Dateline: Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
We have often discussed the idea that my Five Magic Worlds – “Go Where You’re Treated Best” – are more than just a rally cry to pay less in taxes. They are, in fact, a lifestyle that can extend to any area of your life, from legal tax optimization to dating.
Add shopping to that list.
Having traveled to almost 100 countries and become familiar with the shopping culture in many of them, I can tell you that there are definite differences in prices on a lot of common items.
I recently decided to buy a new MacBook Pro laptop to replace the older model that I had, and being the Nomad Capitalist, I figured it would be interesting to ascertain which country has the least expensive price for the new model.
Why pay a few hundred dollars in sales tax or VAT when it wasn’t necessary?
Two years ago, I was in Cancun for our annual Passport to Freedom event and my old MacBook broke. When I left my room in the morning, it was safely plugged into a power converter and charging; when I returned after lunch, the screen wouldn’t turn on and the entire machine appeared to be dead.
While there was no option to buy a replacement near my hotel in Mexico, there were several third-party resellers in my next destination, Panama. However, third party Apple retailers can often be expensive, and I ended up paying about $500 more than I would have in the United States.
If you are looking for the best price on a MacBook, I’ve done the research for you. Nomads can easily take advantage of shopping while they travel to get the best price and, just as importantly, pay as little sales tax as possible.
How I determined the best country to buy a MacBook
I searched the Apple website in each country that has an Apple Store to obtain current pricing (as of April 2017) on the top MacBook model: the MacBook Pro 2.9GHz with 512GB of memory and the new Touch Bar with Touch ID.
Countries that do not have Apple Stores or at least an Apple website were excluded because, as stated earlier, third party resellers are not only a pain to deal with in my experience, but tend to have higher prices and less stock.
For example, even though I have a home in the Republic of Georgia, there is no way I would buy a laptop there. The last time I tried to buy my friend an iPad in Tbilisi, I had the privilege of selecting from all of two iPads.
There are more than 500 Apple Stores worldwide, with about half of those in the United States. Since the United States is a popular shopping destination, I included it.
I also included other popular shopping destinations that were also international hubs. This includes the UK (39 Apple stores), Canada (29 stores), Australia (22 stores), Germany (14 stores), and every Nomad Capitalist’s favorite, Hong Kong (6 stores).
Within the European Union, I selected Germany as a good Nomad destination due to its 14 stores and high level of efficiency. Speaking from past experience, there is no way I would buy anything in Spain or Italy and expect their imperious and sloth-like bureaucracy to actually give me my money back.
Lastly, I searched Japan and South Korea because of their popularity among Nomads based in Asia.
Before I share each country’s prices, there is one caveat. For each country, I based pricing on the gross sales price plus any sales tax (such as in the US and Canada) and minus any VAT refund (such as in most other places). So-called sales tax is generally not refundable.
VAT however generally is refundable, although services such as Global Blue used to process such refunds usually take a small cut which I generally did not include in my calculations (with one exception noted below).
MacBook Pro prices around the world
Here are the results of searching nearly one dozen countries for the best Apple prices, with each country’s total prices converted into US dollars at April 2017 exchange rates, then ranked from best (#1) to worst.
United States. Many Asians flock to New York, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas in search of great deals, especially on clothing and electronics. The Apple website and its 269 nationwide stores sell my MacBook Pro for $1,999 excluding sales tax. You can avoid both state and local sales tax altogether in four states: Delaware, New Hampshire, Montana, and Oregon. However, as none of these states have major international airports, it’s easier to pay the average sales tax rate of 8% in a place like California, Texas, or New York. (The lowest sales tax rates in states with major airports are found in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and then Utah). No sales tax refund makes for little hassle, but you’ll need to jump through a few hoops to enter the country to begin with unless you’re not a US or Canadian citizen.
Total USD Price: $2,159 (Ranks #8)
Canada. The Great White North is a nice place to shop; just last year, I stocked up on a ton of new clothing purchased on Montreal’s charming shopping streets. The big factor to consider is Canada’s GST which, similar to sales tax in the US, is not refundable. This tax is highest in Montreal, so it’s best to shop in the more business friendly areas like Vancouver or Calgary if you want the best price. Apple Canada’s pre-tax price for the top-line MacBook Pro is C$2,549; add GST of an average 12% and your total price is C$2,855. Like the United States, Canada requires pre-travel approval for all non US and Canadian citizens, so make sure to factor this minor cost into your total purchase price if needbe.
Total USD Price: $2,133 (Ranks #7)
United Kingdom. The UK is often one of the most affordable places to buy luxury goods, and Heathrow Airport duty free stores have some of the most pleasant staff I’ve run into. However, the UK is not quite as competitive when it comes to electronics, even after the pound came crashing down post-Brexit. Apple UK sells my MacBook for 1,949 pounds, which includes refundable VAT of about 325 pounds for a tax-free price of 1,624 pounds. If you’re not flying a low-cost airline into some far-flung airport, flights to the UK can also be more expensive thanks in large part to higher airport taxes, which should be taken into account if London isn’t already in your plans.
Total USD Price: $2,009 (Ranks #6)
Germany. Deutschland has one of the European Union’s largest number of Apple Stores and some of its lowest prices. A new MacBook Pro purchased in Frankfurt, Munich, or the digital nomad hub of Berlin will set you back 2,199 euros, of which 362 euros is refundable VAT. Of course, if you’re an EU citizen or resident, you won’t qualify for a tax refund, making the EU a viable option for non-Europeans. If you do qualify for a refund, the good news is that Germany is one of the most efficient places to actually get your tax refund at the airport, and it’s easy to get to cheaply by train or plane from anywhere.
Total USD Price: $1,945 (Ranks #3)
Hong Kong. One of my favorite cities in the world, Hong Kong is notorious for being not only a quasi-tax haven, but also a highly efficiency and unbureaucratic place. In other words, the perfect place to go shopping. While luxury goods tend to be expensive all over Asia, computers are cheap in Hong Kong, where a top-of-the-line MacBook prices out at HK$15,288. As Hong Kong is a tax-free port to begin with, there is no sales tax included in that price and hence nothing to claim upon departure. I’ve had great experiences with the Apple Store at IFC in Central and would highly recommend the great people there.
Total USD Price: $1,968 (Ranks #4)
Singapore. If you’re based in or traveling to Southeast Asia, Singapore might be more convenient than Hong Kong without sacrificing any of the efficiency, good service, and low taxes. While Singapore technically does not have an Apple Store, service is still good and I wouldn’t be too worried about buying from a reseller or from Apple’s website. The gross price for my model is S$2,788, which includes modest GST of S$183 which you can claim upon departure, making the net sales price S$2,605.
Total USD Price: $1,855 (Ranks #2)
Japan. While Japan seems to be less of a Nomad destination these days, it is still a great place to visit, and seeing that many electronics still originate there, not a bad place to buy a laptop. Apple Japan’s website lists a payment plan option, but not how much tax is included in the gross price of 198,800 Japanese yen. My assistant – who is speaks Japanese on account of soon leaving to work for the Ambassador to Japan – could not get a solid confirmation from an Apple Store in Tokyo, so I’m assuming tourists would pay the full price. Even without a tax refund, Japan ranks as the least expensive place in the world to buy a new Mac.
Total USD Price: $1,790 (Best Price – Ranks #1)
South Korea. If Seoul is a hot destination for you, or if you merely prefer flying Korean Air, then South Korea might be a logical place to buy your next MacBook while on a tourist visa. The top model retails for 2,490,000 Korean won, which converts to $2,178 as I write this. Of that, 226,364 won is VAT and refundable if you’re not a citizen or resident of South Korea; while I don’t have experience with tax refunds in South Korea, my general experiences there lead me to believe the process would be relatively hassle-free.
Total USD Price: $1,989 (Ranks Last – #5)
Turkey. With homes in Tbilisi and Montenegro, Turkey might seem the logical choice for me to go shopping thanks to easy non-stop flights into Istanbul. While Istanbul is a great city, the tax refund service there is a total disaster; I can not overstate this. On a recent trip to purchase a Zegna briefcase, I was treated to an airport line that someone in front of me said was at least an hour long… and that was only the first of two lines. If you insist on dealing with Turkey’s amazingly lazy customs staff, you’ll pay 9,499 (recently crushed) Turkish liras for the specified MacBook, of which 1,607 lira is VAT. However, Turkey’s tax refunds are a rather stingy 4%, even though the total VAT is 18%. My advice: go to Istanbul for the great food and ambience, but avoid shopping there.
Total USD Price: $2,445 (Ranks Last – #9)
Considerations when buying a MacBook overseas
One of the most important questions to ask is if your new computer has an international keyboard. When I was buying my computer in Panama two years ago, selection was decent at first glance, but there was very little selection with an English language keyboard. Not wanting to learn an entirely new keyboard in Spanish (or Russian, or German, or any other language), I had to do a bit of digging.
Again, real Apple Stores rather than independent resellers should have greater selection, but even my friend in Germany had to custom order her Mac online to avoid a German keyboard.
When it comes to tax refunds, each European country has its own minimum purchase thresholds in order to qualify, but that isn’t an issue here as the highest threshold is about $200.
Of course, another consideration noted above is quality of service. Apple Store staff in Asia have always been very gracious and helpful, which is important if you need help determining which model to buy or your desired model needs to be brought over from across town.
Personally, I find the US and Canada too far away and too much hassle for most of us to visit, and they aren’t even the lowest priced anyway. I’d rather not undergo an advanced pat down or deal with ESTA just to buy a computer.
Add to that my bad experiences in Turkey and the advice is easy: non-EU citizens traveling in Europe can shop in Germany, while everyone else should head to Asia.
The most surprising part of this experiment is that, unlike luxury goods, there isn’t a huge variance in price. Remove the two outliers – Japan as by far the lease expensive, and Turkey as by far the most expensive – and the gap is not as wide as I might have thought.
Lesson learned: when it comes to computers, most common shopping destinations offer similar prices.
At least now you can save a few hundred bucks if you happen to be traveling in one of these places.
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