On the second day of Baselworld 2019, I endured a long, humiliating and costly experience with Swiss Customs.  Read on and learn.

Here at Fratello, and once again this year during Baselworld 2019, we tend to stay over the border in either Germany or France.  The costly, hotel rooms in Basel along with pricey restaurants often lead us to roomier and more modern lodging across the border.  That leads to a somewhat annoying train ride in every morning and a corresponding commute back each night from the show.  But, it’s part of the gig and it usually runs smoothly.  After 5+ years of attending the show, though, I had an incredibly painful run in with Swiss Customs.  Here’s my tale…hopefully my experience will help you avoid the same.

A $4,000 Experience with Swiss Customs

If you’re at all familiar with commuting into Basel from Germany, you may be aware that most trains lead into Badischer Bahnhof.  It’s an older train station that was, amongst other things, known to us as the site of the annual Nomos dinner each Wednesday during Baselworld.  For me, though, it will forever be known as the site of a stop by Swiss Customs where I later handed over about $4,000.

3 1/2 Hours…

I commuted into Baselworld 2019 on my 10 minute train and walked off the track, down the stairs into the hallway.  One crosses through some pillars and that’s the official border into Switzerland.  This past Thursday at around 9am, there happened to be a border “Zoll” guard standing there.  He approached and asked where I was headed and I mentioned, “Baselworld”.  He asked if I had anything to declare and I said “no” – I simply did not think declaring my personal watches was necessary (clearly a mistake).  He then asked if I had any commercial goods worth above 300 Swiss Francs and, again, “no” (again, my personal watches).  He then asked what I had in my bag and I mentioned my laptop, my camera and my personal watches.  Upon the mention of watches, his eyes lit up and I was asked to come in for a bag inspection.  When my five vintage watches were seen, 3 1/2 hours of waiting, a transfer via van, questioning, paperwork, and a huge payment ensued to Swiss Customs.

My Personal Watches = Commercial Goods

Now, one thing I should say is that no one was ever rude to me.  They were simply uninterested in explanations.  Essentially, because I was carrying more than one watch, failed to voluntarily declare them, then stated that I didn’t have “commercial” goods worth more than 300 CHF, I was later due to pay a fine of 1500 CHF and 7.7% VAT for the value of my watches.  When I explained that I was a watch enthusiast and that I was carrying vintage pieces – a couple Breiltings to bring to a Breitling dinner and to photograph next to the new 1959 Navitimer Re-Edition – they simply could not fathom why I would bring watches to such an event.  It was as if a huge watch-related event wasn’t occurring 300 meters away (perhaps Baselworld hasn’t been a mob scene this year, but it wasn’t that quiet) and seemingly odd that so many of us were coming in to support the country’s major industry aside from banking.

Google Searches to Determine Value

Ah, but there was more with Swiss Customs.  I happened to be carrying a rather inexpensive Heuer stopwatch to show a friend that was, unfortunately, from the 1940’s and contained an insignia from a certain part of the German military during World War 2.  This only escalated the situation.  All kinds of “regeln” or rules about what to do with propaganda materials and right wing paraphernalia were printed out.  Strangely, none of this was ever brought up.  No, Swiss Customs was interested because they felt this was a very expensive piece and felt I was being dishonest about its value.  They were convinced that this piece with a dubious history was invaluable and they spent a lot of time trying to research it to prove this.  Later, I was finally able to show a price paid of roughly 1,100 Euros a few weeks before.

After an hour or more at the Bahnhof with Swiss Customs, they drove me in a van – I wasn’t in cuffs – a few minutes away to the customs office at the “Messe” or convention center next to Baselworld 2019.  It was here that I was told the staff was familiar with watches and would be able to assess fair value in order to charge me my 7.7% and process the additional 1500 CHF payment.  I sat in a room with a small round table in the kitchen area of the office while they started to pull together paperwork.  I was asked to write down when I bought my watches, how much I paid and what they were worth now.  I was fair with the values and ultimately, Swiss Customs agreed with all my values.  I watched them scroll through Google trying to look up 50-60 year old watches to ascertain current market prices.  I saw all kinds of things come up during the search – modern watches – and perhaps they weren’t so familiar with older, personal goods.  In the end, roughly 3,000 CHF was assessed as a VAT due on my five watches and the stopwatch.

An Intense Process To Get a VAT Refund

If you’re interested, Swiss Customs happily accepts Master Card or cash – although I am sure carrying that kind of money around would’ve caused all sorts of additional suspicion.  I asked how I could claim my VAT back upon leaving the country and things became even more interesting.  First, I’d need to go online and fill out a form stating that I wished to export my watches out of Switzerland – typing in all the info on the VAT form that declared the importation of my goods – and getting a system generated code to use at a later time.  And then, because my goods were classified as commercial, I could happily bring my car over from Germany along the autobahn.  On the way in, I’d need to once again stop at Swiss Customs to show them my newly declared goods (with hand scribbled descriptions of my watches included – I can only imagine the hours of waiting and then having another agent trying to decide if the five described watches were the ones that I was actually bringing in), then pull a U-turn and get into line between all the huge trucks waiting to leave Switzerland and export their goods.  (This office is “conveniently” open from 8-11:30am and then from 1:30-5:00pm M-F.)  I’d go into Swiss Customs, reference my export code, and perhaps show them the watches yet again in order to officially take them out of Switzerland for good.  Would my 7.7% then be returned to my bank account?  Surely you jest.  I’d then need to write a letter to Swiss Customs explaining my situation and perhaps they’d see it fit to return my 3,000.  But there’s more…

After leaving Swiss Customs in my car, I’d need to drive past German Customs and there’s a 99% they’d stop me after seeing me come out of the Swiss offices.  And why is that?  Because Germany would be interested in their 19% to bring my watches back into the country.  Now, I happen to live in and pay taxes in Germany and perhaps a customs officer there would be a bit more understanding, but…  So, regaining my money isn’t exactly easy.

Declare Everything – Better Yet, Leave it at Home

Regarding some other things that I learned from Swiss Customs…  Firstly, you should always declare everything.  So, whether you’re headed to Baselworld or headed to a watch get together, you should stop in and declare your watches.  Yes, you should go in and let Switzerland know that your Grandfather’s watch is coming in.  If they don’t decide to charge you VAT – which is a possibility – a “deposit” could be charged.  How, when and how long to get that back was a mystery that I failed to decode.  It all just seemed rather arbitrary.  I asked about my camera and if it needed to be declared.  I was told taking pictures is ok, but if you’re there to make money with pictures, you should declare.  And finally, when I mentioned that just about every journalist I knew carried in multiple watches because we don’t like leaving them in a hotel or AirBNB, attend enthusiast dinners, and enjoy showing each other our watches, I was simply told “yes, and we control this and you simply got caught.”  That was comforting.

Others Were Stopped When Asked if Attending Baselworld

If you think my story of being questioned by Swiss Customs is an isolated case, think again.  We were stopped the following day by the same office and I saw another soul being questioned yet again two days later.  One of our team members came into a different station and when he got off the train, a Swiss Customs officer asked him “are you going to Baselworld” he said yes.  The officer pulled him to the side and went through his bag, stopping to look through a small box with Omega gloves inside to ensure no watches existed.  I then spoke to a member of the Hodinkee team who was approached upon landing and he was asked the same.  When I told my story, people – Swiss friends included – were surprised that Swiss Customs chose to do this with me; they all asked the same thing “how could they do this with your personal property?”  Well, it seems they can.

Be Warned…

At the end of day, I’ve essentially decided that over $4,000 is gone.  I’ll never bring more than the watch that’s on my wrist into Switzerland again and I’d suggest you consider the same unless you work through a process of pre-registering your goods or wish to enjoy what seems to be an unpredictable outcome with Swiss Customs.  Now, I am sure that a customs official would read this and tell me that I was in the wrong and that there are very clear rules.  Perhaps they’re right, but I’d disagree on the latter as I certainly know those who were checked and let off.  In the end, it was a long and humiliating process that left a real bitter taste in my mouth that I’ll forever associate with Switzerland and Baselworld.  Consider yourself warned…

Epilogue: Since publishing this article early this morning, we’ve received quite a bit of correspondence – both publicly and privately.  The vast majority of the feedback has been supportive, but there have been detractors.  Some felt that I was being extremely naive and offensive towards Swiss Customs and even the country!  First and foremost, I tried to maintain an even keel, but I am sure some of my frustration has leaked out.  I could have waited until time healed the wound, but I honestly wanted to tell my story – simply what occurred – while people are still at Baselworld.  If even one person decides to pack only one watch tomorrow to avoid making the mistake (yes, I made the mistake) that I did, then I’m pleased.  If you do decide to bring things in, declare in order to take away any concerns!  I have learned my lesson!  Regarding disdain for Switzerland, that’s a bit over the top and couldn’t be further from the truth.  Second, one has said that we are abusing our “vast media power” with this article.  We’ll simply have to agree to disagree.  We feel it’s important to inform our readers about what can happen when you arrive in Switzerland with excitement for your first – or 20th – Baselworld to meet up with friends to attend dinners, meetings, get togethers, etc if you don’t declare your goods.  Not sharing would have been the bigger abuse.  And finally, for those who have been supportive, thanks so much – we’re happy to close this topic now and get back to what we think we do best and that’s to give you great watch-related content.