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US import and export guide
In the import / export industry, you serve as a matchmaker for companies worldwide.
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.
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 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.
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 assets||Creating 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 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.|
Charging for your services
Import/export business typically charge based on commission or retainer.
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.
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
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.
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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