What does it take to establish oneself as an importer into the US?
March 16, 2011 9:56 PM   Subscribe

What does it take to establish oneself as an importer into the US?

A relative of mine lives in Israel and has been manufacturing and selling a number of products, including (so far): honey, soap, chapstick, and liqueurs. It's a family business, so the quantities are relatively small, but this is more than just a hobby for him.

His products have a market in the US and I'd like to help him sell his products here. Since I live in the US and am an American citizen, I've been wondering if I could set myself up as an importer in order to market his products here.

Here's what I'm wondering:
- First: Is this economically feasible, or are the various important taxes prohibitively high? Are the start-up costs expensive?
- Second: Since I am a full-time student, would the day-to-day operating of an import business simply take too much time?
- Third: Is there a major different between the products that he is selling for import purposes? I assume that the alcohol has its own rules.

Any good books/websites on the topic would be equally appreciated.
posted by dzkalman to Work & Money (3 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Here's a place to start: http://www.cbp.gov/xp/cgov/trade/basic_trade/
posted by Grimp0teuthis at 10:25 PM on March 16, 2011

The US-Israel Free Trade Agreement will likely work in your favor to reduce the burdens of import tariffs, but for certain categories of imports (certainly alcohol), you will need clearance from agencies other than CBP (USDA/FDA/ATF/EPA, etc.). The Depending on the size of the shipments coming in, you will also likely need the assistance of a customs broker, whose (necessary) services may come at a pretty penny.

Useful links on the Customs and Border Patrol web page: Tips for new importers, and Importing into the United States.
posted by holterbarbour at 10:53 PM on March 16, 2011

Customs and Border Protection's Tips for New Importers publication is a good place to start.

As to your specific questions:
1. There are plenty of small importers who source things internationally and sell them domestically. It's impossible to say what the specific import duty rates would be without knowing more detail about each product (you could look here and here to get an idea of what the specific rates might be for your merchandise. A customs broker is really helpful for making sense of all that, and providing actual classifications and duty rates. Startup costs don't really have to be very high if you don't need a warehouse, delivery fleet, etc. You'll need to establish a surety bond with customs. A customs broker can take care of that for you too.
2. I'd think the time it would take would be dependent on the quantity and frequency of your import shipments, and how you plan to distribute them. If you bring in a couple shipments a month and distribute them to retailers yourself as soon as they are imported, easy peasy. If you bring shipments in more frequently, sell onesies and twosies of the various items online, and have to ship each one to a different recipient yourself, that's going to be more work. Build a model that works for the time you're able to commit.
3. You are correct that alcohol has its own regulations for import. You have to register as an importer of alcohol. There are also likely to be separate requirements by whichever U.S. state you'll be bringing the alcohol into, which is kind of unusual for imported goods. I believe all the items you listed -- honey, soap, chapstick and liqueurs-- are all regulated by FDA. That means the possibility of frequent exams, sampling, testing, etc., all of which happen at the importer's expense. (Those are in addition to any CBP exams which may happen on any import shipment, also at the importer's expense.)

I'd recommend getting in touch with a customs broker if you get to the point where you're really serious about it. I think the basics are that you want to figure out a reasonably estimated landed cost for your goods, add whatever storage and distribution costs you may have, factor in the profit you'd need to make to make it worth your while, and if that all comes out as reasonable prices that people would pay for your goods, go make a bunch of money!
posted by Balonious Assault at 10:56 PM on March 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

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