It's a hefty jump up isn't it? But a whole lot better if you have planned ahead, done your maths and expect to have that cost to pay. A $954 surprise extra bill is no fun at all, so be clued up and factoring this in when you're window shopping will help the surprise wallet ache at a later date.
With today's exchange rate (14th Sept 2017) it means this guitar is £2578.07 landed.

Courier Handling Fees and international payment charges
One detail that is worth noting, although these costs certainly aren't as high as the duty and VAT, is the courier handling fee for processing your parcel through customs and the bank or credit cards charges for international payments.
All couriers will charge a handling fee for processing your parcel through customs clearance, this is anything from around £8 to £20 or possibly more depending on the courier in question. So not a huge fee when you're talking about a £2500 guitar, but again, worth making sure you're expecting it to happen.
Also, if you're paying via bank transfer or credit card, most major banks and credit card companies will charge a processing fee for international payments. Again this can totally vary, so check your bank/card small print or speak with your bank/card supplier to find out what the fee may be. 

Item Restrictions
There are many importation restrictions, and when it comes to guitars, types of woods used in the instrument is very important. Although this may not necessarily affect your import costs, it is something definitely worth your attention. For example in January 2017, CITES changed their regulations on ALL types of Rosewood, meaning if a guitar is imported without it's relevant certification then it can be seized, destroyed and you can be fined. Not fun :( So be certain, and import something that you'll be able to play, not be crushed! I would recommend reading up on the CITES restrictions before considering importing a guitar. Having a hefty fine, and no guitar to show for it is truly horrible. The best thing here is to avoid banned woods like Rosewood most commonly used, and/or consult the guitar maker or dealer you're speaking with about the guitar you wish to buy. Chances are they will have experience on this matter as CITES is important in the guitar industry.

Customs Clearance
For some couriers/handlers, if an item is over a certain value, it can go through additional clearance. This isn't a procedure that will cost more in fees, it is just classed as high value and customs often like to take a closer look. For Parcelforce for example (who handle all of USPS shipped items a lot of USA based guitar makers and shops will use to ship your guitar) this value is $700 worth of goods. So if your guitar is $1000 for example there is a chance it gets pulled for additional 'high value goods' clearance. If this is the case, you will be asked for something called an EORI number. This is a number which border control use to help track goods coming into the country, anyone can apply for one of these numbers and you will need to speak with your clearing agent if this arises to see about doing so. It can take around 2 weeks to obtain one of these numbers though, so I would recommend applying for one in advance and that number assigned to you is yours forever and can be used on any goods you import in the future. Most of the time you won't get asked for this number, but I recommend obtaining one, then should an import require it you don't have to wait an extra few weeks to receive your guitar! Helps speed up the process. You may also be asked to complete a C160 & C88 form, to assist in clearing the item. In my experience, the handling courier has always been in touch if these are required and have posted them to me to complete on every occasion. But don't be surprised if you have to source these forms yourself to complete. The forms will ask for the expected information really, goods description, invoice value paid, commodity codes and the EORI number as above. These forms are often requested if you've purchased goods from a private seller overseas, as very rarely will they have completed the documentation sufficiently meaning customs are left with no info to clear, that's where you come in sadly!

All of this will either completely scare you off! Or it will help you be a little more clued up if importing a guitar is completely new to you. But I do really hope the info here helps in some way if it's something you've considered doing. There are an unbelievable amount of innovative, talented and skilled luthiers and other guitar related items across the USA, so it's understandable to be attracted to buy, and very often it's easy to get excited about seeing a $ price and quickly converting it to £, but there is a lot more involved. Going into it clued up about what costs are involved will really help you plan for your purchase and understand the costs involved in doing so. I get asked about it a lot and really hate to see buyers get stung by unexpected costs and fees, so hopefully this blog post will help those and future enquiries.

Again, please note these figures, percentages etc are correct as of today 14th Sept 2017, so ensure you look into the valid figures at the time of reading. This is just a rough guide.

Happy importing!

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clive chilton

clive chilton said:

Hi James,
Really appreciate your info regarding the real cost of importing from USA. Very informative and very very useful.

Kind regards,
p.s. have been on the look out for an article like this for some time explaining the real costs involved. Many people think they know but I have found if you ask three people you will get three differing accounts of what the costs are.
Thanks again.

Tony de Souza

Tony de Souza said:

Great article Clive

Tony de Souza

Tony de Souza said:

I meant “great article James”


Tom Schryer

Tom Schryer said:

Does the buyer pay since the exact total amount seems to be determined by the UK? When? How?


James said:

Hi Tom,
On most occasions, most definitely, the buyer would be the one covering the import duty & VAT costs, not the seller/sender unless it has been agreed otherwise.
The handling courier usually invoices you (the buyer) for the importing costs prior to delivery being made and them releasing the item.
This is certainly the case for every single import I have handled in many years of doing this.
Hope this helps,


Mario said:

Hi James,

This article is very informative, thank you so much for putting it together. However, I would need some advice on flying back with a guitar purchased in US. You see, if a guitar that costs $2500 and it goes up to $3500 when all duties are payed, I could just happily fly there and bring it back myself. How about smuggling? Any info on that?


James Gascoigne

James Gascoigne said:

Hi Mario,
Any info on smuggling?! Not quite sure what to even say there.


rupert Sheehan

rupert Sheehan said:

Great, article James very helpful.. dam, there goes my bargain!

Alasdair MacDonald

Alasdair MacDonald said:

Hello James. Many thanks for the informative article, it’s been really helpful. I just wanted to check whether one would pay VAT on a second-hand guitar imported from the US. I brought in a 1950 ES125 a couple of years ago and paid New York State purchase tax on it at the dealer. Had I been stopped at Customs I wouldn’t have expected to pay VAT as the guitar was far from new! Fortunately my thinking wasn’t tested and my angelic looking wife just walked through with it strapped to her back! Can you help on this?

James Gascoigne

James Gascoigne said:

Hi Alasdair, thanks for the comment :) I’m afraid I don’t have any experience in importing vintage instruments, so really couldn’t provide any advice on that subject unfortunately. All I can suggest is to try and contact HMRC and seek their advice on the import, to ensure it is declared correctly.


Ken said:

I have bought a guitar from American I live in the uk it is on its way I will let you know how I get on with costs when I get it,thanks for the information it will lessen the shock.

Michael Byrne

Michael Byrne said:

Thank you for the guide.


Manuel said:

Hi James, my question is, I’m looking to buy a Gibson 1986 Les Paul. The seller is based in the Netherlands. My question is… Would I have to pay any duties on a used guitar was was made in the US and is simply coming back to its place of manufacture? Let’s say the guitar is worth 6kUSD.
Looking forward to your answer. Thanks a lot,

James Gascoigne

James Gascoigne said:

Hi Manuel,
Thanks for the comment. I’m afraid I’m not based in the USA nor familiar with USA government import laws to be able to guide you on this. I would research the regulations stated by US government/customs on importing 2nd hand goods to confirm. My gut feeling is that yes, you would be charged import duties/taxes, as it is still an import of purchased goods but I can’t say for certain

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