How to import goods

Importing goods means bringing in something from another country – and it passes through the customs clearance process on arrival. Import trade is regulated by customs authorities. They control the flow of goods and are responsible for collecting duties and taxes.

Key elements in the import process

The importation process involves an importer and an exporter and is sometimes mediated by a customs broker. To ensure everything goes smoothly, it’s vital to understand the responsibilities of each party, the regulations in place and to have the right documentation ready. Let's go over the key terms and the steps you'll need to take when importing goods.

What is an importer?

An importer is a party who makes, personally or via a broker, an import declaration and who's responsible for the payment of duties and taxes. On shipping documents, this party would often be named a buyer or consignee. Both a business and a private person can be considered an importer. In most cases, the importer is also the owner of the goods being imported.

What is an exporter?

It's a person or company who sends goods to another country. Export is regulated by customs authorities of the country the goods are being shipped from. 

What are customs?

They’re the authorities controlling the flow of goods into and out of a country. They’re responsible for enforcing a country’s import and export laws and regulations. They also collect any duties and taxes.

What is customs clearance?

It is a set of requirements and the process of taking goods through customs. It happens both when goods enter and exit a country or national territory. Customs clearance is a means to control and approve the movement of goods across borders.

What’s the first thing I need to check?

To begin with, ensure the goods you plan to import are permitted in your country. Bear in mind, that while some goods may be prohibited, others may only be allowed in limited quantities or under specific conditions. Find out if importing your goods requires certificates or licenses. 

Check your country's customs' website for detailed information on import restrictions and regulations.

How can I declare my goods?

In order to declare goods, you will need to submit a customs declaration. In most cases, this can be done electronically. Your carrier can usually take care of this for you, but you should check if this is possible before the goods are handed over to the carrier. If they can’t, you should appoint your own customs broker to perform the clearance.

What is a customs declaration?

A document that traditionally accompanies international shipments, the customs declaration includes information such as the nature of the goods, their value, the recipient and the shipment’s ultimate destination. Required for the export or import of goods, it accompanies all regulated goods being shipped under the appropriate permit. Customs declaration is also the process of declaring goods to customs.

What is a country of origin and why is it important?

The country of origin is where the product and its elements originate. This can be different from the country the goods are being shipped from. If your goods contain components sourced from different countries then make sure to check regulations about multiple countries of origin. Customs use the origin of goods to determine whether the trade in imported goods is subject to regulations and to assess the rates of duty and tax for your shipment.

What is an import license?

An import license is a document issued by the government bodies allowing companies and individuals to bring certain goods into its territory. Import licenses can be company and product-specific.

What are customs brokers and how can I find one?

They’re international trade experts responsible for preparing and clearing your goods through customs. You can usually find approved brokers on your country’s customs website or via a local association of customs brokers and freight forwarders. On the same website you should also check if you need a power of attorney, as some countries legally require it.

Which import documents may I need?

Every international shipment will require an air waybill and a commercial invoice. Ask the sender if you need any additional documentation like licenses or certificates – the sender needs to provide all the relevant information and documents to support the clearance process, like a certificate of origin. If you are shipping within Europe, an EORI number may be required.

Bear in mind there might be a time limit on declaring your goods, so it’s important the documentation is completed and in place before the shipment arrives at customs. And the details on all documents should match. Incomplete or missing paperwork is one of the reasons goods may not clear customs.

Are there different types of customs clearance?

Yes, there are different types of clearance depending on the goods, the value and destination country. To find out which one applies to your shipment, ask your carrier or check your country’s customs’ website. Bear in mind some clearances may take longer than others and require a customs broker.

What about duties and taxes?

Your carrier can usually tell you the amount of duties and taxes on a shipment. You pay these to your carrier before the goods arrive at customs, and they pay on your behalf. Or some carriers pay duties and taxes upfront and then recover them from you afterwards. You can learn more on our page about how duties and taxes are calculated.

When will my goods be released from customs?

After customs have processed the declaration, have checked everything is in order and received the payment for duties and taxes, they will release your goods into the country. 

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