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Tips for handling customs when importing eCommerce products into the USA

When it comes to importing goods, it’s critical to ensure you have all your ducks in a row to avoid potential problems in the clearance of your merchandise. eCommerce sellers working with overseas manufacturers should be familiar with the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) policies and procedures before importing goods.

This article will help you cover your bases in broad strokes, from doing your research to finding the right paperwork.

Please note that this is not legal advice, so if you have specific questions or plan to begin importing goods, you should contact a professional or a professional service.

6 Tips for importing eCommerce products into the USA

1) Educate yourself on laws, trade deals, and processes

Before you start importing goods for your eCommerce business, hit the books. Depending on where you import goods from, and what those products are, there could be heavy tariffs to take into consideration for your pricing strategy.

For example, the U.S.-China Phase 1 Deal has lowered some tariffs on some products, but not all. You could find yourself paying as much as 25% more for products coming in from China.

Laws around exportable products revolve around which country is exporting, and which is importing. Be sure to cross-reference the laws and requirements around your specific situation, to avoid ordering items that won’t make it in.

For example, the US has much stricter laws around what products can be imported than China has about products that can be exported. Learning about these can prevent a position where you’ve tried to import products that are not permitted.

In some cases, there may be trade barriers between the US and another country. Identifying and understanding current trade agreements with other countries can save you a lot of heartache down the line.

If the best offense is a good defense, knowing where you stand is the play. Running a business that involves importing goods to the U.S. requires ongoing education and training as processes, laws and trade agreements evolve over time.

2) Iron out logistics

The first thing to consider when importing goods is how you plan to get them to the United States. There are a variety of options, such as bringing them in yourself and storing them, shipping through a shipping company, or dropshipping directly from your export country.

Dropshipping is a business model where a store owner processes orders through a third-party supplier or vendor. The third-party supplier is then tasked with the responsibility of shipping the order directly to the consumer, without the intermediary step of storing goods or processing them at your own fulfillment center (or other fulfillment center). With this model, the retailer simply passes on customer information to the supplier to ship goods on their behalf.

Of course, finding the right supplier and appropriate products is a bit more challenging when you’re half a world away. You’ll want to do some research and make sure you have a strong connection with your supplier or drop-shipping partner before you begin importing goods. Which brings us to our next point:

3) Connect with your export company to clarify everything

No matter how big your business, you must rely on your chosen manufacturer, supplier, or distributor in the export country. How else will your products make it to you or your customers? It’s important to build and nurture strong relationships with these teams to ensure compliance and confirm any information you’ve sought out yourself.

Your business contact should be able to advise you on laws and regulations around their exports, which can be checked against U.S. import regulations to ensure compliance. This includes both the products themselves and their packaging.

You should also confirm minimum order quantity (or maximum order quantity) restrictions, which can differ by supplier but may be regulated by countries.

4) Get your paperwork in order

In order to clear customs, you need to prepare the necessary paperwork to bring your products into the country, as well as pay any applicable duty or tariffs that need to be paid.

In the U.S., the U.S. Customs and Border Protection office (CBP) oversees these actions. It’s important that you get your paperwork sorted out in advance of your products’ arrivals, as they won’t be released to you until the paperwork is completed accurately, and fees are paid.

If you’ve ever traveled yourself, you’re familiar with the declaration paperwork required to bring goods into the country personally: if you’re over the exemption, you’ll pay applicable duties and taxes.

When it comes to commercial goods, there’s no exemption and the paperwork isn’t quite as simple. You can refer to the CBP Guide for Commercial Importers for information on importing to the U.S.

When you import goods, you’ll need (at minimum) the following items:

  • A commercial invoice from your supplier
  • Form 7501 “Entry Summary” Customs Form
  • You should also receive a commercial invoice from your supplier when you make your order

You may also be asked to provide:

  • Copies of appropriate memorandums, permits, certificates, or other documents
  • Packing lists
  • Cargo control document (or similar documents)
  • Customs bond
  • Certificate of origin
  • Bill of lading
  • Inward cargo manifest

Keep in mind that some products require unique permits that need certification from national agencies. For example, if you’re importing food products or goods related to personal care or beauty, you’ll need to ensure you’ve completed the appropriate forms for the FDA.

You can see a list of products that require special forms or permits here.

5) Ensure compliance

Back in school, teachers often asked us to go back and check our answers at the end of a test to make sure everything is in order. This remains a best practice when it comes to customs. Skipping one multiple choice question on a pop quiz isn’t the end of the world, but missing an important form for your imported goods could spell disaster for your business.

If you’re unsure about the process and paperwork, consider hiring a broker who can handle all compliance issues on you behalf.

An experienced customs broker will provide valuable advice, handle all your paperwork, and make sure you’re compliant so everything runs smoothly once your products arrive in the U.S.

Although a broker may cost a bit up front, you’ll see the ROI quickly with time and money saved over the long-term.

Regulation compliance could become a big headache for you if you find your items aren’t able to come into the U.S. due to differing laws, and market access can differ from country to country. Since the US has stricter laws than those in China, you must ensure your products are legally able to enter the country.

6) Find out if you need to work with other agencies

The tips above should help you work with customs to import your eCommerce goods, but things aren’t always as simple as understanding the CBP policies and procedures.

Other agencies may require different permits, licenses, or other certifications depending on the commodity being imported. CBP acts in an administrative capacity for these agencies, who you should ensure you’re familiar with as well.

Contact the individual agencies directly to learn about their requirements by visiting USA.gov.

At the end of the day, it’s impossible to overemphasize the importance of preparedness when you begin importing products. From consulting with a Customs Broker to finding the right supplier or dropshipping partner, there is no such thing as being too careful as you bring products across the border. With a little digging and plenty of attention to detail, your imported goods should cross US borders with no problem to fuel your business growth.

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