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Pharmaceuticals import/export guide for the US

If you’ve considered launching a pharma import/export business, here’s where to start.

The United States has grown to become the world’s largest pharmaceutical market, with $333 billion in sales in 2015.

You can be in on that profit by starting your own trading company. From controlled substances to botanicals and medical compounds — you can build a thriving pharmaceuticals business that facilitates trade around the world.


Types of import/export businesses

There are three basic types of import/export businesses. Starting out, it’s a good idea to pursue the one that most interests you.

Export management company

An export management company (EMC) helps a company in the US export its medicines and pharmaceuticals. It manages the details of hiring distributors, developing marketing materials and preparing shipping logistics.

Export trading company

An export trading company (ETC) researches the needs of foreign buyers and finds domestic companies to meet those needs.

Import/export merchant (or free agent)

Import/export merchants buy merchandise from a manufacturer — foreign or domestic — then resells that merchandise around the world. Although there’s heavier risk involved in being a free agent, there’s potential to earn higher profits when you cut out the middlemen.

Startup costs for a pharmaceuticals import/export business

You can start your own import/export business with little upfront cost. At a minimum, you’ll need a phone and reliable Internet connection. You may also want to invest in business cards, a website and a fax machine. It’s helpful to hire somebody to take care of branding, including creating a unique business logo.

Narrowing your market focus and target customer

Once you’ve decided the type of pharmaceutical import/export business you want to run and figure out the startup costs, it’s time to narrow your market focus. By niching down, you can concentrate on a market you can serve best.

As you spend time researching profitable niches, think about:

  • The customers you want to serve.
  • Areas of the world you’ll target.
  • Types of pharmaceuticals you’ll offer.

Your target customer will be someone who wants to trade globally by either selling or buying medicine overseas or from international sources.

Types of pharmaceuticals

To meet the needs of your target customer, you need to choose the pharmaceuticals you’ll offer. Choose something that you have the most experience with. For instance, do you have a science background with knowledge of medical compounds? Have you worked with controlled substances in a hospital setting? Do you know about a specific sector of the medical industry?

Existing experience with your target area is a plus, but having passion for it widens your advantage. You’ll understand the jargon of your niche and you may already have contacts.

The pharmaceuticals market

  • Controlled medicines and substances.
  • Medicinals, botanicals, and dietary supplements.
  • Pharmaceutical preparations.
  • In vitro diagnostics.
  • Veterinary drugs.

Narrowing down target countries

Identify the countries you want to do business with by thinking about your competitive advantages:

  • Do you speak a foreign language?
  • Do you have connections abroad?
  • Have you lived overseas before?
  • Have you traveled extensively to a particular country?
  • Do you love the culture of a certain country and know a lot about it?

Once you’ve narrowed your list of target countries, investigate each country’s requirements for conducting business — such as tariffs, registration and other documents.

Educating yourself before making a final decision can affect your competitive edge. Ask questions of your target country’s foreign embassy or consulate, and visit the US Department of Commerce to learn more.

Top import and export countries for pharmaceuticals

Top 5 sources of pharmaceutical imports to the United States

  • 1. Ireland — $15.2 billion
  • 2. Germany — $14.5 billion
  • 3. Switzerland — $9.4 billion
  • 4. Israel — $6 billion
  • 5. India — $6 billion

Top 5 export destination for US pharmaceuticals

  • 1. Belgium — $6.4 billion
  • 2. The Netherlands — $4.2 billion
  • 3. Canada — $3.8 billion
  • 4. United Kingdom — $3.7 billion
  • 5. Japan — $3.5 billion
Information courtesy US International Trade Administration.

How do I register my import/export business?

To register your import/export business, you’ll need to complete the US Department of State’s SNAP-R company registration.

After you submit your registration, the Department of State will email instructions about obtaining a Company Identification Number (CIN). A CIN is used for tax purposes and registration with the US Department of Commerce.

Import and export licenses

Typically, the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) doesn’t require a license to import or export goods from the US. However, other government agencies or departments or local governments may require them. If you’re exporting goods, ask your local port of entry about any required licenses.

Incorporating and forming an LLC

You don’t have to incorporate in order to start an import/export business.

But incorporating or creating an LLC can provide key benefits that include:

Separation of personal and business assets.Creating a corporation or a limited liability company (LLC) can help protect your personal assets. For example, you’ll have less personal liability for business debts.
Expense deduction.Through a corporation or LLC, you can deduct business expenses before income is forwarded to you.
Enhanced credibility.Clients often prefer working with incorporated businesses, seeing them as more legitimate.

Is specific paperwork required for the pharmaceutical import/export market?

Depending on the specific medicines or pharmaceuticals you’re interested in importing or exporting, you could be required to submit forms to the US Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Communications Commission or other agencies. You may also be required to submit forms in the country you’re importing from or exporting to.

For more information on the laws and regulations governing pharmaceuticals and biotechnology, visit the US Small Business Administration’s Business Guide.

Because regulations and requirements change, also consider seeking the help of an import/export specialist to determine the exact certification, licenses and other clearance documents for your imported or exported goods.


Charging for your services

Import/export businesses typically charge based on commission or retainer.

Commission structure

With a commission structure, you’re paid a percentage of any trade deal you close — usually around 10%. For example, if you sell a pallet of a manufacturer’s supplement for $1,500, you’ll make a $150 commission. On top of your commission, you’ll also want to charge for expenses like packaging and shipping.

Retainer model

On a retainer model, your clients pay you a monthly fee to be on call when they need your services. To find the right amount for your retainer, consider your costs. These may include labor, supplies and overhead.

An alternative model

Beyond a commission or retainer structure, you can simply buy pharmaceutical products and sell them. In this case, your revenue will come from the profit you make from selling merchandise.

Which business model should you choose?

A rule of thumb is to pick a commission model if you think a product will be easy to sell. However, if you think a product will be difficult to sell, price your business based on a retainer.

The thinking is if you sell a lot of product, you want to be paid based on performance. On the other hand, if you believe sales will be slow, using a retainer model could ensure that you’ll be paid even in the downtime.

Finally, if you’re confident in your ability to sell products, you don’t have to negotiate a payment structure with manufacturers. All you’ll have to negotiate is how much you’ll buy product for and then find a way to profit from the merchandise.

International billing and payments

Your new business will require you to make and receive international payments, which means you’ll make transactions between currencies and across borders.

You can safely and affordably manage your business payments — with lower fees and stronger exchange rates — by comparing the services of a money transfer specialist.
Sending money to the US: What to know

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Shipping the goods

You’ll be sending and receiving goods from other countries, so you’ll need to arrange shipping details.

First, contact a freight forwarder, a company that helps you transport pharmaceuticals and medicines safely and efficiently. They will help you handle the logistics of completing shipping documents, finding cargo space and securing cargo insurance.

Find a freight forwarder by looking in state-specific business directories.

After you’ve hired one, read our shipping guides to learn how to ship the merchandise.
Laws and legal documents when transferring large sums of money into the US

Risks and how to avoid them

Unpredictable shipping logistics

Needless to say, your success hinges on whether you can ship goods safely and efficiently. If you’re exporting pharmaceuticals, for example, you’re responsible for ensuring they leave your local port and arrive at the correct destination on time.

You’ll also need to account for anything else that could go wrong, such as damage to the cargo. Staying organized and partnering with a reputable freight forwarder will help you ship goods without a hitch.

Not knowing enough about the pharmaceuticals market

It’s a good idea to thoroughly research the market before entering this business, though even that may not be enough.

Consider hiring experts who understand the tastes and cultures of your specific markets. You’ll need to sell products that resonate in countries you’re unfamiliar with.

Running into problems at the border

Customs rules aren’t uniform throughout the world. Instead, you’ll encounter a mass of different regulations while transporting medicines and pharmaceuticals. To avoid drowning in a swamp of border regulations, hire experts in customs law and trade compliance.

Bottom line

The pharmaceuticals import/export business is for people who love building relationships in other countries, and success requires an organized mind that can handle logistics. When dealing with medicines and similar goods, a willingness to thoroughly comply with relevant regulations is a must.

If you have these qualities, take the plunge into creating a thriving pharmaceuticals import/export business.


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4 Responses

    Default Gravatar
    SyedKamalAugust 3, 2018

    Are US consumers allowed to import prescription drugs for personal use?
    What are top 5 or 10 pharmaceutical categories imported into US?
    Are there any pharmaceutical import trade journals in US?

      Avatarfinder Customer Care
      JoshuaAugust 11, 2018Staff

      Hi Kendacie,

      Thanks for getting in touch with finder. I hope all is well with you. :)

      Let me answer your questions one by one.

      1. Are US consumers allowed to import prescription drugs for personal use?

      According to the FDA, it is illegal for a US consumer to import and use drugs from other countries, whether it is a prescription drug or not because imported drugs are more likely not approved by the FDA.

      However, there are some instances where it is legal to import prescription drugs. You just have to comply with the requirements and guidance prepared by the FDA.

      2. What are the top 5 or 10 pharmaceutical categories imported into the US?

      I’m afraid, we currently don’t have this information on our website. However, statistically speaking, the US is the largest importer of drugs to date. To find the specific answer to your question, you might want to use the Internet.

      3. Are there any pharmaceutical import trade journals in the US?

      Yes, there should be trade journals. However, we again don’t have this on our website. Please refer to other sources to get a list of these journals. A good website to look into is the FDA and International Trade Administration websites.

      I hope this helps. Should you have further questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out again.

      Have a wonderful day!


    Default Gravatar
    MahadApril 20, 2018

    Its good to import or export from US in sense of pharmaceutical business?

      Avatarfinder Customer Care
      MayApril 22, 2018Staff

      Hi Mahad,

      Thanks for getting in touch with finder.

      I’m afraid we can’t personally advise whether or not it’s good to go for an import/export pharmaceutical business as that entirely depends on your own business plans and financial situation. Nevertheless, it would be best to review the guide above as it gives you a general idea how the import/export works for pharmaceutical business in the US.


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