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US import and export guide

In the import / export industry, you serve as a matchmaker for companies worldwide.

If you’re a people person and love interacting with other cultures, an import/export business could be for you. If businesses want to export their goods, you help them find buyers. And if companies are looking for specific merchandise, you help them find sellers.
With dedication and this guide, you can build a thriving business that’ll facilitate trade around the world.


Types of import/export businesses

There are three basic types of import/export businesses. Start out by pursuing the one that interests you most.

Export management company

Suppose a company in the United States wants to export its product. That’s where an export management company (EMC) can help.

An EMC handles all of the details for the company to ship goods overseas. This could include hiring distributors, creating marketing materials and preparing shipping logistics.

Export trading company

An export trading company (ETC) finds out what foreign buyers want and then locates domestic companies to export the goods.

Import/export merchant (or free agent)

Import/export merchants buy merchandise from a manufacturer — foreign or domestic — then resells that merchandise around the world. There’s heavier risk involved in being a free agent — but with fewer middlemen, the potential for higher profits as well.

Startup costs

Start your own import/export business with few upfront costs.

At a minimum, you need a phone and a reliable Internet connection. You’ll also want to invest in business cards, a website and a fax machine. And it doesn’t hurt to hire somebody for your branding, including a unique business logo.

Narrow your market

Once you’ve decided on the type of import/export business you want to run and calculated your startup costs, it’s time to narrow your market focus.

By niching down, you’ll focus your attention on a market you can best serve. Think about:

  • Customers you want to serve.
  • Areas of the world you’ll target.
  • Types of goods you’ll offer.

Take your time to dig deep with your research. The extra time you spend finding profitable niches will pay off in the long run.

Your customer

Your target customer will be someone who wants to trade globally. They’ll either want to sell goods overseas or buy goods from international sources.

Beyond that, choose any type of customer you wish. Maybe you’ll cater to companies that sell timber. Or seafood. Or tobacco.

If you identify a need, you can target a group of companies as customers.

Target countries

Identify the countries you want to do business with. Here’s where your individual competitive advantages can come into play.

Do you speak a second language? Do you have connections abroad? Have you previously lived overseas? Maybe you simply love the culture of another country.

Your interests can help you target countries and narrow your search.

Register your business

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

After you submit your information, the Department of State will send you an email about how to get a company identification number (CIN). A CIN is used for tax purposes and for registering 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 goods to or export goods from the United States. However, other government agencies or departments or local governments may require them.

If you’re exporting goods, find out which licenses may be required by asking your local port of entry.

Incorporating and forming a Limited Liability Company (LLC)

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

However, incorporating or creating an LLC can provide key benefits, including:

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


Charging for your services

Import/export business 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 manufacturer’s smartphone for $300, you’ll make a $30 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 client pays 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 goods 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. But if you think a product will be difficult to sell, price your business based on a retainer.

Here’s the reason: If you’ll 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 acquire, 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.

Safely and affordably manage your business payments — with lower fees and stronger exchange rates — by comparing the services of a money transfer specialist.

Use a money transfer to make and receive international payments

Companies like Payoneer and XE can help you set up regular transfers to your vendors overseas.

Min. Transfer Amount Transfer Speed Online Transfer Fee Rate Amount Received Description CTA Details
$0 Same day USD 0.00 17.128 MXN 85,639 Save your time and money with XE Money Transfer for business. Go to site Show details
$1,000 1 day USD 0.00 17.042 MXN 85,208 Business customers: Send safe, no-limit transfers with no fees and competitive exchange rates. Go to site Show details
GBP 5,000 Same day USD 0.00 17.042 MXN 85,208 Increase business efficiency with zero transaction fees and same-day transfers. Go to site Show details

Min. Transfer Amount Transfer Speed Online Transfer Fee Rate Amount Received Description CTA Details
$1,000 1 day USD 0.00 17.042 MXN 85,208 OFX has no maximum limit transfers, with competitive exchange rates for 45+ currencies. Go to site Show details
GBP 1,000 1 - 2 days USD 0.00 17.042 MXN 85,208 Exclusive: Minimum transfer of $1,000 for Finder readers (normally $5,000).
CurrencyTransfer lets you shop around for the best exchange rate on its online marketplace.
Go to site Show details
USD 1 Same day USD 0.00 17.136 MXN 85,682 XE has fast transfers with low fees and a range of foreign currency tools. Go to site Show details
$10 Within an hour USD 1.99 16.87 MXN 84,314 Special offers like free transfers and better exchange rates available for new customers.
Remitly has quick, affordable transfers around the world, with both express and economy options.
Go to site Show details
$1 Within an hour USD 8.00 16.826 MXN 83,998 MoneyGram has fast cash pick-up transfers to more than 350,000 agent locations worldwide. Go to site Show details

Shipping the goods

You need to send and receive goods from other countries, so you’ll need to arrange shipping details.

First, contact a freight forwarder — a company that helps you transport goods 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 a freight forwarder, read our shipping guides to learn how to ship merchandise.

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 goods, 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 markets

Thoroughly research a market before entering into 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 goods. To avoid drowning in a swamp of border regulations, hire experts in customs law and trade compliance.

Bottom line

The import/export business is for people who love building relationships in other countries. But it also requires an organized mind that can handle logistics.

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


Frequently asked questions

Which type of import/export business should I choose?

There’s no “best” type of import/export business — each can be profitable, if managed properly. Pick the one that interests you most, and then research it thoroughly before starting a business around it.

What other factors should I consider when choosing a niche?

Think about your work history and where your expertise lies. For example, if you’ve worked for the electronics industry for years, consider starting an import/export business in that niche. You’ll have a head start on understanding the market, and you’ll be able to speak knowledgeably with potential customers.

What services will help me incorporate or start an LLC?

Reputable services include LegalZoom, Incorporate and Rocket Lawyer.

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2 Responses

    Default Gravatar
    behnamFebruary 11, 2019

    Hello .. I’m sending mail from Iran and I’m working on saffron. I saw your site and this question came to my mind how can I sell saffron in the country with your help? Is there any such plan?

      johnbasanesFebruary 12, 2019Finder

      Hi Behnam,

      Thank you for reaching out to finder.

      Though finder is a comparison website and offers guides to assist users on their ventures, you may want to check this page on the topic “Registering your business”. That will provide you links where you could work with government agencies on how you could import saffron into the country. Hope this helps!


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