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Value-Added Tax (similar to sales tax) is called IVA (for Impuesto sobre el valor añadido) in Spain. It is levied on services, such as hotels and restaurants, and on consumer products. When in doubt about whether tax is included, ask, "Está incluido el IVA ("ee-vah")?"

The IVA rate for hotels and restaurants is 10%. Menus will generally say at the bottom whether tax is included (IVA incluido) or not (más 7% IVA). While food and basic necessities are taxed at the lowest rate, most consumer goods are taxed at 21%. In shops displaying the Tax-Free Shopping sticker, non–EU citizens can request a Tax-Free Cheque on purchases of at least €90.16. The great majority of shops you're likely to visit have signed on to the Tax Free Shopping Service, even if they don't display the sticker. Ask before you buy. And note that the service only applies to goods you intend to take home with you. The paperwork must be stamped at the airport Civil Guard office before you check your luggage in, on the third floor of the Terminal 1 departure hall. After this is done, present it to one of the Caixa or Banco de España offices in the airport. The bank issues a certified check or credits the amount to your credit card.

If you're leaving Spain by ship, you need to get a VAT Reclaim envelop (in Spanish sobre) at the shop where you bought your goods. Have the Tax-Free Cheques stamped at the port customs office, put them in the envelop, and when you return home mail the envelop to the indicated claim office in Madrid, along with the form where you specify how you want to receive your refund. A direct wire transfer to your bank is best. The whole process is complicated and time-consuming, but if you've made any hefty purchases the 21% you get back is well worth it.

Global Blue is a Europe-wide service with 225,000 affiliated stores and more than 700 refund counters at major airports and border crossings. Its refund form, called a Tax-Free Cheque, is the most common across the European continent. The service issues refunds in the form of cash, check, or credit-card adjustment. The company’s offices are in the departure lobby of Terminal 1 (third floor) and Terminal 2 (ground floor) at Barcelona’s El Prat airport. Note that Global Blue takes a handling fee for processing your refund.

V.A.T. Refunds

Global Blue. Aeroport de Barcelona El Prat, El Prat del Llobregat, 08820. 93/297--2430; 93/298--3265; www.globalblue.com.