An E-commerce Business Owner’s Guide To International Customs


IIH Global

eCommerce sales strategies

Has your e-commerce business grow beyond your wildest dreams and now you’ve decided that the time has come to start selling in different countries around the world? 

That’s great news! 

However, even though international shipping can be a great way to branch out and expand your brand, it also comes with its own set of rules. 

As well as ensuring you package your goods for long-haul travel, you also need to make sure that you’re familiar with international customs and other important rules around cross-border shipping

You should do this before you offer international shipping as an option to your customers just to make sure you’re prepared. 

To help you do this, we’ve put together this guide. 

So if you’re an e-commerce business owner and you’re looking to start shipping your goods internationally, here’s what you need to know before you do. 

Why is international shipping for e-commerce different?

Let’s first start by looking at some of the key reasons that international shipping for e-commerce is different. In a nutshell, shipping outside your own country is a bit more complex because you’re now exporting goods abroad. This means you need to consider: 

  • Additional documentation to get the goods through customs 
  • Additional regulations to ensure that your goods comply with the rules and regulations of the country you’re sending them to 
  • Any additional costs such as duties and taxes 

Because you are not shipping domestically, it’s important that you understand all of the above and, in particular, the customs regulations of the countries you’re shipping to if you hope to get your goods to your customers with as little fuss as possible. 

So we’re now going to look at each of these in more detail.

How to get your customs paperwork in order 

When you’re shipping your products internationally, you need to make sure that your customs documents are in order to make the delivery as smooth as possible. This prevents the goods from being held at customs and your customers from becoming frustrated and unhappy. 

In order to go about preparing your customs documents correctly, you need to understand that paperwork could vary depending on the type of goods and the destinations they’re being sent to and how you’re sending them. 

That said, there are 10 key steps that apply to most shipments, therefore, these are the best place to start. These steps include: 

  • Making sure you’ve set up a commercial invoice template to include with your goods
  • Carefully writing the most accurate possible description of the goods you’re shipping 
  • Classifying your goods with the relevant harmonised system (HS)/commodity code
  • Identifying and highlighting the country that manufactures the goods you’re sending 
  • Checking for any exemptions from duties and taxes that might be relevant to your products or location 
  • Identifying if there will be any other authorities regulating your goods along the way
  • Determining the duties and taxes you may need to pay on your goods 
  • Identifying the required customs documentation
  • Creating or gathering all the relevant customs documentation in one place ready to ship your goods

It is always a good idea to follow these steps anyway, though if you choose to use a courier service, they might be able to take on some of this labor-intensive work for you. More on this in the next section.

Choosing the right courier partner 

Of course, if you want to make your job that bit easier, you can partner with professional courier services that specialize in international shipment. If you plan to do this, it’s still important that you understand customs rules and have your paperwork in order. 

However, these providers tend to take on some of the more time-consuming tasks and will make sure that their couriers have all the correct information before trying to cross the border in any way.

So, if you’re considering going down this route, it’s a good idea to do your research and choose the right courier partner for your e-commerce business. It’s best to find a provider that offers to track links and transparency, as well as a reliable and timely service. 

Understanding duties and taxes

Duties and taxes are charges placed on shipments at customs as goods leave or enter a new country. And these apply to e-commerce shipments too.

Duties and taxes affect your e-commerce shipping because you need to know how these changes will impact your finances, profit margins, logistics, and customer experience. 

It’s important to know that the same rules and rates apply to e-commerce shipments and these depend on factors such as the value of the shipment, the type of goods, the country of origin, and the import rules of the destination. 

If you’re unsure about how much you’ll be charged at customs, you can either do the research yourself and ensure you add this to the price of your goods and shipping. Alternatively, you can hire a courier or customs broker to help you understand the rules and associated costs. 

How do regional agreements affect shipping and customs? 

The good news is, there are lots of different countries that have agreements that can simplify the import and export process. This means that minimal customs requirements are needed to send goods between certain neighboring countries with regional agreements.

For example, shipping between EU member nations is much easier, as is shipping between the US, Canada, and Mexico (NAFTA) or Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, and other members of the Eurasian Customs Union (EACU). 

Of course, with the UK now out of the EU, the rules will likely have changed. Therefore, you should look into any new customs regulations before sending off your goods.

Check your goods aren’t prohibited 

Finally, before sending anything, you need to make sure that the goods you’re sending are not prohibited in the destination country. After all, nothing will slow down a delivery like having banned items confiscated at customs. 

So you need to check out which goods are restricted in both the destination and country of origin. For example, in the UK, some of the most common prohibited items include: 

  • Drugs
  • Indecent or obscene material
  • Weapons
  • Endangered species
  • Counterfeit goods
  • Perfumes with a flashpoint of less than 60°C

Therefore you need to make sure that your products do not fall into any of these categories. 

Interestingly, some countries have a ban on strange items you might not have considered. For example, baby walkers are banned for import or export in Canada, pencils in Tunisia, and wheelbarrows in Nigeria. 

So as you can see, it’s important to always check the rules, so you don’t get caught out!

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