Picture: 123RF/Amir Zukanovic
Picture: 123RF/Amir Zukanovic

Buy more than three items from online international retail sites, such as Amazon, in the space of a year and you will automatically become an official importer in the eyes of Sars — and you will need to apply for a special code before getting your hands on your purchases.

Since 2013‚ the amended Customs and Excise Act has allowed South Africans to "import" no more than three "consignments" from overseas — with a value of less than R50‚000 — in a calendar year without registering with customs. In other words‚ if you bring four or more overseas purchases into the country during the course of a year‚ you need to apply for what’s referred to as an importer’s code.

Customs insiders say Sars only began enforcing this requirement in April this year‚ so it is only now starting to affect those who have discovered the joys — and the bargains — of shopping on international sites, such as Amazon and Alibaba.

‘If a person brings goods into the country more than three times in a calendar year‚ irrespective of whether it is for personal use or not‚ then they will indeed have to apply for an importer’s code’ ~ Sars

Mike Hibbert is one of them. He currently has two packages‚ both personal-use items‚ "stuck" at customs in Cape Town. It was when he contacted the couriers — UPS and Aramex — to query the non-delivery that he discovered the "more than three imports and you need to apply for an importer’s code" rule.

"I pay my import duties against my ID‚ allowing Sars to track what I’m ‘importing’ and the customs duty and VAT I’m paying on it — so why do I need an import code?" he asked. "I am an individual consumer just buying stuff for me; not an import company. It just doesn’t make sense!"

A Sars spokesperson confirmed: "If a person brings goods into the country more than three times in a calendar year‚ irrespective of whether it is for personal use or not‚ then they will indeed have to apply for an importer’s code."

But it’s not a simple process. Hibbert found a company that was willing to apply for the code on his behalf to spare him the time and effort‚ but the service would have cost R1‚600 — so he opted to do it himself‚ last week.

Here is what’s required to apply for an importer’s 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

So be prepared to tackle the red tape required for an importer’s code — or restrict your purchases from overseas retail websites to three a 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‚" said Hibbert.

A former customs official now working for a clearing agency told TimesLIVE that consumers buying second-hand goods from foreign-based sites, such as e-Bay, were also required to apply for an import permit from the International Trade Administration Commission (Itac).

Johnny Matthews of Plettenberg Bay is also having trouble getting his hands on goods that he’s paid an overseas company for‚ but for a different reason. Six months ago‚ he took out a 12-month subscription to the weekly UK magazine My Week‚ paying more than R2‚700. To date he’s only received one copy‚ despite his many queries with his local post office and distribution centre.

"The time has come for the South African Post Office to publicly warn South Africans not to expect delivery of goods posted from abroad‚" he said. The Post Office has yet to respond.

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