Shopping in Germany 101 for Zurich Families

I love living in Switzerland, but shopping here with the high prices and limited selection can be frustrating. So like many others, I shop across the border a few times a year, particularly at Christmas time, saving a bundle on toys, gifts, clothing and household supplies. Not only are the prices more affordable, but you can also get a refund for the VAT (value added tax), generally 19% on most goods.

Below are my favorite places to shop across the border, what products are worth buying there, how to claim a VAT refund (very easy!), and Swiss custom allowances.

Where to shop across the border

From northern Switzerland, the best shopping areas are Konstanz, an hour northeast of Zurich, and Lörrach, just north of Basel. Both of these towns have all the big box stores like Karstadt, Müller, DM, H&M, etc. as well as lots of smaller interesting boutiques. Singen is popular for its large Walmart-style super store. Waldshut and Jestetten are smaller shopping towns, only worth it if you live close.

I’ve put all the major shopping destinations on this map. Click to view an interactive version.

Shopping in Konstanz Germany

This is my preferred place to shop. It’s much more attractive than Singen and there are many more store options and nice places to eat. In town, you find lots fun stores but my main stops are Müller Spielwaren for toys, regular Müller for toiletries and cleaning supplies, H&M and Karstadt for kids clothes, and Kaufland for groceries. Sometimes I shop at Media Markt, but I find electronics are not much cheaper in Germany (compare MediaMarkt CH to DE).

For toys, the best option is Müller Spielwaren () in the middle of town, on Tirolergasse, the alley behind big H&M. They have a big selection, good prices and free wrapping service. You can also order online and pick up in the store. This saves on shipping and time in-store and you can easily process your VAT refund. See their online toy catalog.

Nearby at Marktstätte 13, you will find the Müller Drogeriemarkt, which has household items, toiletries, and supplies for office, kitchen, cleaning, art, and crafting. They have a big candy aisle, so I often stock up here for advent calendars and stockings. See the Müller website.

The Lago Shopping Center (Bodanstraße 1, 78462 Konstanz, Germany) has pretty much everything you need including Aldi for groceries. You’ll find many clothing and shoe stores including H&M and Zara. Karstadt Sports in the basement has sports equipment and clothing, including ski equipment, bikes, and hiking shoes. Schinacher is a nice toy store but the prices are much higher than Müller or Real. Lago has a large parking garage, the most convenient in town. But it can fill up quickly even on weekdays and it’s pricey.

For groceries, I usually drive about five mins from the downtown Konstanz area to Kaufland (Carl-Benz-Straße 22 78467 Konstanz), which is an enormous grocery store. It’s not fancy but not trashy either. It has a wide selection of products, great prices, free toilets, and free parking. There are other box stores nearby like Obi (home improvement) and a pet food store, etc. In old town Konstanz, there is also Aldi in the Lago mall and nearby Edeka (Bodanstraße 20, 78462 Konstanz).

Shopping in Lörrach Germany

If you live in Basel, this is your best option. This town has most of the big box stores you need like Karstadt, Müller, and H&M, all in the pedestrian zone of the old town center. For groceries, they have Rewe (Am Alten Markt 4, 79539 Lörrach) Open Mon-Sat 8AM–10PM. We usually park at B + B Parkhaus (Bahnhofstraße 5, 79539 Lörrach, Germany), which is only a couple blocks from the main shopping area.

We usually go shopping Lörrach after visiting our favorite thermals bath, Sole Uno in nearby Rheinfelden. After shopping, we always stop at an Eiscafe for gigantic ice cream sundaes, which are affordable and delicious.

Shopping in Singen Germany

Most people go to Singen to shop at Real, like a Walmart with groceries. I used to go to Singen a lot, mostly for food. They have good prices and a wide selection. The toys section is small, but has good deals. You can browse their online store to get an idea of what they have and compare prices.

Singen is not particularly attractive, but it does has a small pedestrian shopping area with other obvious shopping options like Karstadt and H&M. Karstadt is a nice department store with quality clothing and home goods. The toys section is pretty good. The prices were better than Switzerland but higher than Real.

Real
Georg-Fischer-Str. 15, 78224 Singen Deutschland
Open Mon-Sat 7:00-22:00Uhr
Online shop, toys section

Karstadt
Bahnhofstraße 19-21, 78224 Singen Deutschland
Open Mon-Sat 9:15-19:00Uhr
Online toy catalog

Anyone have any other favorite places to shop in Germany?

Is shopping in Germany worth it?

Not everything is significantly cheaper in Germany, but I found prices to be about 20-40% cheaper on the things I was interested in. If you process your VAT refund, you save another 19% on top of that. I spent about 30CHF on gas round trip and an hour driving each way. I think it’s worth it, but it really depends on what you buy there. If you are already in Germany for another reason, it’s a downright shame to not also shop there.

Toys. For birthdays and Christmas, I always go to Germany to buy toys. A few years ago, I did a price comparison of toys to see if it was really worth it. It is! Here are a few examples: the Affenalarm game below was 26CHF at Manor in Switzerland but only 15EUR at Real DE, and 10EUR on Amazon.de. The Lego box below was 90CHF at Manor and 39EUR at Real.

The Babalu line (compatible with Brio) has a battery train for 10EUR, while the Brio one is 30CHF at Manor in Switzerland. The Babalu train tracks are 3-10EUR while the Brio ones range 15-30CHF.

Food is less expensive, especially meat. However, there are importation limits on certain food items, including meat, dairy, alcohol. I used to buy lots of groceries but after calculating the actual savings, I typically only buy breakfast cereal and candy (don’t judge!). My kids love Toppas and in Germany it costs about EUR 2.50 instead of CHF 6.50 per box. For Halloween and advent calendars, the candy bill can really add up, so the Germany discount helps out.

Household goods. Most household goods are much cheaper in Germany. I made a spreadsheet to compare prices of all the products I usually buy to see if it’s really worth it. I’m still collecting data, but there are some clear winners: diapers, laundry detergent, shampoo, soap, printer ink.

Clothes: For the big brands, like H&M and Zara, you will see the exact same products you see in Switzerland but for about 30% less plus the VAT refund. You can compare the prices online to see the differences. H&M Germany vs. H&M Switzerland  This drives me crazy and makes it difficult for me to justify buying any clothes in Switzerland. Shoes are a bit cheaper but not as much a difference as with clothes.

Electronics: Not all electronics are cheaper in Germany but you can often find a wider selection. I have bought some appliances in Germany, including my waffle maker, water cooker, and my vacuum, all of which were brands I couldn’t get Switzerland and they were less expensive than their Swiss counterparts. However, computers, phone and tablets don’t seem to be much cheaper there. Sometimes I shop at Media Markt Konstanz, but it’s best to compare prices before you go (MediaMarkt CH vs DE).

I bought all my Christmas lights at OBI in Germany and they were much less expensive than in Switzerlad. But I have to use plug converters on 10 strings of lights, which is annoying.

Claiming your VAT Refund

If you do not live in Germany, you are entitled a refund to the VAT paid on your purchases there, generally 19% on most goods. (Not the same rules for other countries for Italy or France.)

When you pay for your stuff in Germany, ask for an “Ausfuhrschein”, aka the VAT refund form. will partially fill out the form and attach your receipt. On each form, you must fill out your name, address and ID number from your Swiss residency permit. At Karstadt, you have to bring your receipt to the Customer Service desk to get the Ausfuhrschein.

When crossing the border, take these forms to the Germany customs office and have them stamped. You will need to show your Swiss residency permit and bring all your purchases with you into the customs office (if you leave them in the car, they may ask you to go get them). They may ask if Ausfuhrscheins represent everything you bought. They stamp the Ausfuhrschein (have you learned this word yet?) and now you can claim the tax back at the shop.

At Singen and Konstanz, you drive through Swiss customs, park just on the other side and walk to the German side to get your stamp. At smaller border crossings, you sometimes park before you cross the border. Just look to see the people walking around with papers in their hands and follow them.

If Swiss customs stops you while crossing, show them your Ausfuhrschein. They’ll check to make sure you are under the CHF 300/person limit (minus VAT, converted from EUR), peer in your car windows, and tell you where to park so you can walk over to German side.

To get your money back, you have to return to the store (usually within 12 months, but ask at the store beforehand, Karstadt is only 6 months) and present your stamped Ausfuhrschein. You will get cash. Sometimes you can apply the credit to your next purchase.

Some stores use the Global Blue service to process the refunds. In this case, you must go to the Global Blue desk to claim the refund. In Konstanz, there is a Global Blue office in the train station. In some cases, you can mail your stamped form to the store or Global Blue and receive your refund electronically.

What are the Swiss Customs limits?

I am not an expert. You can read the official customs policy here. But in general, you are allowed 300CHF (usually about 250 EUR ) duty-free per person. There are also limits on certain food stuffs, like dairy and meat (see official rules here). Important things to note:

– Customs calculates how many francs you spent using their exchange rate (e.g. 1.25CHF = 1EUR).

– If you are over over the limit, you are charged customs on the whole amount, not just the difference. So if you spent 301CHF, you are charged customs on 301CHF, not the 1CHF you are over, that’s 24CHF fyi. I know because it happened to me. I’ve been told that the customs limit does not include VAT. So they would first deduct the VAT then determine if you spent over 300CHF. I have not tested this theory.

– You get 300CHF/person but you cannot split the cost of one item over multiple people. If one item cost 301CHF, you are over the limit even if you have 6 people in your car.

– If you stop to process your VAT refund, the Swiss customs people might decide to look at your receipts and look in your car (maybe just through the windows) to see if you are over the limit. So if you claim one thing, you better plan on claiming everything.

– For Swiss customs, food is charged at 2.5% and everything else at 8%. You will get a receipt that details this.

What about online shopping in Germany?

Amazon.de is an obvious choice for books (in English) and other media, but I’ve also had a good experience buying toys there. Shipping is always free for books and other media (also exempt from Swiss VAT), and sometimes free for other goods if you spend over a certain amount. Amazon.de deducts VAT on checkout, so your purchase total suddenly is lower on the final confirmation page – what a nice surprise! In many cases, they add back in the Swiss VAT, so you shouldn’t have a surprise with customs when your package arrives.

The customs policy for online shopping is confusing. The official rules say that all goods arriving in Switzerland by post are subject to tax and there is no duty-free limit, except gifts for which there is a 100CHF duty-free limit. Customs is charged on not only the value of the good but also the shipping charges.

However, I’ve read that if the customs tax is less than CHF 5, they will not impose the tax. So in practice, this means, if your package + shipping charges is worth less than about CHF 60, you will not be charged. But that is not always the case and I have been charged customs on packages worth much less.

Amazon and other sellers do *not* ship certain items to Switzerland, like electronics and kitchen appliances (I don’t know what the official rules are). You often won’t realize this until you try to checkout and enter your Swiss shipping address. So don’t wait to buy at the last minute, only to find out they won’t ship to Switzerland.

Delivery Address in Germany

If Amazon or other sellers will not ship your item to Switzerland, you can use one of many “Lieferaddresse” services, which allows you to ship your item to their store and you can pick it up there for a small fee.

I use www.lieferadresse-konstanz.de and am very happy with them. It is located a block from the Konstanz train station in the old town. They charge EUR 5 for small packages, more for larger packages. You have two weeks from delivery to pick it up, or they add an additional fee.

These purchases count toward your customs limit when crossing the border. To get VAT refunds, you must get these receipts stamped at the border and send them back to the company you purchased the item from.

Online toy shopping in Switzerland

Here are a few sources for online toy shopping inside Switzerland:

  • toysrus.ch – I rarely use this because I can see that the prices are so much cheaper at toysrus.de
  • ricardo.ch – I’ve bought some good quality second hand toys on Ricardo.
  • www.weltbild.ch and www.jako-o.ch – I haven’t bought anything from these but my Swiss friend recommended these sites. I would expect quality and high prices.
  • www.bea-verlag.ch – I was just introduced to this catalog toy store that requires you to collect points. I haven’t bought anything there yet. But the catalog has an excellent selection and decent prices.

Do you have any other suggestions?

Happy shopping!

Remember, I’m not an expert, so use this information at your own risk. I’ll try to update this post as I have more experience shopping in Germany. Next stop for me, Konstanz. Happy shopping, ya’ll!

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13 comments

  1. Thanks for the hint on the Müller toy stor. We have been to Konstanz many times and never found that little gem. We went today and had great luck. Thanks!

  2. I live in Germany,so I don't know about shipping costs elsewhere, but this place has lots of affordable options for new and used Legos. http://www.markenwelt-voegele.de/. I was pleased with what we bought (used). For new clothes I like http://www.ernstings-family.com. Rossman is a popular drugstore and often has toys of the smaller variety. Of the major department stores C&A has the best prices. The grocery stores Real and Hit seem to have the best “American” sections. I think most other options have been discussed – great post!

  3. I just want to point out that the limit 300CHF VAT FREE. That means the VAT you paid won't be used to calculate the total amount. 301CHF is not enough to start paying customs.

    I also don't know how it works in other places, but near the border is the easy to get the refund, but if you buy in the middle of the country I think you need to use a tax free service and for that you pay a lot of fees/comissions that will eat part of your refund.

  4. Love your blog! I'm also a big fan of cross-border shopping. You have to make smart purchases, but overall you can save a bundle. We saved a ton of money by buying art/craft supplies for my 2-year-old in Austria. 🙂 I look forward to reading more from you!

    Stephanie

  5. Thanks for the French rules. I had no idea the rules were so different there. So clearly, my write-up only applies to shopping in DE.

  6. Hi Kayli. Re: Amazon.de shipping. I believe that if the item is fulfilled by Amazon.de (not one of their partners), then shipping is free. But if the item is fulfilled by a partner (often the case with toys), they you pay the shipping fee as determined by the individual seller. Usually the seller is listed directly under the item name and description, but sometimes it is not clear until you proceed through the checkout process. I just order some board games last week from Amazon.de and I picked them up a few days ago, no shipping costs, no customs. I hope this helps.

  7. For France, you can find the rules here (in French): http://www.douane.gouv.fr/page.asp?id=49

    There are 2 annoying limitations: first, you must buy for at least 175 euros the same day in the same shop (of course you can buy in multiple shops, but for 175€ at least in each of them). And, in theory, you can only get your tax back on items 'à caractère touristique', i.e. having a touristic interest. Strictly speaking, not so many purchases enter that category unfortunately. Of course, you can always count on the fact the agent at the border won't really check. But if he does, it can invalidate the whole thing (because of the 175€ low limit).

    Finally, I strongly doubt shops like Carrefour will give you the appropriate papers.

  8. So, this was very interesting, but I'm wondering about the free shipping from amazon.de. I thought that was a steal of a deal, so I was going to order some things, but it turns out the shipping was going to cost about 16 euros. Do you have to have an amazon card or something to get the free shipping?
    But you say you've done it right? Ordered things and then not had to pay anything upon delivery? I just want to understand what you're saying correctly.
    Thanks! This is great info.

  9. There is also Kaufland – I've been there a few times and they have a huge selection of mostly food.
    Carl-benz-straße 22, 78467 Konstanz, Germany
    +49 7531/8199280 ‎ · kaufland.de

    Lago is the big shopping mall. It's got a lot of stores (H&M is good) and an Aldi but I didn't spend much time there. There's also a good drogerie on the main floor that is good to get all your basics at. If you go on a weekend you want to get in right when they open. You can park there though and go across to a huge C&A that has great deals for kids.

    We went to Buebchen und Maedchen last weekend http://www.buebchen-maedchen.de/ and they are about twice the size of the Baby Walz in Konstanz/Singen. Also very easy to get your VAT form – will see how easy it is to get my money back from them next week.

    I hadn't heard of the Real place – is a decent size?

  10. Certainly the same Swiss customs rules apply, regardless of the country from which you are importing stuff. I think all our bordering countries (France, Italy and Austria) work generally the same with VAT refunds, but since I've only done with Germany, I can't really speak to that. I've also shopped at that Carrefour and Toy-R-Us near Mulhouse, but I didn't process the VAT refund because I didn't know how to do it. But now, I regret it – I could have got of money back.

  11. Do these rules also apply to shopping in France? I just recently went to the Carrefour store in Mulhouse. It was an amazing store – like a Target and a grocery store all in one, and it was located in a tiny mall, with a ToysRUs nearby. But I didn't declare anything and so I'm wondering if in the future I should and get the VAT back.

  12. For online shopping, if the VAT does not exceed 5 CHF, you don't have to pay it.
    (Keep in mind VAT is lower for books)

    Also the post will charge you a processing fee (around 20 CHF) in addition to the VAT if you are above the 5 CHF limit.

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