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If you buy something portable, ideally worth over £100, (cameras, laptops, radios, etc.) we recommend you only buy from a shop doing the 'VAT Retail Export Scheme'. (BEWARE - There is also a VAT Refund Scheme, which is a rip off, they charge up to 10% commission for getting YOUR 17.5% VAT back, it doesn't leave much over for you!)
Get an official Customs Form VAT 407 from the shop, get the shop to stamp it, you complete your details, (no you're not normally a resident of the UK, you have a passport full of stamps to prove it)
Then as you leave the EU, (for me that's either Schipol or CDG), get the nice customs man to stamp it, they usually have an office before you go through passport control, find out where before you start your check in, you can't go back.
Then get the leaflet back to the shop, (beware, some shops might forget to refund your money, presumably after claiming the refund from the Customs and Excise, I've met two Americans who say they've been done by Harrods..) I get the wife to post it recorded delivery from the UK and it works for me.
EXTRACTS FROM HM REVENUE AND CUSTOMS WEBSITE
How do I claim a VAT refund when I leave the UK?
Full information explaining the conditions for being able to claim a Value Added Tax (VAT) refund is available in Notice 704/1 VAT refunds for travellers departing from the European Community. Please read this before you buy any goods as you will not be able to get a refund if you do not follow the correct procedures.
Having consulted the relevant VAT Notice, you will now be familiar with the retail export scheme. Remember, when you see Customs:
HOW DO I FIND CUSTOMS ON DEPARTURE?