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4 Things You Need to Know About Buying Lingerie Internationally

pillowbook lingerie

Pillowbook Lingerie, based in China

The rise of online retail has given lingerie consumers a vast array of options that would've been unimaginable a decade ago. No longer limited by what's in stock at your local department store or neighborhood boutique, it's now possible to order lingerie from almost anyone who sells it... no matter where they happen to be.

The benefits of this brave, new world are obvious. Hard to find sizes now have dozens, if not hundreds, of options. Consumers who prefer to buy ethically can do so with ease. People with special needs, such as post-surgery or hypersensitivity attire, can find a brand that caters to that need.

Yet the world of online buying is not without its downsides. There's a different sort of risk in this transaction, including more opportunities for shady retailers and fly-by-night storefronts. Safe in the knowledge they'll not be held accountable, some brands and retailers engage in questionable business tactics, taking advantage of uninformed consumers.

I've been buying lingerie online for nearly a decade, and I'm still learning how to do it better. This list, while not exhaustive, is meant to share some of the most valuable things I've learned during that time.

Of course, this doesn't replace reading a store's terms and conditions on your own. It's still important to do your due diligence before buying. But I remember how intimidating buying internationally could be. So if you're in the same place, this is for you.

One last caveat: because I live in the United States, my perspective is weighted in the direction of a US-based consumer. I simply don't get things delivered to me anywhere else. But the principles here apply even if you live outside the States, and I hope you'll find them helpful no matter where you're located.

In a lot of ways, there's never been a more exciting time to be into lingerie. Get informed. Then go shop!

1) Currency Conversions

Often, when buying from a website outside your country of origin, you'll need to use their local currency. Google offers a quick currency converter within their search engine if you just type "currency converter" within the search bar.

Because of how the lingerie world is structured, I most often use pound and euro conversions while purchasing. You can also type that command into the search bar and get a direct answer (a phrase like "30 dollars to euros" is enough). Please note, however, that currency conversions change by the minute and the exact conversion rate won't be determined until the moment of purchase (it'll also be made by your bank). What Google offers is simply a useful and easily accessible tool.

Screen Shot 2015-09-15 at 2.31.55 PM

Myla's Sale Section UK Prices

Screen Shot 2015-09-15 at 2.32.07 PM

Myla's Sale Section US Prices

Some websites let you convert to the currency of your choice directly on the page. At first, this may seem easier, but beware! Some companies set prices higher than the real conversion rates.

On Myla's website, for example, a bra on sale for £56.00 should, ideally, convert to around $85.00. Yet the price on Myla's US currency site is $185.00! That's an incredible (and completely unexplained) markup. Without double checking, a customer might assume Myla's conversion rate is accurate, but it is anything but.

Agent Provocateur has similar markups (a £95.00 Nicolle bra should convert to around $145, but instead sells for $190 on the US site), and even ASOS does it (a £39.00 Nubian Skin bra, which would convert to around $60, sells for $71).

I'm not saying you should avoid buying from places where there's a price conversion disparity. Some of that, especially on the low end (which is how I would define ASOS' $10 gap) can be explained away as a buffer against currency value fluctuations or a reflection of certain shipping and import taxes. It doesn't necessarily have to be nefarious. Perhaps even Myla has a good reason for their $100 pricing disparity. The point is simply to be an informed consumer so you can make informed decisions no matter what the price tag says. Hat tip goes to fellow lingerie blogger Marionette Mew for bringing this to my attention.

2) VAT Inclusion

VAT, or Value Added Tax, is something I primarily encounter when buying from the EU. I'm not a international tax professional, so I won't try to explain all the details (especially since US sales tax is a completely different beast), but the gist of it, for our purposes, is that European lingerie prices already include the tax... which should be deducted at checkout if you live outside the EU (Update: This rule applies primarily to medium- and large-sized businesses as small businesses beneath a certain revenue may opt out of VAT).

You've probably already guessed where I'm going with this: not every company deducts the VAT for international customers.

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Bravissimo's VAT Policy

Holly's talked about Ewa Michalak as one European brand that keeps a 23% VAT in the final cost of their international orders, but they're not the only one. Bravissimo, another popular online retailer, also charges VAT to orders outside the EU. They say it's to cover "the additional costs of providing a service to international customers," but I'm not sure what is so time or labor intensive that it requires the equivalent of a 20% markup (the UK's current VAT rate) for people outside Europe.

If you're buying from a place that rolls taxes into the listed prices, always double check before completing checkout. If your total is unchanged, you may be paying VAT.

3. Shipping and Customs Duty

Going a bit further down the rabbit hole of international shopping, buying something from another country can mean dealing with expensive shipping fees and inconvenient customs taxes.

When I'm buying from a new online store, one of the first things I check is their shipping policies.  What shipping method does the company use? Will you have to sign for it? What about insurance and tracking? What's your recourse if the item is lost? What can you do if the items are damaged?

More importantly, how will you feel if your order disappears off the face of the earth or arrives irretrievably ruined? Is the garment replaceable? Will you be able to write off the cost? Do you trust the seller to respond to issues? While the era of modern, trackable shipping certainly minimizes risk, negative outcomes are not unheard of. Think through the worst possible scenario and be prepared for it... just in case.

I.D. Sarrieri makes gorgeous lingerie, but it'll cost 55 euros (roughly $62) to ship it to the United States. The upside is shipping fees are waived for orders of 500 euro or more.

I.D. Sarrieri makes gorgeous lingerie, but it'll cost 55 euros (roughly $62) to ship it to North America. The upside is shipping fees are waived for orders of 500 euro or more.

When it comes to customs fees, if you don't know to expect them, they can be a rude surprise (especially if your package was held up by a customs delay). Different countries have different thresholds for when you'll be required to pay customs fees, so it's important to be familiar with the laws for where you reside.

In the United States, for example, the order threshold is $200 (Update: This threshold is now significantly higher. Check US Customs and Border Protection for the latest info.). That is the value of what you can buy and have delivered to you without being charged a tax. However, in Canada, the customs threshold is $20... which means paying a tax on most anything lingerie-related. The point is, when buying internationally, check your country's customs fees. For most places, this information should be publicly accessible from a government website.

One last note: reputable companies will not lie for you (such as calling an item a gift) so you can avoid paying customs fees. Falsifying customs documentation is a crime in most countries, and can have profound consequences - for both the business and your future ability to receive international shipments. Remember, customs fees are not an extra tax assessed by the merchant; they come entirely from the country where you're receiving the package. The seller has nothing to do with them.

4. Return Policies and Your Rights

Did you know you have 14 days from the date of delivery to return items purchased from the EU for any reason? Did you know you're entitled to a refund on any EU purchases if your order is not delivered within 30 days? Did you know your EU purchase is guaranteed for 2 years? I'm focusing on the EU because that's where a lot of lingerie comes from, and these consumer rights are guaranteed for international purchases from all EU member states (plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway).

While I encourage you to click on the links above for full details, what that means in real terms is you have two weeks to contact the seller, tell them you've changed your mind, and return the item. It also means you're entitled to a refund on any order that's been delayed/undelivered past 30 days. Finally, it means that if your item breaks or is otherwise faulty (for example, you received a size you didn't order or the underwire broke after only a few wears), you're entitled to a refund and/or return.

What this doesn't mean (especially for the 14-day return period) is that you can't use an item (for example, soiling and/or laundering it) and then return it for a refund. The 14-day period is meant to give you the ability to closely examine goods in person, comparable to when you view them in a shop. Please also note that this policy also doesn't apply to private sales from an individual; it's for companies only.

Panties hanging on the line

Panties hanging on the line

Of all the things mentioned so far, the EU's stance on consumer rights is probably the least well-known, but I believe it's the most important. Lingerie is a finicky beast, and it's not unusual to try multiple brands before finding the right one. While I haven't yet heard of a store declining a return within the allotted time period, this is still important information to have on-hand.

Outside the EU, things get a bit more complicated, and that's where reading the return policies of the site you're buying from becomes essential. There is no nationwide law on consumer returns in the United States, for example, and, depending on state law, a lingerie retailer may be well within their rights establish a final sale only policy. In Australia, a retailer is not required to give refunds if you change your mind, but may give one if the product is faulty. As with customs, it's impossible to make broad generalizations, but if you know what to look for, you can familiarize yourself with the rights of the country you're buying from.

What advice would you offer when it comes to buying lingerie online, especially if you're purchasing from a country not your own? Do you have any tried and true tips? Pitfalls to avoid? Please share your favorite recommendations in the comments!

Cora Harrington

Founder and Editor in Chief of The Lingerie Addict. Author of In Intimate Detail: How to Choose, Wear, and Love Lingerie. I believe lingerie is fashion too, and that everyone who wants it deserves gorgeous lingerie.

18 Comments on this post

  1. Mary says:

    I found out the hard way that websites are too often unclear about international return policies. I just spent $39 to return $200 worth of items to Finery US even though they say on their website that returns over £100 are free. They weaseled out of free return saying that despite this statement being on their US return page, it doesn’t apply to the US.

  2. sol says:

    Excellent and very timely post.
    Living in Angola, i do 90% of my lingerie shopping online and i’m well versed on these points.
    What i dont get is the stores that keep VAT (or local taxes) for international customers, its so annoying and many a times has stopped me from making a purchase.
    On the other hand, living in the ‘wilds’ of Africa means that i’m pretty limited on which retailers i can buy from. The number is increasing, but some shipping fees are no joke…What Katie Did charges 50 GBP to ship to my part of the world, so no matter how much i love their products it will have to wait until i visit London again.
    To top if off I’m on the ‘fullbust’ end of the spectrum so really my choices are limited to pretty much online shopping…

  3. Dee says:

    Although I’m up in Canada, I ship everything that I can to either friends or my PO box in Blaine, because the duty and tax is so high getting stuff shipped directly to me in Canada! If I’m down in the US for a weekend, I’m allowed to bring back $800 worth of stuff, so it’s still kosher. I’ve had hit and miss experience with having to pay duty/taxes on stuff received directly in Canada — even if it’s over $20, you won’t always have to pay duty/tax. But after coughing up $80+ to pick up my Sparklewren swiss cincher, I don’t ship the more valuable stuff directly to me!

    I do pay close attention to what postal carrier the company uses to ship, if I am getting delivered to Canada. I was dinged $80 by Fedex for “customs” and Fedex’s “customs brokering” fee, for a package only listed as worth $80! (and the kicker was that the sender had inflated the value for insurance purposes, and the contents were worth only about half of that!) I will only get stuff sent to Canada if the company uses USPS, which goes through Canada Post once it gets up here, and then it’s only tax/duty paid, no customs “brokering” fees.

    I’m bummed to hear that Bravissimo still charges the VAT on international orders. I’ve bought stuff from thier shop directly when visiting the UK, and was going to order some more stuff from them this fall, but I guess not! I’m not gonna pay tax twice!!

    • Sam says:

      Hi! I’m in Canada with a PO Box in Blaine too. I hadn’t realized that there was such a big difference on imports (at least under 200USD) to the US v. Canada, and how they were treated crossing the boarder. I’m glad I started searching for information more creatively, and I’m very grateful for the benefit of your experience and comment.

  4. Thursday says:

    “In Australia, a retailer is not required to give refunds if you change your mind, but may give one if the product is faulty.”

    This is not quite accurate. It is true that under Australian Consumer Law, a business is not required to give you a refund or exchange for a change of mind on a purchase, but when an item is faulty, your entitlement to a repair, refund or exchange differs depending on whether the fault can be considered minor or major. The ACCC’s website has this useful info and it’s quite easy to navigate:

    Also, make yourself very familiar with the policies of your financial institution or PayPal. My worst experience was purchasing from a (local, albeit) seller on Etsy who never sent me my purchase, and lied and deceived me in the meantime, even as far as sending me fake tracking numbers. The name Dark Muse corsetry is mud around here, she has done this to several people I know. But, I got bounced between Etsy, PayPal and my bank when trying to get my money back and in falling between their cracks, the time in which I could get the money back elapsed. Knowing how to lodge a case for withdrawing the payment and in what timeframe could save you some stress if you’re unlucky like I was.

    Lastly, for fellow Aussies, I have found the Australia Post Parcel Lockers a god send for international parcels. Once you have signed up and verified your identity with them, you can choose your best location to pick up from – with 24 hour access, no need to sign for anything, completely automated and super easy process. I get a text message and pop out on my lunch break to pick up my parcel – no queues, no missed deliveries, and far fewer opportunities for things to go missing.

    • Cora says:

      Thank you for the added advice! The details on buying in Australia are especially helpful. I’ve heard the cost of shipping + the falling dollar has made lingerie shopping a special kind of awful right now.

      • Thursday says:

        Shipping from the UK is usually not so bad (although rising), but Europe and the US can be steep. And please, let’s not talk about the exchange rate. It’s too painful.

        On the upside, Zulily’s Australian-facing site has AUD9.95 flat rate shipping, although I’ve not found any of their lingerie sales particularly to my taste yet.

  5. I’ve bought ranges in from the US before, and living in England have to pay tax & duty/customs to receive the orders. There are. Online calculators which will give you a rough idea (depending on rate of exchange on the day it arrives) of how much it will cost you.

    However it is also worth noting that the delivery agents may charge you for sorting this.
    Royal mail will keep the item until you pay them the tax/duty owed. Fed-ex pay it for you, deliver the goods and add £10 to the invoice.

  6. J says: is another site that keeps the VAT when selling lingerie to intl customers, and are rude about it when asked!

  7. Avigayil says:

    As per our recent Twitter chat:
    1. There are some credit cards that allow you to buy foreign and do not charge a foreign currency exchange fee. In Canada, the CC through Chase is one of those: “No foreign transaction fees*” – that can save you 2.5% or so on a transaction.
    2. Paypal defaults to Paypal conducting the currency conversion for you using their rates and their transaction fees. You can switch this off to “Bill me in the currency listed on the sellers invoice” – which then lets your Credit Card do the conversion for you. Even with a normal credit card, I have found that letting my CC convert currency instead of Paypal saves me money. With my credit card, I often save several dollars on orders around the $50 range… which adds up.

    • Cora says:

      This is super useful information. Thank you.

    • Dee says:

      This is VERY good to know! The paypal mark-up has been irksome to me for some time!!

    • Tenley says:

      The Charles Schwab One checking account for U.S. customers lets you purchase anything internationally without foreign transaction fees (this also applies to free withdrawals at all ATM, any bank, foreign and domestic, but that’s another story). It’s not a credit account but comes in handy for international shopping and travel.

  8. Estelle says:

    Just to clarify r.e. the bit: “European lingerie prices already include the tax…which should be deducted at checkout if you live outside the EU.”

    That is true, but it does make it sound like international customers should always get a discount at checkout which isn’t always the case. It depends on the size of the business.

    In the UK (I don’t know about tax law elsewhere in Europe) businesses must charge customers VAT if they sell £82,000+ per year. Less than this and they CAN volunteer to (not as crazy as it sounds because they then get some VAT that they pay refunded to them), but most small businesses and indie designers won’t because it’s a bunch of paperwork hassle and means they have to increase their prices and lose customers.

    So if you’re buying from a small brand or say someone on the VAT being charged is often 0% and there’s nothing to deduct for international orders. You can always email the brand to check if they charge VAT if it isn’t clear from the website.

    • Estelle says:

      P.s. Or check for a VAT registration number in the footer or in the T&Cs – VAT registered businesses must display this so if you see one, you can be sure their prices include a VAT charge.

    • Cora says:

      This was great information. Thank you for sharing it. I think, like a few things here, it’ll vary by country (I tried to imply that with this sentence: “If you’re buying from a place that rolls taxes into the listed prices, always double check before completing checkout.” But I’ll make it clearer in an Editor’s Note, as I agree that it’s not specific enough). In terms of how things change between countries, I just checked on Poland’s VAT exemption, and you don’t pay on revenues of under PLN 150,000 (roughly $40,000 USD). I think, for the purposes of this article, I’ll just reference that small lingerie businesses may not charge VAT. Thank you again!

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