The world of e-commerce has seen unprecedented expansion in recent years, with digital platforms and online commerce revolutionising the global market. However, with this growth comes complex challenges, particularly with regard to value added tax (VAT) and its application to cross-border trans-actions. The dynamic nature of e-commerce, combined with international business practices, has led to a complex legal landscape that poses new challenges for participants in e-commerce. The follow-ing article deals primarily with VAT issues in b2c trade (i.e. sales to consumers, as opposed to busi-nesses). This is a rough initial overview. The relevant regulations are complex and should therefore be examined on a case-by-case basis based on the specific business model. 

e-Commerce in the EU

No thresholds for third countries!

Anyone who provides b2b deliveries (and certain services) in the EU without having a fixed place of business in the EU may be liable to pay tax immediately (i.e. from the first euro of turnover). Special schemes for small businesses usually only apply to companies based in an EU member state.

  • Example: A Swiss retailer sells Pokémon trading cards via its webshop from a fulfilment cen-tre in Germany. Customers are private individuals in Germany, Austria and the Netherlands. Turnover amounts to EUR 3,700 p.a. in the first year.
  • Solution: The retailer must register in Germany for VAT purposes.

Settling VAT in 27 member states: the One Stop Shop

In the case of b2c deliveries to different member states (so-called distance sales) from an EU ware-house (duty paid goods), the VAT rate of the country in which the warehouse is located initially ap-plies.

  • Example: as above.
  • Solution: The retailer must pay VAT on his deliveries in Germany. He owes VAT at the rate ap-plicable in Germany for all deliveries, including deliveries to customers in Austria and the Netherlands.

If the turnover from such distance sales exceeds EUR 10,000 per year across the EU, the VAT rate of the country in which the customer is based applies. Until recently, e-commerce traders may have had to register for VAT separately in all member states in order to fulfil their reporting and accounting obligations. Since 2021, it has been possible for them to fulfil their reporting and accounting obliga-tions via a central registration, the so-called One Stop Shop ("OSS").

  • Example: as above, but the retailer now has a turnover of EUR 17,000 p.a., of which EUR 6,000 is generated in Austria and EUR 5,000 in the Netherlands.

  • Solution: The retailer must pay VAT in Germany on its deliveries to customers in Germany. Here he owes VAT at the VAT rate applicable in Germany. For deliveries to customers in Aus-tria and the Netherlands, he owes VAT at the rate applicable in Austria and the Netherlands re-spectively. The retailer has the option of registering for VAT in Austria and the Netherlands. Alternatively, they can register for the OSS in Germany in order to fulfil their reporting and ac-counting obligations in Austria and the Netherlands. Customers in other member states can later also be registered and invoiced via the OSS.

Delivering goods from a third country to the EU: the Import One Stop Shop

Like distance sales within the EU, distance sales from a third country are also subject to VAT at the VAT rate applicable in the customer's country. Up to a goods value of EUR 150, retailers have the option of processing the corresponding distance sales via the so-called Import One Stop Shop (IOSS).

If the application of the IOSS is waived, a special regulation may apply, according to which the import tax is collected by the freight forwarder directly from the respective customer. Freight forwarders regularly charge their customers additionally for their customs clearance services - so that this proce-dure appears expensive and less transparent from the customer's point of view.

Finally, it is possible for distance sellers to register in the respective member states of their custom-ers and invoice their deliveries to the national tax authorities themselves.

  • Example: A Swiss retailer sells Pokémon trading cards from stock in Switzerland to consum-ers in Austria, Germany and the Netherlands via its webshop. The value of the individual con-signments is between EUR 45 and EUR 85. 
  • Solution: The retailer can register for the IOSS (for this purpose, he must appoint a repre-sentative based in the EU). Deliveries of goods are exempt from import tax, and national VAT in Austria, Germany and the Netherlands is reported and settled via the IOSS.

    Alternatively, the retailer has the option of applying the "special regulations for the import of consignments with a material value of no more than 150 euros" (as described in the corre-sponding Section 21a of the German VAT Act). In this case, the freight forwarder collects the tax (and any handling surcharges) directly from the customer.

    Thirdly, Swiss traders still have the option of registering for VAT in Austria, Germany and the Netherlands and settling VAT locally.

Platform taxation

Special rules have applied in the EU for several years to distance sales that are initiated or processed via so-called "electronic interfaces", provided that the goods are dispatched within the EU and the seller itself is based in a third country. An electronic interface is, for example, an electronic market-place or an electronic platform that enables the buyer and seller to come into contact, resulting in the delivery of goods to the recipient of the service (e.g. Amazon Marketplace, ebay or Alibaba).

  • Example: A Swiss retailer sells Pokémon trading cards from a warehouse in Germany via an online marketplace operated by a third party. The customers are private individuals in Germa-ny, Austria and the Netherlands. 

In cases where an electronic interface is included in the supply chain in this sense, a so-called "supply chain fiction" occurs: While there is actually only a single sales transaction, two supplies are fictitious for VAT purposes by assuming a (first) supply from the trader to the operator of the electronic inter-face and a (second) supply from the operator of the electronic interface to the final purchaser. The fictitious supply from the online trader not established in the Community to the operator of the elec-tronic interface is exempt from VAT. The supply of the electronic interface to the end customer fol-lows the general principles for distance sales.

  • Example: as before.
  • Solution: This results in a fictitious supply chain, in which a supply from the Swiss retailer to the operator of the online marketplace and from the operator of the online marketplace to the end customer is fictitious. The supply from the Swiss retailer to the operator of the online marketplace is exempt from VAT. The supply from the operator of the online marketplace to the end customer is subject to VAT at the VAT rate applicable in the country in which the end customer is based.


Dropshipping and other modern sales channels offer tantalising opportunities to tap into new sources of income. It is essential to consider the (value-added) tax consequences right from the start. If you wait until your business has reached a critical size, you will be chasing your own past failures. With a clever setup, the business can be scaled without major risks and the administra-tive effort can be kept within reasonable limits.

In a recent ruling (BGer 9C_154/2023 of 3 January 2024), the Fed-eral Supreme Court dealt with the admissibility of input tax deduction for acquisition tax (VAT on services purchased from abroad) for con-sultancy services in connection with the sale of shareholdings. Ac-cordingly, a person liable for VAT in Switzerland is only entitled to claim the declared purchase tax as input tax if the corresponding ser-vices were provided in a period in which the taxable person was al-ready liable for VAT (registered). The taxable person is responsible for providing proof of this.

Facts of the case

A AG, which was only entered in the VAT register as a taxable person on 1 April 2019, planned the sale of shares in two companies. To this end, it commissioned several foreign service pro-viders to prepare, plan and implement the sale, who were to provide advice in the areas of in-vestment, auditing, tax and law, depending on their expertise. The consultancy agreements be-tween A AG and the consultants were concluded in 2014 and 2018 respectively, i.e. before A AG was registered as a company subject to VAT. The project was then completed in May 2019 with the successful sale of the shares. All consultants invoiced their services after 1 April 2019, whereby A AG, which was now liable for VAT, duly declared the purchase tax and reclaimed the resulting VAT amount as input tax. None of these purchased services were capitalised during the duration of the project from 2014 to May 2019.

Following an examination, the FTA largely refused the input tax deduction, arguing that the tax-payer could only deduct the input tax on services that (regardless of the invoice date) had actu-ally been provided after it was entered in the VAT register on 1 April 2019 (cut-off date). Due to a lack of detailed information on which consultant provided which services at exactly what time, the FTA methodically assumed an even, linear purchase of services according to the duration of the contracts (pro rata temporis). The input tax deduction was therefore only permitted to the extent that the services were provided after the reference date according to this proportional distribution of fees.


Requirement of an existing tax liability while receiving services

The position of the FTA, according to which the right to deduct input tax can only cover supplies that were received during the period of existing tax liability, was not (or no longer) disputed in the proceedings before the Federal Supreme Court.

Proof of the date on which the service was received

The court therefore focussed on the question of proving when the advisory services were actu-ally provided. In accordance with the principle that facts justifying and increasing the tax must be proven by the tax authority, and facts reducing and excluding the tax must be proven by the per-son liable to pay the tax, the court held that A AG had the burden of proof that the services from the consultancy agreements concluded long before the VAT registration were only provided after entry in the register of taxable persons. A AG had failed to provide this evidence. In the absence of any other evidence, the approach of the FTA, which assumed a continuous provision of services over the period since the conclusion of the contract and accordingly divided the fees "pro rata temporis", was not objectionable in the present case.

Subsequent input tax deduction

In the sense of a contingent application, A AG had argued that it was entitled to a claim for sub-sequent input tax deduction. This is the possibility of correcting the input tax deduction (pro rata) at a later point in time than the purchase of the service if the conditions for the input tax deduc-tion subsequently materialise, Art. 32 VAT Act.

The input tax deduction on goods and services put to use can be corrected if they are still avail-able and have a current value at the time when the conditions for input tax deduction have mate-rialised, Art. 72 para. 2 sentence 1 VATO.

However, there is a legal presumption that services in the areas of consulting, accounting, re-cruitment, management and advertising are already consumed and no longer available at the time they are purchased, Art. 72 para. 2 sentence 2 VATO. In the opinion of the court, the standard codifies, to a certain extent, an obligation for immediate depreciation, solely in relation to the VAT treatment. The accounting treatment (which Art. 70 para. 1 sentence 1 of the VAT Ordi-nance generally prescribes) is cancelled out by this special standard.  


The generally generous regulations on input tax deduction in Switzerland can sometimes lead to a certain carelessness in the area of VAT. The judgement makes it clear that early VAT registra-tion of the parties involved in connection with potential transactions should always be carefully checked and is usually advisable.

The judgement is not only relevant in the context of transactions, but also, for example, in the case of business start-ups, especially if a mandatory tax liability is not necessarily assumed at the beginning of the entrepreneurial activity.

In addition, the judgement shows that particular attention should be paid to documenting the timing of the provision of services - for example, through detailed invoicing or the documentation of certain "project milestones".

Under the current VAT Act, the right to deduct input VAT is broadly defined. Accordingly, the taxable person can in principle deduct the in- put VAT invoiced to him and paid by him within the scope of his busi- ness activity, Art. 28 para. 1 MWSTG. However, one of the require- ments is that the input tax was incurred as part of the taxable person's "entrepreneurial activity". Naturally, this raises the question of how to distinguish between entrepreneurial and non-entrepreneurial activities.

In its judgement 9C_651/ 2022, the Federal Supreme Court dealt with this distinction between the entrepreneurial and non- entrepreneurial spheres and the corresponding consequences for input VAT deduction.


The complainant in the underlying dispute was an association whose purpose was to support and promote ecclesiastical and charitable causes in Switzerland and abroad. In order to achieve its purpose, the association organised Christian musicals. Approximately 70% of the musicals were financed by donations and no admission fees were charged.

In addition to the income from donations, the association also generated income from services, such as the sale of food in connection with the musicals, the sale of other items (e.g. books; T- shirts), from publicity services (sponsoring) in favour of companies and accommodation services. On the occasion of a VAT inspection, the FTA denied the association an input VAT deduction in connection with the organisation of the musicals. The association appealed against this.

The Federal Supreme Court refers to its previous case law, according to which a corporate body can also maintain a non-entrepreneurial sphere in addition to the entrepreneurial sphere. However, account must be taken of the fact that the company is, in principle, an economic unit to which all activities related to the entrepreneurial activity must be allocated.

A possible non-entrepreneurial sphere is therefore characterised by the fact that the business unit in question either does not generate any income from services or at least does not generate such income in a sustainable manner. An independent non-entrepreneurial sphere can therefore only be assumed if the separation can be made sufficiently clear - whether this is due to a separate activity that is clearly recognisable to the outside world or a clear purpose that differs from that of the entrepreneurial activity. If this is not the case, the principle of the "unity of the company" remains with a single, entrepreneurial sphere.

In the present case, the main purpose of the organisation of the Christian musicals is the non-profit or idealistic activity of the association - and not the sale of food, books or T-shirts or the provision of publicity and accommodation services. With the musicals, the association therefore pursues ide- alistic purposes and not the generation of income. In this respect, entrepreneurial activity is there- fore lacking.

This means that the idealistic purpose of the musical performances can be clearly distinguished from that of the association's entrepreneurial activities (sale of food, etc.) and a separation can be made between the rather small entrepreneurial sphere and the significantly larger non-entrepre- neurial sphere. The close factual link between the entrepreneurial and non-entrepreneurial activi- ties is irrelevant: The association does not perform the musicals in order to promote its entrepre- neurial activities, but merely uses the (ideally motivated) performances as an opportunity to carry out a subordinate entrepreneurial activity.


As a result, the Federal Supreme Court confirms its previous case law on the distinction between the entrepreneurial and non-entrepreneurial sphere. The argumentation appears to be driven to a significant extent by considerations of achieving "unfair" tax advantages by using a comparatively subordinate business area in order to be able to deduct input tax incurred in the supposedly non- entrepreneurial sphere.