How to Start an Import-Export Business

International freight on shipLicensing:

First things first: decide whether you want to be an importer or an exporter and then find out if you need a license.

According to, the US federal government does not require a company to have a license or permit to engage in the import/export business. That said, you want to contact your state or local government office about state and local requirements and permits that apply.

However, certain products require licensing in order to be exported or imported. These items include animals, firearms, plants and alcoholic beverages. Licenses are issued by federal agencies, and different agencies deal with different types of products. Therefore, the agency you contact will depend on the products that you are importing or exporting.

Do the products that you are exporting require licensing? You can figure this out by using the Commerce Control List online. This site contains a list of Export Control Classification Numbers. Find the number on the list that pertains to your particular items.

Having said that, not all commercial goods are on the Commerce Control List. These items are designated as EAR99, which usually include consumer goods. A majority of the time, these products do not require licensing, but this also depends on where the items are being shipped to.

If an export license is required, an export license application can be submitted quickly online using the Simplified Network Application Process Redesign (SNAP-R). Alternatively license application forms can be requested by mail, but the process to obtain the license is much slower.

The US Customs and Border Protection oversees and enforces export regulations. Exports may require a Shipper’s Export Declaration (SED). If the products that you are exporting do not require a license, the SED form is where you would indicate this information.

First Steps

If you are looking at getting into the export business, the steps you need to take to get started include:

  • Review export regulations.
  • Figure out your product’s export potential and identifying foreign markets to which you can export.
  • Look at your options and set up an overseas distribution system.
  • Learn about export prices, payment terms and methods.
  • Understand the shipping and documentation procedures that will apply to your business.

Things to Think About

You can import products to sell yourself or to re-sell to retailers. Start by finding out which items carry import restrictions. There are strict laws and regulations pertaining to importing products and you need to know what these are in order to avoid costly penalty fees.

The CBP (Customs and Border Protection) provides some helpful information on business requirements. The United States International Trade Commission has a tariff database on its website where it lists the most current tariffs on specific products. The US Department of Agriculture has an import checklist in regards to policies and regulations pertaining to food items that are imported.

If you want to start an importing business, you may want to consider hiring a customs broker. A customs broker prepares the documentation needed to import goods, therefore making the process easier for you.

Legal Issues and Finding Business Partners

Whether you choose to work in import or export, you will need to pick a business name that makes it easy for customers to identify you. You will then want to register your business with state and local authorities.

To find trustworthy businesses that you can partner with in other countries, you can use the International Company Profile Program, run by the US Department of Commerce.


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Starting an Import Export BusinessImport Export Business Start-Up Guide

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Courses in Import-Export

1. International Business Training offers export training courses that you can complete at home in weeks. Each course also includes a certificate of completion.

These web-based courses teach you how to export products, how to identify lucrative export markets, how to market products in different countries, how to write sales agreements, how to ensure you get paid and more. See online classes in export management.

2. The International Import Export Institute offers accredited degree programs along with certifications in a variety of different areas, including:

  • Certified International Trade Professional
  • Certified International Trade Manager
  • Certified International Trade Documentation Specialist
  • Certified International Trade Logistics Specialist
  • Certified International Trade Finance Specialist
  • Certified International Trade Marketing Specialist
  • Certified Exporter and
  • Certified International Freight Forwarder

Each online interactive course lasts six weeks.

3. You can also participate in import-export webinar trainings online. In Export 101: The Basics of Exporting, students learn the major steps in the export process, the parties involved in the transaction and document preparation and compliance information.

The webinar includes a certificate of completion and can be completed in just a few hours. This is a simple way to get the basic information you need to get started in the import-export business and get your questions answered.

How to Become an Import-Export Agent

Container ShipAn import-export agent helps bring importers and exporters together, and in return is paid a commission fee for each deal. Agents help local manufacturers reach a global market in situations where the manufacturer would have a difficult time selling internationally on its own.

Therefore, import-export agents must be knowledgeable of the market trends – what products are available and what products are needed – in order to make a profitable connection between buyer and seller. It is also important that agents are aware of trade policies, regulations an laws in not just one, but multiple countries.

Most work can be done on a computer, but as a negotiator, you need to be a good communicator and problem solver as well. Agents also organize the delivery of goods and supervise the activities in both the shipping and receiving ends for deals. In addition, they oversee the assessment of import and export taxes and the supplying of permits.

Working in this field offers the opportunity to make a significant income, but you can still operate your business from home, and keep overhead very low. If you are interested in getting started as an import-export agent, it is wise to first get educated and take an import export course to gain the skills you need to be successful.

Import-export liaisons can earn a lucrative income, generally around 10% commission on deals. Generally, agents are responsible for tasks like drawing up contracts, securing freight and negotiating trade prices.

Agents need to develop leads of companies to work with. To do this, many agents join trade organizations to make contacts and network with as many people in the field as possible. One such association is the American Association of Exporters and Importers.

First impressions make a big impact in any field, but in the international trade business, the first impression can often be made via letter or fax. Therefore, it is important that agents have professional letterhead and a well-designed company logo. Importers and exporters prefer to do business with people they can rely on and trust, and a professional image can say a lot about a company.

Import-Export Business Resources