By Air or Sea? Shipping Goods from Overseas

When purchasing goods from outside North America, your best bet is to work with a vendor or manufacturer who will handle shipping arrangements for you. They already have connections with reliable shippers and are familiar with all the documents and regulations needed to facilitate speedy receipt of the goods in the United States. There may be times, though, when you will need to make shipping arrangements yourself. Thankfully, in most cases that’s not difficult, provided you’ve gathered together all the necessary information and documents.

Unless you are purchasing a large quantity of goods or a large, bulky item, you will probably want to ship your goods by air. The cost is higher than shipping by sea—as much as five to 10 times higher—but much faster, usually days as opposed to weeks or months. In addition, you are less likely to run into delays caused by storms or strikes. All the major international shipping vendors like FedEx, UPS and DHL explain services, the countries they serve, and rates on their websites. They also handle all the paperwork for you. You can Google “international shipping” and get links to third-party sites that will comparison shop for you and/or provide shipping calculators to help you determine your best option.

If you can wait to receive the goods or have a large shipment, you will want to consider shipping by sea. In that case, you will need to hire a freight forwarding company to transport the goods and a customs agent to receive them when they arrive in the U.S. Each is familiar with the laws, regulations and limitations within their respective countries. Most freight forwarding companies offer partial or shared container pricing as well as insurance coverage.

Regardless of which method you choose, you will need to provide the shipper with the appropriate documents. At the time of purchase, request from the vendor a commercial invoice. Either you or the vendor will also need to compile a packing list itemizing all the goods that are in the shipment and a detail list that outlines how the products are made, the material used, and the place of origin or manufacture (for example, a handmade wool rug from Afghanistan). If the vendor is delivering the goods to the freight forwarder, they should also provide a bill of lading. Also, you will have to determine and list the value of the goods, by item and in total. The value is not the price you paid but the price the item would bring if sold in the U.S. Finally, be sure you have verified the contact information for the manufacturer and shipper is accurate to prevent delays in Customs when the goods arrive.

If you have questions or concerns about shipping the goods, check with a reputable shipper before you make the purchase. A bit of planning can spare you a big headache later.

Posted in

Pearl Collective


  1. Leslie Tillmann on October 28, 2016 at 3:34 pm

    Good primmer on shipping! We had a shop importing from Europe and did most of our shipping by sea…the price is very reasonable, but much more details in the customs forms and procedure. The list of materials is most important, because different items are taxed differently…cotton and linen tablecloths or fabric they need to know percentage because cotton more protected for US home manufacturers, and linen not so much ….so one item can have lots of tariffs being charged on it. But the frustration of waiting for someone else to ship things is awful…waiting for some commercial barstools still at sea! Thanks Gail…good info!

Leave a Comment