Gift Turns into Kafkaesque Ordeal: How My Two WOLF STREET Beer Mugs “Were Disappeared” in Spanish Customs

Many people report similar nightmares trying and failing to get their packages from non-EU countries out of Spanish customs.

By Nick Corbishley, for WOLF STREET:

In October last year, Wolf Richter, the publisher of this site, decided to send me two of his beautiful WOLF STREET beer mugs, emblazoned with a bedraggled Wolf howling the timeless pearl of wisdom, “Nothing goes to heck in a straight line.” Meant as a gift in recognition of my years of writing for WOLF STREET, the two mugs were dispatched in early October. They were supposed to arrive at my Barcelona apartment within 7-10 days. But they didn’t. Instead, I received a text message to my mobile phone from Spain’s postal service, Correos, informing me that Customs had withheld the package, as import duties had not been paid on its contents.

Thus began a Kafkaesque ordeal that has caused untold frustration and consumed countless hours of my time. I’ve tried phoning the organization indicated in the text message — ATD Postales, a specialized division of Correos responsible for processing the parcels withheld by Customs — eight times and have only been attended by an operator on two occasions. The other times, either the call was not answered at all or I would be passed from one department to another, one operator to another, until the line eventually went dead. On the two occasions I did get to speak to an operator, I did not receive the follow-up call or email I was promised.

The same thing is happening to increasing numbers of Spaniards who buy goods or receive gifts from non-EU countries, only to find themselves trapped in a hellish labyrinth of delays, red tape, and extra costs that eventually lead many of them to simply cut their losses and abandon their efforts. In 2015 alone, around 490,000 packages were abandoned by their owners, according to El País.

If you live in Spain and buy anything from outside the EU worth more than €45, you’re supposed to pay 21% sales tax, along with a 2.5% import tariff. If you’re importing a product that is specially protected by even higher EU duties, such as a bike from China or a kimono from Japan, the tariff can be as much as 48% of the product’s value. The costs don’t end there. If you actually get through the whole bureaucratic rigmarole, pay the import dues requested and your package is finally released, you will probably also have to cover so-called “administrative costs” and the postage charges for the parcel’s delivery from Barajas Airport to your home.

This is all a necessary part of the fight against fraud and piracy, says Spain’s Tax Agency, which runs the customs service. An estimated 14% of counterfeit brand products enter Europe by post and express deliveries. And that number is apparently growing all the time. But so, too, is the number of Spaniards buying goods from outside the E.U. The tax agency’s response is to demand ever larger amounts of paperwork.

The problem is not just the volume of paperwork but also the procedural chaos that accompanies it. As I’ve discovered in the last three months, ADT Postales’ online platform has an annoying habit of crashing at the most inconvenient of times. Three times I’ve tried to upload a signed form chock full of personal data and information on the beer mugs (their provenance, estimated value, purpose…) onto the vintage ’90s website, only for the screen to freeze at the very last moment. Now I can’t even log on to the platform, as it no longer recognizes my password.

A Correos spokesman says the company is aware of the problems faced by people buying goods or just receiving presents from outside the EU, and even concedes that many of its own employees are not absolutely sure about the paperwork required sometimes. “We’ve even thought about preparing some kind of guidelines regarding the procedures for collecting packages,” he says. Now there’s a thought.

The decision on whether to hold onto a package depends on a host of factors including the origin of the goods, the route they have taken, and their value, says Spain’s Tax Agency. One postal worker in Barcelona told me that mostly it’s stuff ordered from Chinese online retailers or packages sent from Latin America that get held up, but in the last year-and-a-half — more or less since the EU’s trading relations have soured with the U.S. — the same fate is befalling more and more packages from the U.S.

If you don’t have a receipt for the contents of the package, which is generally the case when receiving a gift, getting the package released is apparently even harder. Even if the contents have little or no material value, you need to be able to prove what they are and how much they are worth.

Such was the case for José Baena, who before leaving Thailand sent himself a package that included books from a meditation course he’d studied there, his yoga instructor’s certificate, used clothes, a new t-shirt for his three-year old nephew, some photos and a few other mementos from his 18-month stay in the South East Asian country. On its arrival in Spain, the package went straight into limbo. Given its sentimental value, José did everything he could to get it back, including phoning ADT Postales once or twice a week every week for eleven months. In the end, his perseverance paid off.

Nacho Miñambres was not quite so “lucky.” On a trip back to Spain from his adopted home of Taiwan, he forgot to take with him his Taiwanese residence card. Since he needed the ID to be able to reenter Taiwan, his Taiwanese girlfriend sent the card to him by registered post in a small package together with a couple of cheap presents (sweets and a little teddy bear). The package never arrived. Nacho received a letter informing him that it had been withheld by customs. After weeks of emailing and phoning ADT Postales, he was finally told that the parcel had been sent back to Taiwan, where all trace of it was lost. Nacho ended up suing ADT Postales for damages.

The anecdotes are endless. Sol Domingo was told to pay €40 in administrative fees for a package whose contents (used clothes, sweets, dried chilli peppers…) were worth around $10. Luis Martínez had to pay €100 in duties and fees for a blanket that had been hand-woven by a friend in the U.S. My Tai Chi teacher says that every time he’s tried to order martial arts equipment and accessories from the U.S. in the last couple of years, they’ve been stopped by customs. The list goes on and on.

Affected victims have even set up an online advisory group to help other people navigate the maze. I’ve read a few of their threads over the past week, and will try to put some of their advice to work in the coming days, including a suggestion to bypass ADT Postales altogether and contact the Tax Office directly. My patience may be running out, but I’ve not yet lost all hope of being united with my two WOLF STREET beer mugs. If I do give up, this generous — and let’s face it, extremely practical — gift will either be “destroyed” (whatever that means) or get auctioned to the highest bidder. And that’s a fate I’d rather avoid. By Nick Corbishley, for WOLF STREET.

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  66 comments for “Gift Turns into Kafkaesque Ordeal: How My Two WOLF STREET Beer Mugs “Were Disappeared” in Spanish Customs

  1. buda atum says:

    Those mugs definitely did not go to heck in a straight line!

    • DawnsEarlyLight says:

      ? true that!?

    • NBay says:

      Suspected vitrification of illegal substances? Know they do it with nuclear waste, as I once briefly worked at a plant that made the equipment to do that.

    • Professor James says:

      I can just hear one of the inspectors as he opens the package, ” Wow, these are really nice!”

  2. otishertz says:

    They must be pretty nice. Are they that much better than wholesale drinking from the bottle?

  3. Iamafan says:

    That’s why FedEx International and DHL exists.

    • roddy6667 says:

      We have sent parcels both ways between China and the US via FedEx several times. Except for the price, no complaints at all.

      • Iamafan says:

        Customs clearance is an important feature. When I worked for Fedex they accepted employee volunteers to accompany shipments. I was one of the first engineers for the International division a long time ago.

  4. 2banana says:

    It kinda reminds of Philly, or any long term controlled liberal/progressive city.

    Nothing works, roads in terrible shape, failing schools, high crime rate, trash in the streets, vandalism ignored, street lights not even repaired, etc.

    But lord help you for any slight infraction to the Byzantine parking rules.

    German engineering like proficiency in issuing tickets and towing your vehicle.

    And then it is a maze of bureaucracy and fines to get your vehicle back. If they can find it. Cash only. And only days until your vehicle is sold at auction.

    It’s all about revenue and paying insane public union pensions.

    • Suzie Alcatrez says:

      You should visit Alabama sometime.

    • oliverks says:

      I believe the more left wing a city government, the more efficient the meter maids.

    • William says:

      Ok Goober, you obviously haven’t been to Spain.

    • Zantetsu says:

      OK 2banana. You keep beating that “liberal/progressive cities suck” drum, as if any of us care that this is your constantly expressed opinion.

      • weinerdog43 says:

        Nailed it Zantetsu.

        As soon as I see a 2nd banana post, it’s time to scroll past.

    • Paulo says:

      How does politics in the US play a part in this article? Answer, it doesn’t.

      • RagnarD says:

        What is this article about? Bureaucracy.
        Inefficient bureaucracy.
        2banana was relating a story about An inefficient bureaucracy. Did it need to be in Spain?

        Who runs the bureaucracy? The government. What are governments comprised of? Political parties.

        I think he’s on target.

        And Paulo, one *might* be able to find a post in which u strayed off target a wee bit.
        No? Not that we don’t enjoy them. :)

  5. Keeper Hill says:

    What an embarrassment. Why would locals put up with this?

  6. Sporkfed says:

    I think Wolf’s short on the market is about to
    payoff big time on Monday.

    • 2banana says:

      You mean with the entire country of China on lockdown?

      That is good for a +400 opening…

      • RagnarD says:

        Haha. Right.
        Just like back in 2011 or so when Germany demanded their gold back from the USA,
        And was told “er….ur gonna have to wait….”
        At which point the price of gold…. nose dived.

        Apologies All for my not tying this into Spanish customs bureaucracy

  7. MCH says:

    OMG, does that mean Wolf needed to have sent dollars in the package in order to pay off the tariff too. :(

    Sad…. May as well call it bribe money

  8. polecat says:

    Gee Wolf .. Perhaps you could cajole Don Cajones to do an exclusive ‘on-the-ground’ report of the ‘Caper of the Missing Mugs’ ! He’s based in Espania, is he not?

    • NJGeezer says:


      Don Cojones is/was the nom de plume of Nick Corbishley. Nick has surrendered the alias, and now writes under his own name.
      I think we need Don Quixote to take on the Spanish Customs Bureau.

      • Xabier says:

        That’s actually my knickname bestowed by my family in Spain: but sorry, I’m too busy charging windmills and looking for a princess – and Sancho Panza (my bird dog) just wants to eat……

      • polecat says:

        That’s for the heads-up, NJG … I had no clue.

  9. Johan says:

    Easy to use low cost 3D printers will solve most of these issues in the future….Wolf will email us all the 3D CAD file and we all will make as many mugs as we want…

    • Edward says:

      Wait, taxes will be imposed on data able to result in a positive economic outcome to the recipient inside the tariff wall.

  10. Ron says:

    This also occurs with goods being delivered from within the EU. A couple of years ago I ordered a replacement remote for my set-top box. It was coming from the Czech Republic (yes, it is an EU country). Because it was “electronics”, it still had to go through customs in Spain, even though it is a violation of EU rules. The Spanish customs held it for weeks, thinking it came from China. They finally released it with no explanation of why it was held or why it was released. Then had to go through the nightmare of getting the package actually delivered.

  11. R2D2 says:

    Now you see why the UK voted to leave the protectionist, sclerotic EU ;-)

    • Leser says:

      From your equation is missing the sheer incompetence endemic in the UK, known as the classic “British Bungling”. Immortalised by Monty Python’s absurd and at the same time accurate sketches.

      • Zantetsu says:

        Is receiving packages in the U.K. just as bad as implied by this article about Spain? Or is your post off-topic?

        • Leser says:

          @Zantetsu: you’re right on both accounts, I’d much rather receive parcels in the UK and I was veering off-topic. What I meant to say was that the UK has problems of its own and the impact of leaving the EU on those – in detail or in aggregate – is unknowable until such time.

          The UK bureaucracy in most regards is a dream compared to Southern Europe, that’s true. Also, if you buy the high end of any UK market (postal, health, finance, …), you get world-class service. BUT, below the high end you’ll find yourself in Monty Python situations more often than you’d like. The famous “computer says no” skit has entered folklore and describes a fairly common experience.

      • mark leigh says:

        Nonsense- sorry, but living in both UK and spain I can attest to multiple experiences of dealing with bureaucracies in both countries.

        Spanish roads are good though….

  12. MC01 says:

    I’ll throw in my experience with the Italian customs agency: due to my business I have to deal with them far more than I’d like.

    First, goods originating from some countries seem to attract an unordinate amount of attention. For whatever reason Japan is the absolute worst, followed by Russia, albeit at a distance. Please note I am not talking about carrier service, but the amount of time goods spend in customs and how much effort is needed to have them released.
    Second, goods originating from some other countries seem to be merely waved through, taking the custom declaration at face value. For all the lip service paid to “fighting counterfeit goods” China is at the top of the hill, but India and Thailand aren’t too far behind.
    Third, customs have proven themselves absolutely useless when it comes at stopping pests. Asian tiger mosquitoes have spread in Europe from the big custom warehouse in Malpensa (north of Milan) and that bane of gardeners, the Geranium bronze, got through the Spanish customs and spread from there.
    I have no problems paying custom duties… as long as they pay for customs that work the way they are supposed to, not as if they were run by rolling a dice or by the Keystone Kops.

    As an aside God forbid that an EU citizen buys a pruning saw in Japan while Chinese exim firms send here counterfeit non-compliant carburetors, chainsaws, toys etc by the container.

  13. nhz says:

    The same happened in Netherlands years ago already; don’t know if there are still widespread problems because I buy very few foreign items lately.

    Years ago you could have a small foreign package of close to zero value delivered (with mandatory signing), only to receive a huge bill weeks later for fake administrative / customs clearance charges by companies who specialized in grabbing the package while in customs. Probably a lot of packages slip through nowadays without paying tax, there are just too many of them. I still read about customers buying high value items outside EU because most of the times the package slips through and the gamble pays off; and sometimes customers undeservedly get into serious trouble. When I had a webshop in the early 2000’s unfair competition from big foreign sellers (mostly from US at the time) evading taxes was a BIG problem.

    For sure the EU post offices have massive problems dealing with the flood of foreign packages that often contain stuff that is forbidden (like drugs and dangerous medicine, weapons, endangered animals, contaminated food or other items with infectious disease risk). Many goods have fake invoices or are declared as “gift” while having huge value, simply to skip VAT and import taxes. Too many foreign webshops (and sometimes even EU websites, e.g. using the Gibraltar route, or Luxembourg companies until a few years ago) try beating the competition on price by evading VAT.

    It’s a mess strongly related to online sales and all the different tax systems in the world. Maybe some improvement lately because more large international websites work together with customs and local postal services to provide accurate shipping information and arrange smooth customs and delivery services.

    • fajensen says:

      DealExtreme sells an “insurance” for something like 7 EUR: If your parcel gets nicked in customs, they will send you another one, free of charge. Don’t say the Chinese don’t do customer service :).


      Customs Services are another one of those areas that has been cut & cut and cut by the neoliberal idiots “running things”. It probably wasn’t “in the planning” that easing the ways for tax-fraud (instead of lower taxes the honest way by changing the laws) would open the floodgates for Everyone this time and not only a select few – like back in normal times, when there were only a few importers.

  14. David Hall says:

    Microsoft Windows screen freezes during Internet work are too common. My iPad is much faster online than my Microsoft Windows laptop even after I cleared the browser cache.

    I read Kafka about 40 yrs ago. He complained about layer upon layer of inefficient bureaucracy impeding progress.

    • Javert Chip says:

      I read Kafka too; he didn’t have anything good to say about Windows, either…

  15. Petunia says:

    If the mugs had gotten to Spain or any Latin American country on time with no problems, then I would have been really surprised.

  16. Solarismo says:

    Next door in Portugal being similar people has a similar problem. Ordered a part via wish for my solar setup 6 weeks ago and it arrived about 4 days ago … from Wuhan,China. Battered by PT customs inspection and roughly taped back up. Burnt the packaging then got more aware of Coronavirus. But since been thinking maybe it was rubbed up against other dodgy gear over the weeks from Wuhan or a dodgy PT customs guy is already incubating the virus. Will Spanish and PT customs shift themselves sooner now with incoming China gear … or freeze totally?

    • Frederick says:

      Were there any dead bats in the box ? You could make soup I hear it’s a specialty in Wuhan

  17. So you go through this ordeal, pay a premium over the contents, they deliver it and the porch pirates take it?

  18. Wisdom Seeker says:

    The bigger tax here isn’t the Euros in tariffs, it’s the colossal waste of people’s valuable time. Having to call 100 times to get an outcome that should be automatic is insane…

    But in all that inefficiency, there’s a business opportunity. Perhaps frequent business travelers could legally do some gig work on the side, buying small packages in their home countries, hand-carrying them through customs as personal goods, then reselling them to willing buyers in Europe… All that’s needed is an enabling website!

    • Lisa_Hooker says:

      A phone app while in the duty-free shop. Social media legal non “smuggling.” Perfect!

      On another note, I have always been a bit suspicious of Spanish customs, especially the one about having dinners really, really late at night.

      • Frederick says:

        True story I met a guy in Warsaw years ago who claimed to be a journalist and Columbia U graduate After a small party at his apt he told me to hang out and that he’d be back shortly Had to run down to the central train station to pickup a package It was 3 or 4 AM and I wonder to this day what was in that package

    • Rachel says:

      This service actually exists already. its not very well established, and seems to have a good return for the traveller only in certain countries, generally it seems like too much time and energy for little reward. It serves the buyer more often, but they still have to find someone will to purchase good and travel with it. Brazil and Russia are the two countries it seems to benefit the traveller from what I could see.

  19. james wordsworth says:

    The we have the alternative. Products shipped to Canada with no restrictions. You can buy something online for 99 cents from China with free shipping. Please tell me why we should allow this. China is obviously gaming the international postal system, but Canada and the US seem unwilling to call them on this.

    What is the harm? Anybody trying to compete on a level playing field loses. It is horrible for local products and just allows a bunch of future landfill products to be imported cheaply. It should be less easy to import and more expensive if we want to have a more sustainable economy, environmentally and economically.

  20. Danno says:

    Who wants to send one to Cuba to see if it arrives? LOL.

    If it does arrive, it will take 5 months to let you

    • WES says:

      Danno:. But only if they have any red ink!

    • Wisdom Seeker says:

      Nowadays you could in fact send an “internet of things” product with battery, GPS and internal transmitter and it actually CAN tell you where it is AND when it arrives.

      If someone starts selling that “package tracker”, the premium model will include an automatic online bribe-payment chip using one of the mobile payment networks. Just be sure to link it to your “burner” credit card account rather than your retirement savings account!!

  21. gorbachev says:

    I bought a bottle of Cava in Barca and wanted to bring it home.Customs in Spain stole it and said I need to purchase at the duty free if I
    wanted one.Pricks,

  22. Michael Engel says:

    1) Barca lost to Valencia. Messi was upset because his beer mug didn’t arrive.
    2) SPY got lost when they saw a hanging man on 30 min.
    3) A hanging man candle look like a hammer. Small body with a long leg at the bottom. A hanging man at the top is a sign of weakness, its a warning sign waiting for confirmation. Its the first selling at the top.
    4) On Jan 22 SPY 30 min gap higher and produce a hanging man
    at 10.00 am.
    5) At 10.30 it move higher on low volume, and produced an upthrust
    to a new all time high, but closed lower and proceed lower.
    6) On Jan 23, at the open, SPY gap lower, to a swing point turned
    around, after shaking investor pockets, producing a buying tail on higher
    volume. The market moved higher on Jan 23.
    7) On Fri Jan 24, at the open, SPY produced another hanging man,
    at lower high, below the all time high. The Jan 24 high was followed by large red supply bars.
    8) That hanging man caught the attention of the market makers and
    it was downhill from there.
    9) SPY recovered by the end of the day, but at 3.30 produced another
    hanging man.

  23. fred flintstone says:

    Wolf gonna make some big bucks in the next week or two……all hail the Wolf.

  24. Erle says:

    Gee Nick that is a tough story.
    I had a parcel of fossil shark teeth from Thailand intercepted by US Customs in Alaska. They told me that it was an endangered specie to which I replied that they had that right as they were twenty-five million years old. That made no impression on them so I just abandoned the whole thing to avoid more hassle.
    I’ll spare you the details of my e-mails with the dolts.

  25. Erle says:

    One parcel from the same place in Thailand contained fossilized rice. It is a good thing that I got it.
    It would have been rather humorous to see one of those guys bring it home and get the wife to cook it. The goomint guy would have sued me for indigestion and broken molars.

  26. joe says:

    Ha Ha! Shape of things to come under the New World Order Raj. It always cost more in duties than the value of the package to send presents to another country. That’s why it was better to wire cash.
    It hurts nothing for a bureaucrat to hurt you. It might hurt a bureaucrat a lot to be found in violation of an arbitrary regulation.
    So suck it up. Along with making travel difficult and painful and time-consuming unless you have a private plane, cross border gifts are also getting painful.
    Of course elites do not suffer. I remember using the US Post Office at the British officers club in Hong Kong to send packages at 1% the cost of general commercial.

  27. Calm Horizons says:

    The Castle is bigger and more impenetrable than ever.

    Sounds like the Spanish customs agency is doing all they can to encourage smuggling. And where exactly are they storing all these hijacked packages? My mind conjures up images of obscure warehouses a la Indiana Jones or X-Files stacked floor to ceiling with untold goodies languishing in the dark. This whole situation is one big opportunity for graft and corruption. How long before customs staff start diverting packages for their own use or resale? Once they’ve milked out all the bribes for their release to their rightful owners, undoubtedly the parcels will be ‘unable to be located’.

  28. Mortadell says:

    Dear Friends
    After many years of shipping goods all around the world I can tell you the one fundamental mistake in this whole scenario: Gift
    Never, ever say its a gift even if it is a gift.
    Always put a customs value on the invoice, say $10.00 or something like that.
    Many countries automatically sort the gift invoices one way and all small value items another way.
    The ‘gift’ trick doesn’t work anymore. It’s all about squeezing every damn cent out of people. The customs know the gift thing is a red flag and believe me they are inundated with gift packages.
    Every item has a value so by saying it’s a gift just doesn’t cut it anymore.
    Wolf was being generous to you it’s true but still should have put something, even $20.00 on the value and you probably would have received it.
    Hope this helps some of the fine Wolf readers going forward.

    • Wolf Richter says:

      It didn’t say “gift.” It was shipped by Ripp’s professional online retail and shipping company, not by an amateur like me :-]

    • Ripp says:

      The package was sent classified as merchandise with US, SDR, and insured values. So, if it never gets delivered, I’ll get Wolf’s money back for him. My boss will be in the area for San Fermin this year, so maybe I’ll send a few with him to deliver if necessary.

      Out of all the mugs we’ve shipped overseas, we’ve only had delays in Spain and Germany so far. Honesty, I was shocked that a shipment to Italy arrived no problem. Just sent one to Indonesia last week, so we’ll see how that goes.

      • Wolf Richter says:


        If Nick fails in extracting his mugs from customs, getting a couple of mugs hand-delivered to him would be awesome, if that can be worked out.

        They might even go have a beer and tapas together. Nick is quite the expert on Brexit. They might have a good talk.

  29. I know it’s not very related, but if anyone from here in the USA is left feeling superior after this article, please go pull a number at the DMV before commenting. Talk about Kafkaesque!

  30. Lenox says:

    I was once sent a refrigerated sample of fish from Chile for commercial purposes. I expect it’s still in the fridge at Barajas twenty eight years later.

Comments are closed.