Importing vitamins into Taiwan

I have known quite a few Taiwanese people that, while overseas, stock up on vitamins to completely fill their suitcases. They do it to save money.

Vitamin tablets in Taiwan are easily trip the cost of their equivalents in the USA. With that in mind, I decided to buy a lot of vitamins online from iHerb and have them sent here. For the size of my order, I seemed to be getting a good deal – only $22US to ship about 7-8kg of stuff by 3 day shipping. I apparently saved $120US on shipping over what it would cost normally because of the size of the order. The only question seemed to be the amount of duty I would get hit with.

Then the box got stuck in customs. While Taiwan is in the WTO now, there are still some very archaic rules around. The one for vitamins states you cannot import more than 12 bottles or 1200 tablets. Nothing about the amount per tablet/piece – but I bought items split into many tablets to help them be absorbed better throughout the day. See this page, bottom question (Chinese). Speaking of archaic, their customs information still lists the Ryukyu Islands as a separate country. Apparently the Republic of China had agreements with them (see 琉球/Ryukyu listed toward the bottom). There was an administration of the Ryukyu Islands from 1952 to 1972 during American occupation, but Ryukyu as a separate country ceased to exist when Japan annexed them in 1879. Maybe in 1372 if you want to consider that China controlled the islands off and on over the next few hundred years. The agreements are probably left from the days of the last Chinese emperors. Nowadays you probably know them as Okinawa, Japan.

Anything more than 12 bottles/1200 pieces needs permisson from the Department of Health. Research must be shown that demonstrates no harmful effects. It seems like a cover for Taiwanese vitamin producers, since drug companies could cover up any problems. The most typical and most widely available form of B12 in supplements, cyanocobalamin, has shown to be problematic in people. But it is the form one is most likely to see in Taiwan. I’d have to go through the entire process while I paid to keep the vitamins in bond. Not sure how long it would take.

As a result of the WTO agreement, there is no duty on vitamins. Taiwan throws them along with many other things into a large category called 保健食品 (health protection foods). If a food isn’t specifically healthy, then there is no limit to how much you can import. There is no financial incentive for the government to allow shipments beyond the limit, since they won’t see additional money from it.

My package eventually was released for shipping, but with duty that worked out to be something like 35% of the value of what I had ordered. In order to import the items, the customs broker classified them as food additives. Food additives are subject to 30% duty in Taiwan. Vitamins under the WTO have no duty whatsoever. You can search the Taiwan tariff database system yourself. As an example, Vitamin B12 and its derivitives have no duty.

Beyond the 30% import duty (進口稅) for my "food additives,"there was also a doing business tax (營業) that accounted for the rest of the duty costs.

I am curious how businesses like Costco (ones that import a lot of vitamins) can possibly import everything they want to sell. Maybe this is why vitamin costs are still so high in Taiwan. Even so, even with the 30% duty I still paid much less than it would have cost to get the useless versions of things I bought (such as vitamin B12 as cyanocobalamin) in Taiwan.

The real lesson though is that even if the post office is slow and doesn’t allow you to send many vitamins at one time to Taiwan, you are still better off. There is no duty when categorised correctly, and the extra postage cost by doing many small packages is still far less than the duty needed for a larger shipment.

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