Buying online from the US in Canada
August 10, 2008 12:35 PM   Subscribe

How does buying things online from the US work, now that I live in Canada? What's the catch?

I just moved to Toronto and I need to buy some things online (textbooks, mainly, but also contact lenses). Can I still order from my usual US websites or should I be buying from Canadian sites instead? For example, the price for some of the books I want is significantly lower at, but I guess there must be some reason that exists if it's that simple to buy stuff from the US website. The prices at US-based contact lens sites are also a lot lower than the Canadian ones. Will I have to pay customs duties or extra fees? And how does that work, will they be charged when I purchase it online, or when they deliver it?
posted by pravit to Shopping (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You will be charged duty and GST on the orders plus higher shipping and sometimes it gets stuck in customs for weeks.If you use a company like UPS you will also be charged crazy brokerage fees
If your buying something off ebay can ask them to send it as a gift that way you avoid the above but only if the gift is under a certain dollar amount
Some US companies like Carvin cover brokerage and duties for Canadians with special deals
posted by SatansCabanaboy at 12:44 PM on August 10, 2008

There's no tariff on books. But you may be required to pay GST and/or a brokerage fee on anything that crosses the border, but it depends on the value of the items, the declared value of the items (if your seller marks it with a value of $0, you probably won't be out of pocket), the whims of the customs person or robot who waves yur parcel through, and so on.

The brokerage fee is usually five bucks through Canada Post. If you have stuff delivered via UPS, you will pay through the ass to get your goods. I bought a $40 book from a US source once, and paid another $27 to get it when I picked it up at the UPS depot. And I've had hundreds of packages where I paid no additional fees.

You pay these fees upon delivery or pickup, to the carrier.

You can order from, but I don't think they offer free shipping to Canada; you can get free shipping from This might have changed.

I can't speak to contact lenses, but if the items you buy have a customs tariff, it's likely that you'll have to pay it if ordered from a legitimate business, but less likely if you order it from some guy on EBay.

And you'll have to get used to the fact that relatively few American EBayers will ship to Canada.
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 12:50 PM on August 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Fellow expat here.

Will I have to pay customs duties or extra fees? And how does that work, will they be charged when I purchase it online, or when they deliver it?

Fees: yup. Not always though - it depends on the item and where it's coming from. Usually the duty and any brokerage fees will be a COD - you'll either get a tag on your door telling you to come to the post office/shipping center and pay the fee to get your package, or you'll get a bill with your package.

Also, a lot of places won't ship to Canada or charge a ridiculous amount (exclusive of the duty and other fees) to do so.

So, if you can find something from a Canadian store/website you should probably get it within Canada unless it's a lot cheaper in the U.S. You might, if you go to the States frequently, want to look into getting a PO box at a post office near the border to get stuff shipped to you - I've heard of some people doing that (but don't have any personal experience; there are also a bunch of places that won't ship to PO boxes). If you have friends or family in the states who you see frequently, you could also get things shipped to them and either pick your stuff up when you see them or have them mail it to you.
posted by AV at 12:50 PM on August 10, 2008

It makes no sense to order from US companies to ship to Canada. You always pay for it in the end. Canada IS a different country with different taxes/shipping, etc. You also can't roam into Canada on a US cellphone, there's no such thing as free roaming and long distance within Canada on a Canadian cell phone. Different countries...

Pay more, or ship to a friend in the states.
posted by Salamandrous at 12:56 PM on August 10, 2008

Regarding, I frequently use it instead of, especially when I (all-too-often) find cheaper prices, even when taking account of shipping and exchange rates. I've made about 4-6 book orders per year from the former for the last few years and not once was duty charged (nor GST, as far as I recall). Of course, the total cost of each order was usually less than 50 dollars. Perhaps expensive textbooks might receive more ire from customs officials. Or maybe NAFTA takes care of all of this. I really don't know. What I do know, though, is that I gamed the system and got off scott-free.
posted by astrochimp at 1:31 PM on August 10, 2008

(Also, once in a while I buy from used sellers on, since far more sellers are listed there than on even though they normally all ship to Canada. Again, not once has there been a problem with duties, etc.)
posted by astrochimp at 1:36 PM on August 10, 2008

I immigrated from the US to Canada about two years ago and I found it incredibly hard to adjust to the paucity of online shopping options here compared to the US, so you've certainly got my sympathies.

I think Salamandrous is wrong in saying that it makes no sense to order from US companies -- there are products available in the US that are not available here, and further, some US-based companies even offer free shipping to Canada. (J.Crew is my favorite in that regard, about once a month they have a Free Shipping to Canada promo despite having no retail presence in Canada at all.)

Here's an article about buying contact lenses online in Canada, you'll notice that the Canadian is more expensive than the US-based options, but using coupon code ENTERTAINMENT will take 25% off your total order, making them an excellent choice. (And since they're Canadian-based you're not going to get dinged for duties and etc.)

As far as books, here's the official word on and shipping to Canada (from the same website as above): "If it falls into the DVDs, music, and book categories will ship to Canada. You will pay a shipping fee (about $8 for one item and an additional $2-$3 for subsequent items thereafter), but typically ships items out of a Canadian warehouse, so there shouldn't be any duties or brokerage fees to deal with."

As a data point I will say that I have ordered a decent amount of stuff from the states and it's never gotten stuck in customs for weeks (although that possibility is always there).
posted by kate blank at 3:12 PM on August 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

You also can't roam into Canada on a US cellphone

...unless you can. Our calling plan doesn't distinguish between the US, Canada, and Mexico.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:30 PM on August 10, 2008

Salamandrous writes "It makes no sense to order from US companies to ship to Canada."

Sometimes it is much cheaper. For example Games Workshop hasn't adjusted their prices in about five years on 95% of their product. Therefor US retail prices are 20-30% less than Canadian retail. Plus you can get 25% discounts off that from online retailers. A 30-45% discount over retail will pay for a lot of shipping.
posted by Mitheral at 4:15 PM on August 10, 2008

I'm glad to be corrected! (and especially for the specific tips such as J. Crew - though there's still customs on purchases of over $20, no?)
posted by Salamandrous at 6:21 PM on August 10, 2008

LL Bean sometimes has free shipping to Canada. sometimes has better prices. I don't think they have free shipping though, so if you're buying more than $40 of books, is still your best bet.

Having things shipped via either FedEx or UPS can expose you to killer custom brokerage fees. I bought a $100 jacket and the custom brokerage fee was a $40 surprise. What you want is US Postal Service. Note that the custom brokerage fee, is *not* the customs charge. It's the charge that UPS levies on you for taking your goods thru customs.

More detail on the scam here:
posted by storybored at 9:00 PM on August 10, 2008

Quick question for those in the know -- I'm also in Canada from the States and I'm having trouble finding shisha locally at a reasonable rate. I was going to order some online until I learned that the duty is about $180.00/kilo. Is there an online retailer of tobacco in Canada where I can buy this from without the exhorbitant duties?
posted by MaxK at 10:57 PM on August 10, 2008

The catch is that the current cost disparity is mostly due to the rapid reduction in value of the USD over the last year or two. In the long run, overall consumer costs (when you figure in shipping, duties, taxes, the hassle of returning lemons, etc.) of buying local in Canada vs. online from the US are not that great. And many Canadian retailers have already achieved near-parity with exchange-adjusted US prices, despite having to blow through costly inventory originally purchased when the USD was strong. Enjoy this opportunity for a bit of arbitrage while it lasts.
posted by randomstriker at 1:20 AM on August 11, 2008

As others have said, always, always ship via USPS. Unless you need it quickly, and have someone who can receive the package, there's little reason to pay for UPS or FedEx (or some other courier). Of the two, FedEx is the lesser evil. UPS, in my experience, is terrible, both for brokerage fees (they were north of $60 a few years ago) and being mostly incapable of delivery to non-business addresses. With UPS, it can often take longer to get the package from the delivery centre than it takes to ship the parcel to your city.
posted by bonehead at 8:03 AM on August 11, 2008

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