The Zollamt and What to Expect

This post comes late as I’ve been struggling to regain balance and find spare time during these late summer weeks. Two kids out of my three were recently struck by stomach flu, meanwhile two weeks worth of holiday luggage had to be packed, and the au pair we had been counting on was such a bust that instead of staying a full twelve months with our family as originally planned, she left after two.

The Au Pair story could be a blog post in itself which I may write after I’ve recovered from this recent disastrous experience. Today though I wanted to write about our experience at the local Zollamt or customs agency that I had with this former au pair of ours that screamed, “German Way post!”

It’s always been a mystery to me why sometimes a package posted on a Monday from my mother in America full of new cute outfits for my kids would arrive on our doorstep the following Monday or sometimes even that Friday. While at other times, it would be nearly three weeks when I would think, “Gee, didn’t Mom say that she had sent a package?” and then the package would appear. No matter how long it would take to arrive, each time, these packages from the States had a green sticker on it: Zollamtlich abgefertigt or “cleared through customs.”

Our au pair, who came from a country in Asia, was waiting desperately for a large package from her mother during her sixth week with our family. She asked frequently when it might arrive and then if we could help her track it. When we called the postal agent on her behalf, we found out that the package had indeed gone missing. Her mother had gotten our post code right, but not being European, her seven looked like a one. That meant that instead of coming straight to Baden-Württemberg, our au pair’s package went first to Berlin. Then even though the package was redirected to our address in Aalen, it had still not arrived. It wasn’t until a notification arrived from Deutsche Post that we learned that the missing package was waiting for our au pair at the Zollamt in Aalen.

We drove there one morning and were lead to a large storage room once I explained that we were there to pick up a package. The agent there kindly explained that all packages outside of the European Union must clear customs. Usually that happens upon arrival typically at Frankfurt International Airport, but for whatever random reason, sometimes those non-EU originating packages end up at the local Zollamt. Just think of the zones you follow on your way out of Baggage Claim at the airport. If you walk through the blue and yellow lane for arrivals from within the EU, you don’t have anything to worry about. If you walk through the green lanes for nothing to declare, you might feel a twinge of anxiety hoping that you won’t get pulled aside to open your bag and reveal the shopping spree you might have had at your local American shopping mall or at the Apple store. Only when the contents of the package are things that already belonged to you below the value of forty-five euros are you exempt from paying any customs.

We were feeling OK about everything once he explained the rules since I knew that our au pair was expecting her winter clothes in this package. This was in fact a big relief since we were expecting to have to pay customs based on the value of the package (approximately 17.5% of the value of goods). We told the agent that yes, the contents of the package were her own things sent from her mother because she had been unable to bring more than one suitcase by herself when she arrived in Germany in late May. It was only when he mentioned that only dry, non-meat food products could be accepted and any medicines were forbidden that I started to get nervous again. Our au pair had just told me in the car on our way to the Zollamt that she was worried about the customs officers confiscating cold medicine and other over the counter drugs (in American standards) that her mother had also sent.

So when he asked us to open the package in front of him I hoped that he didn’t notice the large picture of a prawn on the packages of ramen noodles or that he didn’t think the vacuum packed dried, gold stringy flat mass looked like dried cuttle fish. There were also small tubes in boxes that luckily had no pictures and were labelled completely in Hangeul (Korean). I didn’t stop to read what they were but I had a suspicion that they might have come from a pharmacy. I kept on reaching deeper into the box looking for the au pair’s clothes. I could only find one tennis sneaker. Reaching deeper and deeper into the box hoping to find a wool sweater or something more easily identifiable as a personal effect, I could only find the other sneaker. Luckily, this satisfied the agent and he told us that we could back up the car to the loading dock adjacent to the storage room we were in. As quickly as we could, we lugged that box into the trunk of my car and said, ” danke und tschuess!!” That experience was not half as painful as I was expecting it to be, but I am not looking forward to ever going back!

One thought on “The Zollamt and What to Expect

  1. Oh, the Zollamt. One of the most miserable places in Germany. I recently spent 3+ hours there trying to pick up a baby package. Apparently baby clothes are subject of much suspicion (and taxes). 🙁

    Thanks for the tips – as always – Jane.

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