De-tax before departing the UK

A note for non-European tourists to the United Kingdom in respect of Value Added Tax and obtaining refunds.
If you’re planning to go shopping whilst in the UK, it’s important to know that we have Value Added Tax (“VAT”) which is a 20% tax added into most goods and services. You will see the price including VAT.  Unlike in the US, you don’t have to do calculations in your head to account for sales tax – the price you see is what comes up at the till!
Eating in vs Eating out. 
At cafes and restaurants, including places like Starbucks, you will be asked if you are “eating in, or taking away.” This is because a croissant is (for example) £1.50 to take away, but £1.80 (ie, £1.50 + 20%) to eat in, as eating in the cafe is technically a “service” that the cafe is supplying to you. Sometimes VAT is shown on a separate line. This doesn’t mean you’re paying extra – it just shows how much tax is included in the price.
It should be noted that nobody really cares about this at cafes – I often say “take away” and then go find a seat within the cafe anyway. It’s really not a big deal at all, but I thought I’d flag it in case you were wondering why they ask or why there is a different price stated on the menu. The cafe then pays this VAT to the government – they don’t keep the 20% – it all goes back into the treasury. Of course, if you’re sat at a restaurant and a waiter comes to take your order, don’t expect to get away with saying you’re not eating there 😉
VAT refunds
 
You may notice at the airport when you land a kiosk for VAT refunds. This is because if you visit the UK but live outside of the EU, you can obtain a refund on some of the aforementioned VAT! You cannot receive a refund on things that you have already consumed within the UK – like food you’ve already eaten or perfume you wore. However, you might be able to get it on gifts and clothing, bottles of gin, boxes of chocolate, jewellery, etc.
How to get the refund? Save your receipts and ask the retailer for a VAT 407 form. You may be asked to show proof you don’t live in the UK, like a US Passport or drivers’ licence. When you go to the airport to leave the UK, show your purchased goods, the completed form and your receipts to customs. Customs will approve your form if everything is in order. You then take the approved form to get paid.
I should note that many, many items are NOT charged VAT (children’s clothes, books, antiques, admission to museums, and a bunch of other items listed here) are NOT charged VAT. But it never hurts to ask.
Heathrow Airport has a helpful VAT refund brochure, which you can read here.
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London espresso: the Southbank

Part of a series highlighting one area of London.

The South Bank. This itinerary is designed to take the better part of a day, and is best for fair weather. Ideally, aim to go between Wednesday and Saturday, as this is when Borough Market runs its full trade. A limited market is in operation on Mondays and Tuesdays.

Day Planner
Distance: The route itself is 3.2 miles (5.1km) and would take about an hour to walk. However, this does not consider the time you’re going to want to spend at museums, on the London Eye, or at Borough Market!
Stops: Imperial War Museum, The London Eye, Southbank Centre, OXO shops, Bankside, Tate Modern, St Paul’s Cathedral, Borough Market, Shakespeare’s Globe.

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If you’re starting in the east end, make your way to Bank Station and catch the Waterloo & City Line. This is an often-forgotten-about line as it only goes between two stops: Waterloo and Bank (which is in the City)! The journey takes only five minutes.

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London espresso: Vibrant Central

Part of a series highlighting one area of London.

Central London. Get your walking shoes on and your wallets out, because this walking guide will have you traipsing around some of the busiest, most vibrant shopping areas of London. This was written with my Mother and Sister-in-law specifically in mind!

Day Planner
Distance: The route itself is 2 miles (3.2km) and would take about 40 minutes to walk. However, you will want to allow plenty of time for shopping!
Stops: Selfridges Department Store, Oxford Street, Liberty of London, Canaby Street, Regent Street, Picadilly Circus, Leicester Square (and an optional detour to M&Ms World), Trafalgar Square, and Charing Cross.

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  • Make your way to Selfridges, a luxury department store near Bond Street Station (easy to get to from Liverpool Street on the Central Line). This is second largest shop in the UK (after Harrods) and opened in 1909. Originally from America himself, Mr Selfridge attempted to dismantle the idea that consumerism was strictly an American phenomenon – he is said to have coined the phrase “the customer is always right.”
  • After Selfridges, walk east along Oxford Street which is Europe’s busiest shopping street. On average, half a million people visit Oxford Street every day, and foot traffic is in severe competition with buses and taxis – watch out! The first department stores in Britain opened on Oxford Street in the early 1900s, including Selfridges (above) and John Lewis. However, be alive to the fact that there are many “downmarket” stores trading alongside more prestigious stores. My advice is to avoid the trashy tourist shops.

 

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Oh, snap! A guide to the June 8 elections for the perplexed

Since moving to the UK in 2011, I’ve experienced a handful of elections: London Mayoral Elections in 2012 and 2016, the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, the 2015 General Election, and of course, the referendum on the UK’s membership in the European Union (“Brexit”) in 2016.

But what our Prime Minister Theresa May announced yesterday – that General Elections will be called ahead of their scheduled May 2020 date – will be my first Snap Election. What does this mean? Here are few key points, written especially for my friends and family who aren’t familiar with British politics &/or Parliamentary systems of government.

What is a snap election?

In the UK, General Elections are normally held every five years. They can be held earlier however, in what is known as a “snap election.”  Put simply, a snap election is an election called earlier than expected. In this instance, three years earlier! They occur in Parliamentary systems to capitalise on a unique electoral opportunity, or to decide a pressing issue.

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Museum Exhibits, London 2017

Here are just some of the museum exhibits I’m keen to see this year, listed in chronological order of exhibit closing date. What are your cultural must-sees of 2017?

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Revolution: Russian Art 1917 – 1932 
Royal Academy, 11 February through 17 April

I saw this and recommend it unreservedly. I’ll write a review soon!

  • One hundred years on from the Russian Revolution, this powerful exhibition explores one of the most momentous periods in modern world history through the lens of its groundbreaking art. Taking inspiration from a remarkable exhibition shown in Russia just before Stalin’s clampdown, the RA marks the historic centenary by focusing on the 15-year period between 1917 and 1932 when possibilities initially seemed limitless and Russian art flourished across every medium.

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Lunchtime in London

You’ll see cafe and restaurant chains all over the city, but how do you choose where to grab a quick bite to eat?

The UK lunch market is worth £16 billion to the economy. “Which lunch market? Greenwich, Spitalfields, Borough?” I hear you ask. Actually, I’m taking about the sector of the food industry. And as fewer and fewer people in Britain bring homemade lunches to work, the lunch market is growing by about 3% each year.

According to the BBC, we are more likely to dash to the nearest takeaway to grab something quick and then bring it back to their desk. On average, we spend £670 a year on takeaway lunches, with those of us in London spending at least £830 each year.

I first noticed this when I tried to explain chains like Pret a Manger, Itsu, and Vital Ingredient to my family back in the United States. Now, I will be the first to admit that cities like New York, Chicago, Austin and my hometown of Seattle have plenty of great takeaway lunch options. However, I’m unaware of any widespread chains that aren’t blatantly in the “fast food” category. While Americans have plenty of burger and chicken places, I wouldn’t consider Pret to be like MacDonalds (despite the latter being the parent company).

Londoners especially have mercurial food tastes: we move seamlessly between cuisines and formats. So what do I recommend for lunch when you’re in the Big Smoke? If I’m in need of something cheap and cheerful, usually head for one of the following chains.

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Best for Soups and Sandwiches – Pret
Pret offers Sandwiches, baguettes, desserts, fruit cups, crisps and bakery items, as well as sushi, salads, soups, and cakes. They also have hot and cold drinks, including smoothies. There really is something for everyone at Pret. The company emphasises the use of natural ingredients and advertises all sandwiches are made on the day of purchase.
Budget £5 for a sandwich or salad with a can of fizzy drink or bottled water.

Runner up – EAT.
EAT offers a really good rotation of weekly hot food, like chicken pot pie and macaroni and cheese. They also have sandwiches that you can toast – toasties!
Budget £5 for a sandwich or salad with a can of fizzy drink or bottled water.

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