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Diplomatic privilege and official gifts

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What is diplomatic and consular privilege?

Diplomatic missions and consulates represent foreign governments in the UK. Most diplomatic missions are called an ‘embassy’ or ‘high commission’.

Under international agreements, subject to various conditions, diplomatic missions and consulates are immune from prosecution, their senior staff are immune from detention, arrest and search and their property is immune from detention, search and seizure. They are, however, subject to all prohibitions and restrictions on imports and exports.

Diplomatic missions, consulates and their senior staff may:

  • import goods or remove them from customs or excise warehouses free of tax and duty
  • acquire new means of transport from other European Union (EU) member-states free of VAT
  • receive refunds of tax and duty on fuel oils
  • and buy motor vehicles manufactured in the EU or European Free Trade Area free of VAT,

on condition that the goods are for the official use of the mission or for the personal use of those senior staff and their dependants. There are quantitative limits for motor vehicles, cigarettes and spirits.

Trade centres, cultural institutes and tourist offices are not normally entitled to any privileges nor are British nationals and permanent British residents.


What privileges do international organisations have?

International organisations are bodies established by agreement between governments. International organisations and their senior staff enjoy privileges similar to those of diplomatic missions and their senior staff. Some international organisations are immune from prohibitions and restrictions. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office gives some international organisations refunds of VAT on goods and services they buy for official use.


Visiting Forces

NATO visiting forces and their personnel enjoy relief from duty and VAT on imports. Subject to various conditions, forces may purchase goods and services in the UK free of VAT and in some cases duty.

Read about Visiting Forces in Notice 431


Official Gifts

Gifts from a body outside the European Union carrying on an activity in the public interest to a similar body in the UK, or to a representative of such a body, may be imported free of VAT and duty.


Further help and information

If you need more information on diplomatic and consular privilege, international organisations and official gifts, you can contact HMRC Customs, International Trade and Excise Helpline.

Contact details for Customs, International Trade and Excise enquiries