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Importing Goods into the U.S. – An Introductory Guide for Small Business Owners

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Importing Goods into the U.S. – An Introductory Guide for Small Business Owners

By Caron_Beesley, Contributor
Published: July 3, 2012

Whether you’re looking to diversify your product line or leverage cheaper-made merchandise, selling imported goods in the U.S. can be an important ingredient in small business success.

Interestingly enough, importing doesn’t always necessarily cannibalize the economy here at home. Research from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco (cited in this USA Today article) suggests that for every dollar spent on a Chinese-made item, 55 cents goes to U.S. businesses for services such as marketing and sales. So Americans are getting more than just cheap prices and unique products from overseas markets.

Many small businesses also support high-demand imported products that can’t be found or manufactured here: artisan crafts, furniture, shoes and clothing, and food and beverage products. These represent a lucrative market with margins that can reach up to 700 percent.

If you are interested in importing and selling overseas goods to the U.S. market – whether or not you’re actually based in the U.S. – you’ll need to do your research regarding both the country of export and the country of import (the United States).

Here are some business and regulatory tips to guide you through the process of selling imported goods in the U.S.

Review Import Rejection Laws and Trade Barriers

First, be sure to check U.S. trade barriers and local in-country laws to be certain you can actually export your chosen goods out of the country of origin into the U.S.

While the U.S. is very import-friendly, it does have safety and quality controls that are more stringent than other countries. Likewise, foreign nations sometimes restrict or ban the export of religious ornaments, rare or protected goods, animal by-products (such as furs and ivory), as well as pirated designer goods. There are several guides and links to information about import trade on SBA.gov’s Importing Goods page.

If you want to import or sell agricultural products into the U.S., the Food Safety and Inspection Service provides a checklist and other information to help you comply with laws that govern import of meat, poultry and egg products.

Build Relationships and Network on the Ground in the Export Country

As with all wholesale procurement, you will want to meet and greet the producer or distributor of the product(s) you will be selling. Try to establish whether the company you’re dealing with has export experience. Ask for references. SBA’s Doing Business Abroad guide can help you plan your trip.

Hire a Customs Broker

A licensed customs broker can help you navigate laws and regulations that apply to the transactions your planning, including licenses, calculation of taxes, duty fees, etc. A customs broker prepares all the documentation needed to import goods, just as a freight forwarder does for exporters. Customs brokers also facilitate communication between the importer and the government. Licensed brokers must have expertise in the entry procedures, admissibility requirements, classification, valuation, and the rates of duty, applicable taxes and fees for imported merchandise. The customs broker charges the importer a fee for this advice.

You can search for certified customs brokers at the National Customs Brokers and Forwarders Association of America. For international brokers visit the International Federation of Customs Brokers Associations.

Check License or Permit Requirements for Importing Certain Goods

Many imported and exported products are regulated by federal agencies and are listed in SBA’s Exporting/Importing Specific Goods page. If you import or export any of the products listed, you may need to obtain specific licenses and permits or complete additional paperwork. The page also provides information on how to get the appropriate licenses and permits. A customs broker can also help with this aspect of importing goods.

Get Assistance and Training

The federal government provides advice and seminars to small businesses interested in importing.


About the Author:

Caron Beesley


Caron Beesley is a small business owner, a writer, and marketing communications consultant. Caron works with the SBA.gov team to promote essential government resources that help entrepreneurs and small business owners start-up, grow and succeed. Follow Caron on Twitter: @caronbeesley


Hi Caron, I am trying to start an online business and have been doing a lot of research. Please advise what certification or licence is needed to sell a mutli-purpose sanitizer/cleaner. Much appreciated, and thank you. Jessie
Hi, I am interested in importing T shirts from India. Please advise me the steps involved to start a business here. I do not have much background knowledge about starting a company. Thanks
Hi Caron, I am thinking of importing coconut oil into usa from India.Can i get some helpful info of where and how to start this and whom to contact to get enough info .I am verymuch desperate in starting sooner.
Hi Caron, I am a small business, looking to import scarves, fabric from India. What do I need to do to comply with rules and regulations. Thank you - Tina
Hello Caron. First of all is to thank you for this valuable information. I am an online marketer who is looking to import goods in USA. Please provide me with a step to step requirements on what is needed. Looking forward for your response Regards, miamtom
Really great article Carol! Could you please provide additional information about how to import into USA deep frozen dough products? Thank you in advance!
How do I start a import/export business ?
Hi Caron, Can't agree more. You mentioned "Review Import Rejection Laws and Trade Barriers", which is the base of everything else. Every importer should do your research on the tariff and tax, and get assistance if not sure. Calculate the most accruate landed cost when you make any decision on the order.
Thanks Caron for this article. I have a question regarding labeling and tagging wholesale clothing imported from China & India. Basically, I would like to sell imported scarves on Amazon/Ebay as well as supply them to clothing retailers. If I have registered as an LLC or Sole Proprietorship, do I have the legal right to place tags which portray my business name on the imported clothing products, before I sell them? Is there a tutorial or list of steps I could follow on how to do this?
Hi Carol, Could you please provide additional information about how to import into USA. Every time I have contacted a local office here in TN asking for guidance about imports I have been told they can't help with that except for sharing information about exporting from USA. Thanks!


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