E-Commerce Shipping

Guide to International Shipping

Thu 04 Aug 2016
By Susanna Walsh

Guide to International Shipping

Shipping internationally can seem to be a daunting task. Everything you've learned about domestic shipping goes out the window, and you have to add new processes to making sure that your packages are delivered in a timely and cost-effective manner. 

At Shippo, our customers ship to over 190 countries and we helped hundreds of businesses establish presence across the world. Based on our experience, we’ve put together a guide to help you setup your first international shipping operation. 

Documents to prepare

For most international shipments, you’ll need 2 sets of documents - a customs form and a commercial invoice.

The customs “form” is additional information that appears as part of an international shipping label, not an additional form. 

International DHL Label Sample

The customs form is a declaration of the contents of the box for regulatory purposes. It’s typically built into the international label itself (highlighted in blue).

3 copies of the commercial invoice needs to be placed inside a clear pouch on the package. It needs to be removable and visible, so that the customs officer can review the information.

Sample commercial invoice

The commercial invoice is required for taxation and fee assessment. It’s typically a separate document from the label.*

*Interestingly enough, USPS is one of the few carriers that do not require 2 separate pages for international shipments. All necessary information is already included as part of the international shipping label.  So, not to worry if you only see one label page printed! 

You’ll need to provide the following information for all shipments:

  • Contents Type - select amongst: “merchandise,” “sample,” or “gift”. 
    • It is illegal to mark an item as “gift” when it’s not. Some customers may ask you to do that to avoid import taxes, but you’ll be the one liable if it’s discovered. 
  • Signing Person - the person responsible for the shipment
    • This is you, the shipper.
  • Incoterm - who to bill for customs duties and fees.
    • DDU (Delivery Duties Unpaid by Sender) meaning recipient is responsible for any duty incurred. 
    • DDP (Delivery Duties Paid by Sender) meaning you as the shipper will be covering the costs.
  • Customs Items - brief description of the item being shipped, along with weight, quantity, value and country of origin.
    • Be specific, but concise. Customs issues may arise if the description is too vague, but there’s not a lot of space

Customs, restrictions, and duty

If you’re working with a private shipping carrier like DHL Express, your packages will be routed to one of their distribution centers with customs officers on site. One of the benefits of working with a private carrier like DHL is that they will have a team of dedicated customs officers processing shipments. This will speed up the review process and your package will be examined in a timely manner.

However, this does not mean that you’re exempt from restrictions and duty.

Customs regulations vary somewhat by country. It’s important to educate yourself about the restrictions of the particular countries you’re shipping to, to avoid surprises down the road. 

The USPS website has a great Shipping Restrictions page with some general no-goes, as well as a more detailed Index of Countries and Localities. Just remember that while USPS is a great resource for information on shipping regulations and restrictions, other carriers may differ slightly in terms of limitations on package weight, size, etc.

Providing a tariff number can be useful to smooth out the customs process (though you don't need to have one). Tariff numbers exist for almost every product involved in global commerce and ensure uniformity of product classifications worldwide. It was created for easier identification during customs processing and better standardization of international shipping. You can find more details and the full list of tariff numbers/harmonized codes or search the full World Customs Organization HS code database (but this does require a paid subscription.)

The most unpredictable part of international shipping costs are the customs duties and fees. These can change month to month, vary by time of year, or differ based on the customs officer handling your package. However, you can use an online calculator like Duty Calculator for an estimate. It’s also important to think about whether you want your customers to pay these fees - which is standard - or if you want to absorb them yourself. 

International returns

Dealing with international returns is a potential nightmare for the customer and the business. The key is to make sure that you have a clear policy in place for international shoppers. 

Consider only allowing returns on items that make sense to ship back or be clear that international customers have to return items at their own cost. Unfortunately, you probably can’t afford to have the same customer-friendly policy for international customers as you do for domestic customers.


For the convenience of your customers, you should display product and shipping costs in the local currency of the country you’re selling in. This way, you won’t risk customers leaving your site to calculate the conversion.  Most shopping carts support displaying prices in various currencies.

If you’re selling on international marketplaces, such as Amazon Spain or eBay UK, consider setting up a local receiving account with a foreign exchange and international finance service like World First to avoid getting hit with a conversion fee and poor exchange rates. 

Carriers and service levels

Some customers may be more cost-sensitive and patient, while others are willing to pay more for a faster delivery. Since there’s a much greater difference across speed, service, and cost, the most important take away here is to provide your customers many options so that they can select the one that best fits their needs. 

Even if you don’t offer multiple options for customer to choose from (and go with something like a flat rate), since shipping costs are so high, you should still consider diversifying your international carriers portfolio to rate shop on a per package basis. 

As an example, here are a few options:

International carrier comparison

There’s a lot to consider with going international, but hopefully now you have a better sense of what you need for shipping. 

With Shippo, you can connect to multiple international shipping carriers from one place to compare rates and services. You can also generate all your customs documents and invoices within one workflow through the Shippo API and dashboard. 

If you have additional questions about your international shipping operations, let us know!

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