Buying by internet, phone and mail order: distance contracts explained

In the guide

This guidance is for England, Scotland & Wales

Traders must comply with the Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations 2013 when they sell goods, services and digital content without face-to-face contact with consumers. These are called 'distance' contracts.

You have the right to cancel most distance contracts and the cancellation period is 14 days. Traders must give you certain informationbefore they make a contract with you. They must get your clear agreement if they want to charge you for 'extras'. There are clear rules on delivery and the point at which you become responsible for the goods. If the trader sends you 'unsolicited' goods (goods that you have not ordered) you can keep them and you do not have to pay for them.

These Regulations also cover 'on-premises' contracts (when you buy from a trader at their business premises) and 'off-premises' contracts (for example, when you buy at home or at your place of work).

You also have rights and remedies under the Consumer Rights Act 2015 when a trader supplies you with goods, services and digital content.

What is a distance contract?

This means a contract that is made between a consumer and a trader without face-to-face contact and using a form of distance communication - for example, internet, phone or post. The trader must have an organised scheme in place to sell by distance means for contracts to be classed as distance contracts; occasional sales will not count.

Which types of contract do the Regulations apply to?

The contract you have with the trader will fall into one of the categories of contract listed below:

  • sales contracts. Contracts for the sale of goods (such as household goods) and contracts for the supply of goods with services (such as mobile phones with airtime or a central heating system)
  • service contracts. Contracts for the supply of services only (such as carpet cleaningand golf lessons)
  • digital content. Contracts for data that is produced and supplied in a digital form (such as music, games, ringtones, computer software, apps or film downloads)

Which contracts don't the Regulations apply to?

Not all sales, service and digital content contracts are covered by these Regulations (but you will have rights under other legislation). The excluded contracts are:

  • gambling, including lotteries
  • services of a banking, credit, insurance, personal pension, investment or payment nature
  • construction and sale of immoveable property - for example, the construction of a new building
  • rental of residential accommodation
  • construction of new buildings or substantially new buildings by the conversion of existing buildings
  • supply of food, drink and other such consumables by a trader on regular rounds to your home, residence or workplace
  • package travel, holidays and tours
  • timeshare, long-term holiday products, resale and exchange contracts
  • goods sold from automatic vending machines
  • contracts concluded by you from a public phone and via one single connection by phone, internet or fax

Information the trader must give you

When you buy goods, services or digital content under a distance contract you are entitled to expect that the trader provides you with certain information, as set out below, in a clear and understandable waybefore you enter into the contract.Under the Consumer Rights Act 2015, this information is considered a term of the contract you have with the trader (unless it relates to the main characteristics of the goods or the main characteristics, functionality and compatibility ofdigital content). If a trader does not provide you with the required information, or it is changed without your clear agreement, you can make a claim to have your costs (if you have any) reimbursed.

  • main characteristics of the goods, services or digital content
  • identity of the trader (or trading name), geographical address and telephone number
  • an address you can complain to (only required if it is different to the geographical address) and details of any complaint-handling policy. If the trader is a member of an out-of-court complaint-and-redress scheme they must give you the details
  • total price of the goods, services or digital content, including taxes. If the price cannot be worked out in advance you must be given the method of calculation
  • details of costs:
    - all additional delivery charges*
    - total costs per billing period / monthly costs for open-ended or subscription contracts*
    - the cost of using the type of distance communication to finalise the contract if it is charged at more than the basic rate (for example, if there was an extra charge for buying by phone rather than online)
    - if the trader wants you to pay to return the goods when you cancel they need to inform you in advance*
  • arrangements for payment, delivery, performance and how long it will take to deliver the goods, to perform the services or to supply the digital content
  • the length of the contract and, if it is an open-ended contract or one that is extended automatically, how you can cancel it. Where applicable the trader must inform you if there is a minimum duration of the contract
  • cancellation requirements (the time limit and procedures for cancelling). If you ask the trader to start a service contract within the cancellation period and then decide to cancel you may have to pay reasonable costs for the service you have received. If you have a right to cancel, a cancellation form must be provided
  • in sales contracts the trader must remind you that they are required by law to supply goods that are in conformity with the contract (in other words, goods that are not faulty)
  • details of any after-sales customer assistance / services and guarantees as well as details of any relevant codes of conduct and how copies can be obtained. If you are required to pay a deposit or financial guarantee you must be given the details
  • digital content functionality, including any technical protection measures and any relevant compatibility of digital content with hardware and software

*If the trader does not give you this information you do not have to pay those charges

After the contract is made, you must be given confirmation of the contract in a durable form (such as paper or email) which includes all the information listed above. If the trader gave you this information before the contract was concluded they don't have to give you it again. This information forms part of the contract that you have with the trader. If the trader changes the information, either before you make the contract or at a later stage, it does not take effect unless you and the trader have clearly agreed that it will.

When you complete a contract electronically and it places you under an obligation to pay, the trader must make sure you are aware of this - for example, by using 'order with obligation to pay' or similar wording at the point where you click to pay. If they don't then the contract is not legally binding on you. Check the website to see if there are any delivery restrictions and which methods of payment the trader accepts. If the trader rings you to complete the contract they must first give their identity and the reason for their call.

Note that this part of the Regulations does not apply to NHS medicinal products or services, or passenger transport contracts.

Contracts you can't cancel

There are certain contracts that you do not have the right to cancel under these Regulations. You should check the list below before assuming you have cancellation rights:

  • NHS medicinal products or services
  • passenger transport services - for example, bus, train or flights
  • supply of goods or services where the price depends on fluctuations in the financial markets beyond the control of the trader (this does not apply to water, gas, electricity or district heating)
  • supply of goods that have been made to your specification or clearly personalised, such as a photograph printed on to a t-shirt or made-to-measure curtains
  • supply of goods that would deteriorate rapidly, such as fresh flowers
  • supply of alcohol, such as investment wines and spirits, where the contract price is fixed, delivery is after 30 days and the value depends on fluctuations of the market
  • contracts where you request a visit from a trader to carry out urgent repairs or maintenance
  • supply of newspapers, periodicals or magazines. You still have a right to cancel subscriptions contracts for such items
  • contracts made at a public auction. Internet auction sites are not 'public auctions' as defined in the Regulations so they must give you cancellation rights
  • supply of accommodation, transport of goods, vehicle rental, catering or services related to leisure activities if the contract states when the service has to be performed - for example, hotel and restaurant bookings for particular dates

Take note that if you unseal goods after delivery that must remain sealed for health or hygiene reasons, unseal audio, video or computer software after delivery or mix goods with other goods after delivery so that they are inseparable (such as mixing sand with cement), you lose your right to cancel the contract.

Your right to cancel the contract

You do not have the same opportunity to inspect goods, services or digital content when you buy at a distance as you would if you bought on business premises so the Regulations give you the right to cancel a distance contract at any time and for any reason within the cancellation period. You also have the right to withdraw your offer to buy before the contract is made.

Type of contract Cancellation period
sales contract: goods, including goods supplied with a service 14 days after the day you (or the person such as a neighbour with whom you have an arrangement) takes possession of the goods
sales contract: multiple goods in one order but delivered on different days 14 days after the day you (or the person such as a neighbour with whom you have an arrangement) takes possession of the last of the goods
sales contract: goods consisting of multiple lots or pieces delivered on different days 14 days after the day you (or the person such as a neighbour with whom you have an arrangement) takes possession of the last of the lots or pieces
sales contract: regular delivery of goods over a set period that is longer that one day 14 days after the day you (or the person such as a neighbour with whom you have an arrangement) takes possession of the first of the goods
service contract 14 days after the day on which the contract was made
digital content not supplied on tangible medium (downloads etc) 14 days after the day on which the contract was made (unless you asked for the download to be started within this period, you knew they would lose your right to cancel and the trader provided this information as part of the contract confirmation)

If the trader does not provide you with information on your cancellation rights, the cancellation period can be extended by up to 12 months depending on when / whether the information was provided.

You have the right to withdraw an offer to make a contractor cancel a contract during the cancellation period by informing the trader of your intentions. You can use the cancellation form provided by the trader if you wish. You are entitled to a refund of all payments including payment for, or equivalent to, the cost of basic delivery. If you choose delivery arrangements that are more expensive than the basic type, you will not get a refund for this. A refund should be givenwithin 14 days, orif you are returning goods, 14 days from when the trader received the goods back from you. If you can provide evidence to show that you returned the goods, you can obtain your refund earlier. The trader must collect the goods after cancellation if they agreed to do so, otherwise you are responsible for returning them within 14 days of cancellation. Unless the trader has agreed to pay the return costs, you must do so but the trader is required to inform you of this. The trader is not allowed to charge you a cancellation fee.

You are entitled to check the goods to make sure you are happy with their nature, characteristics and function but if the trader believes you have used them more than was necessary to decide if they were suitable, they may be able to claim compensation from you up to the contract price. Try to treat goods like you would in a shop. How would you inspect them in a shop before you bought them?

There are times when you may want the trader to start a service straight away. Under these circumstances, the tradermustinform you that you lose your right to cancel once the contract has been performed (this does not apply to utility contracts).

If the service has not been completed and you cancel within the cancellation period, you will have to pay for the part of the service that the trader has carried out. If goods were supplied with a service, you would have the right to return the goods if you cancelled within the cancellation period but you may be liable to pay some or all of the service costs. For example, if you order a washing machine and an installation service online and after installation, you decide to cancel within your cancellation period, you should get a refund for the washing machine but you may have to pay the installation charge.

If you withdraw or cancel a contract in most cases any ancillary contract (a contract that is connected to the main contract, such as a warranty) is automatically terminated at no cost to you.

Additional payments under the contract

If the trader offers you an 'extra' that is linked to the main contract, such as gift wrapping or special delivery, they must always get your clear agreement to charge you for it. This means that the trader cannot have a pre-ticked box in an order form, for example, that you have to 'un-tick' or ask the trader to remove to avoid payment. If you did not agree you will not have to pay, and if you have paid you are entitled to claim a refund.

Telephone helpline charges

If the trader provides a telephone helpline for you to contact them about a contract that you have entered into, they can only charge you the 'basic rate'. This means the normal geographic or mobile rate. Numbers beginning with the prefixes 01, 02, 03 or 07 (except those beginning 070) and Freephone numbers beginning 0800 and 0808 meet the requirements of the Regulations.If the trader charges you more than the basic rate, you are entitled to reclaim the extra from them.

Delivery of goods

The trader must deliver the goods to you unless you have agreed otherwise. The goods must be delivered without undue delay or in any event not more than 30 days after the day on which you entered the contract. This does not prevent you and the trader from agreeing your own arrangements for delivery but you should ensure this arrangement is written into the contract.

If any of the following apply:

  • the goods are not delivered within 30 days
  • the trader refuses to deliver the goods
  • the trader fails to deliver the goods by the agreed time or within the agreed period and it is clear from circumstances that were apparent when the contract was made that the time or period for delivery was essential
  • you told the trader before you entered into the contract that delivery without undue delay, within 30 days, at the agreed time or within the agreed period was essential
  • in any other circumstances, you specify a period for delivery of the goods, usually in writing, which the trader fails to meet

... you are entitled to cancel the contract and claim a full refund.

If you order multiple goods from the trader and some of them are not delivered on time or not at all, you have an alternative to ending the contract. You can cancel the order for any of the goods or reject goods that have been delivered. The trader must refund you for the part of the order you cancelled or for the goods you rejected. Where goods form part of a 'commercial unit' (for example, a set of cutlery) you cannot cancel part of the order, you have to cancel the whole order. These Regulations do not prevent you from seeking other remedies for late delivery if you so wish.

When are you responsible for the goods?

You become responsible for the goods when you, or a person identified by you to take delivery, takes actual possession of them. Until that time, the trader is responsible for them even if they use a carrier. If you organise your own carrier, then the trader is only responsible for the goods until your carrier takes possession of them.

Inertia selling

If a trader supplies unsolicited goods, you are entitled to keep them as an unconditional gift and do not have to pay for them. Inertia selling is a banned practice under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008.

'Off-premises' & 'on-premises' contracts

These Regulations also deal with a trader's obligations when they sell from their business premises (including mobile premises) and when they sell away from their business premises, such as in your home (off-premises contracts).

See the guides'Buying at home: off-premises contracts explained' and 'Buying from business premises: on-premises contracts explained' for information on these other types of contract.

What about faulty goods or digital content, or a service that is below a reasonable standard?

The Regulations described above are in addition to the rights and remedies you have under the Consumer Rights Act 2015 when goods, digital content or services are supplied to you.

The 'Sale & supply of goods: your consumer rights' , 'Supply of digital content: your consumer rights' and 'Supply of services: your consumer rights' guides give more information on your rights and remedies.

The 'Sale & supply of goods: what to do if things go wrong' , 'Supply of digital content: what to do if things go wrong' and 'Supply of services: what to do if thing go wrong' guides give you a clear direction to follow when you want to complain.

How to buy safely on the internet

For advice on how to protect yourself when shopping online, as well as how to deal with other internet-related problems, visit the Get Safe Online website.

Key legislation

Last reviewed / updated: July 2020

Please note

This information is intended for guidance; only the courts can give an authoritative interpretation of the law.

The guide's 'Key legislation' links may only show the original version of the legislation, although some amending legislation is linked to separately where it is directly related to the content of a guide. Information on amendments to legislation can be found on each link's 'More Resources' tab.

For further information in England and Wales contact the Citizens Advice consumer service on 0808 2231133. In Scotland contact Advice Direct Scotland on 0808 164 6000. Both provide free, confidential and impartial advice on consumer issues.

© 2021 itsa Ltd.

TSI: 309520, ID: 528, updated 28/09/2020