Do I need to show my boarding pass at airport shops? (video & guide)

It’s one of those niggling frustrations. You want to buy something at the airport and you’re badgered for your boarding pass in order to purchase. Many people ask me if they need to bother, so here’s my quick video answer…

Update 15 July 2019: This blog was written two years ago, but the facts remain the same. 

Embedded YouTube Video

Some frequently asked questions…

After I originally posted this video on social media, there were a few questions that came up, so for belt and braces here are the answers…

Q. Why do duty-free shops need to see boarding passes? In the words of HMRC, “Duty-free shops can sell goods where the excise, customs duty or VAT has been suspended, usually alcohol and tobacco. Sales in duty-free shops are tightly controlled and HMRC requires these outlets to know where the passenger is travelling to before completing a sale.”

The reason behind this is with duty free you’re potentially being exempted from duty as well as tax. If you travel outside the EU, while other shops only get an exemption on VAT, duty-free stores can also sell goods such as tobacco and alcohol free from UK excise duty. Of course that doesn’t automatically mean they are cheaper than you can buy elsewhere.

Q. What counts as a duty-free shop? As they’re the only ones that can advertise goods as ‘duty free’, they’re the ones that do that. In practice most duty-free shops are called ‘duty free’ and sell alcohol or tobacco. 

However, a few smaller offshoots of the main duty-free stores may only sell, for example, cosmetics or sunglasses, but they must still see your boarding pass. Duty-free shops will have to have a sign saying they are approved by HMRC to be duty free. Here’s an example: 

Q. Are tax-free shops the same as duty free? No, they aren’t, and in the words of HMRC, “Other retailers are known as tax-free shops… There is nothing in VAT law that requires a traveller to produce a boarding pass to purchase goods.” Though of course without proof they cannot claim the VAT exemption if you’re travelling outside the EU – which is why they ask.

Q. If it’s somewhere I don’t legally need to show my boarding pass, can they refuse to serve me if I won’t show it?  Yes, any shop can refuse your custom (unless it’s doing it for discriminatory purposes, eg, over race) so there is a chance this will happen – or at least its procedures won’t allow it.

Q. If a shop doesn’t need to see my card, but wants to, is there any harm in showing it them? Not directly, no. The reason I suggest not showing it is part of a campaign to get airport stores to pass on the VAT gain they get from non-EU customers – as the Government indicates they should. 

Already this has paid dividends with the change in policy from Boots and WHSmith as mentioned in the video – I would hope to see them go further and other stores join.

And finally, just for the record – here’s a transcript of the video…

Right hello. I’m at Gatwick Airport and I’m airside so I’m filming this on my phone and keeping rather quiet if you know what I mean because I want to answer one of those questions that people always ask me about travelling. “When they ask for my boarding pass when I’m buying stuff in the airport, do I have to show them?” Well, the answer… no.

On almost all the shops, with one big exception, duty free. In duty free, by regulation, they have to see your boarding pass or they can’t sell you stuff, so don’t give the staff in there a hard time, show them your boarding pass.

But for the rest of the shops in here and all around here, well, the answer… no. And the reason they’re asking you is if you show your boarding pass and you’re going outside of the European Union well, then they can claim the VAT back. Now I believe they should be sharing that with you and they’re not.

So if they ask you, just say no. Why should they gain if we don’t?

However, there have been some moves on this, down the bottom there you’ve got WHSmith and Boots. Shop in either of those, in Boots buying something over a fiver and in Smith’s over £6, they will give you the VAT back if you show your boarding pass and you’re travelling outside the EU, but only on items over a fiver or £6, not the total basket.

So it’s up to you to decide whether you want to give them your boarding pass or not. They can’t stop you buying stuff, there’s no law requiring them to see it, with the exception again of in duty free, over there.

See ya.