Importing and Exporting¹

Importing and Exporting

International trade has existed for thousands of years, but technology developments in the last century have grown the import and export of goods into a multibillion dollar industry. No longer the exclusive venue of giant corporations, global trade is accessible even to the small-business owner.

Even so, the process isn’t quite as simple as selling products within state or national borders. There are protocols to follow and challenges to meet before an import/export operation can become viable.


The number of imports entering the United States far outstrips the products we export. While popular sentiment recently has demanded more U.S. - made goods, there are reasons we continue to buy across borders:

  • Availability: There are some things we just can’t grow or make in the United States. These may include certain produce, textiles and luxury goods.
  • Cachet: High-end goods such as caviar and champagne project more of an "image," if they’re imported rather than home-grown. Think Scandinavian furniture, German beer, French perfume, Egyptian cotton.
  • Price: Some products are cheaper when brought in from outside the country. Foreign factories often can manufacture products such as electronics, clothing and toys for far less money than can U.S. plants.

Buying direct from foreign countries is time-consuming and requires a good deal of paperwork, but it is not nearly as difficult as one might think. You can build a thriving import business if you are willing to follow a few practical guidelines:

  • The best way for a fledgling entrepreneur to begin is to contract trade representatives, usually through their embassies, and ask for lists of manufacturers who might have what you want. These individuals often will assist because they are interested in promoting the sale of merchandise to the United States.
  • Correspond with some of the more promising companies to pin down prices and terms and to obtain samples. Now is the time to head off possible misunderstandings. Before you commit to a contract, make sure your trade partners are aware of your quality standards, and that you understand their policies. Identify another importer who has dealt with this company and contact them for a reference.
  • When you are satisfied with the products, terms and shipping procedures, and you know the import tax situation, have your attorney check the contract – then, close the deal.


It is critical for U.S. businesses to think globally. Increased exports mean more manufacturing within U.S. borders, and this translates to more jobs. Yet, only a small percentage of potential exporters take advantage of these opportunities.

If you are thinking about exporting your goods, carefully assess the pros and cons of expanding into global markets. Advantages include:

  • Enhanced competitiveness
  • Increased sales and profits
  • Reduced dependence on domestic markets
  • Boost in the sales potential of existing product lines
  • Insurance against seasonal market fluctuations
  • Enhanced potential for corporate expansion
  • Reduction of overstock

On the flip side, exporting does carry some disadvantages. Your company will probably be required to:

  • Develop new promotional material
  • Subordinate short-term profits to long-term gains
  • Incur added administrative costs
  • Allocate personnel for travel
  • Wait longer for payments
  • Modify your product or packaging
  • Apply for additional financing
  • Obtain special export licenses

Some questions you may want to keep in mind:

  • How do I sell to customers who speak a different language?
  • How do I locate qualified foreign personnel to sell my products?
  • What U.S. government agencies can I go to for assistance?
  • What if the ship sinks before it arrives at its destination?
  • How do I move money between countries?

International Import/Export Resources

For assistance in setting up your import or export operations, check out these links. They provide valuable content to help manage and grow your business:

  • U.S. Commercial Service

    With offices in 100 U.S. and 80 foreign cities, this Dept. of Commerce unit offers an unmatched network for counseling, market research and leads.

  • Export-Import Bank

    Main government source for loan guarantees and credit insurance.

  • Unz & Co

    Industry leader in providing international traders and dangerous goods transporters with practical and innovative compliance forms, references, and training.

  • Federation of International Trade Organizations

    Extensive overview of the global trade ecosystem, with links to many useful directories.


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