Regulations for e-commerce shipments

When your international shipments cross borders, they have to clear customs. It's important to remember that besides general import and export regulations, some countries will also have product-specific requirements. Because many e-commerce products are regulated, the chances are your goods fall under this category.

If figuring out international shipping regulations feels like stepping into murky waters, it's because it can get quite complex – this guide will help you through the most important steps and questions.

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What are regulated goods?

Selling and buying certain goods is often regulated by the authorities of the country the goods are being exported from or imported into - the regulations often vary between territories. Some products can be sold without any restrictions in one country and be strictly regulated, or even forbidden in another. 

Regulated products don't have to be obviously dangerous like firearms or traditionally controlled like alcohol or medication. You may be surprised to find silk, glazed pottery, books and beauty products on the lists of regulated goods.

How can I find out if my goods are regulated?

Whether you're introducing a new product on your web-shop or shipping existing goods to a new territory, it's wise to:

1. Check if the product or its parts are regulated in the destination country

For example, if you're selling an alarm clock that runs on lithium batteries, you'll have to consider them separately

2. Find out which authorities regulate it

Ask your carrier or check with the customs authorities of the destination country. For example, all food and drugs imported to the US are regulated by the FDA, while the Canadian authority for these goods is Health Canada. 

3. Understand what you need to do to comply

The requirements will vary per country and product. Check if you need to register as an e-tailer or obtain product-specific licences and permits.

4. Collect the documentation to prove compliance

Bear in mind that if you need to provide original or certified documents, obtaining them can take time.

5. Check the export regulations of the country you're shipping from

Your goods will clear customs twice on the way to your customer. When preparing the paperwork, keep in mind that export regulations of your home country can be different from the import regulations of the destination country.

For example, many countries will have strict rules about exporting goods that are considered part of their cultural heritage. If you're shipping Buddhas from Cambodia, silk from India or icons from Russia you will need to comply with export regulations for these goods. 

6. Ask your carrier if they can transport it

Some products such as fresh food items or live plants require special care during transportation. Others, such as e-cigarettes, are heavily regulated in a number of countries. Remember to check in advance if your carrier can ship your goods.

What are the most common regulated goods?

While this list is by no means exhaustive, these are the most common regulated goods:

  • Alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages
  • Animals and biomaterial
  • Animal products (hides, pelts)
  • Apparel 
  • Children's toys
  • Controlled drugs and medication
  • Coins 
  • Dairy products
  • Diamonds and gemstones 
  • Electronics with a lithium battery (e.g. mobile phone, laptop, e-bike)
  • Fireworks
  • Food 
  • Goods infringing copyright
  • Pornography or obscene materials
  • Plastic materials (kitchen utensils, toys, etc)
  • Soil
  • Sunglasses
  • Watches
  • Weapons and parts of weapons and their imitations
  • Wood and wooden packaging

Do I need e-tailer registration?

If you're trading internationally, some countries will require you to register with their authorities. For example, e-commerce businesses operating in the EU, should have an EORI number for every European country they are based in. 

In some countries, an e-tailer registration is required for selling certain products. Say you're shipping network equipment to South Africa, you'll need to register with the National Regulator for Compulsory Specifications (NRCS). 

What is a Certificate of Conformity (COC)?

Certificate of Conformity, sometimes called a Certificate of Compliance, (COC) is issued by the manufacturer or an independent authorized laborator. It certifies a product has been tested and meets the technical and safety requirements. An example of COC is the CE mark, which is mandatory on a variety of goods ranging from laptops to children’s toys marketed in the EU. 

The COC has to be visible on the product itself or, in some exceptional cases, on the packaging or accompanying manuals. Keep in mind that the COC requirements for export and import may differ per country and that some products may require more than one certificate.

How can I submit the paperwork?

If you're submitting customs documentation digitally, it may be possible to use some of the uploaded documents, like EORI registration, for multiple shipments. Reach out to your carrier to see if this applies to your goods.

Which recent import legislations apply to e-commerce?

Bear in mind that import legislations change regularly – it's important to keep track of the changes that may affect your business. Some of the recent changes include:

Europe: removing the low-value threshold

As of July 1, 2021 two VAT regulations have changed:

  • The €22 low-value threshold for VAT will be abolished
  • The new VAT e-commerce rules in Europe will be introduced

Australia: e-tailor registration requirement

E-tailors shipping to Australia need to apply for an e-tailer registration that would allow them to ship low-value goods free of duties and taxes up to AU$ 70,000 a year. For your customers to benefit from the exemption, remember to include the registration number on the commercial invoice and air waybill. 

Norway

As April 1, 2020 two regulations have changed:

  • The low-value threshold is eliminated and VAT and customs charges apply to all goods. This ends the earlier regulation where goods valued under 350 NOK, were exempt from VAT, customs duties and excise duties.
  • VOEC scheme, which stands for New VAT on e-commerce, is introduced. It implies that B2C e-traders selling goods valued under 3,000 NOK with an annual turnover higher than 50,000 NOK, should register for VOEC and apply Norwegian VAT (currently 25%) to their goods. 

Switzerland

If you're shipping goods to Switzerland, keep in mind that, at the moment, it doesn't have a simplified VAT regime for e-commerce.

US: Duty-free entry for PGA regulated goods

Entry 86 (ET 86) allows goods regulated by the Partner Government Agencies (PGAs) to enter the US tax and duty-free. It applies to shipments with a total retail value under USD 800.  

But not all PGA regulated goods qualify for ET 86 - there are some shipments that will still require a formal clearance. These include certain tobacco and alcohol products, goods taxed under the Internal Revenue Code and goods that are subject to quota or anti-dumping and countervailing duties.

ET86 is currently running in a test phase and isn't mandatory for importers.

This website is designed to provide general information related to shipping. If you’re unsure of the shipping requirements that apply to you, check with your carrier. Make sure to check the rules and regulations of the country you’re shipping from and to prior to shipping. You can find this information on government websites.


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