E-Commerce Shipping

Guide to International Shipping

Thu 04 Aug 2016
By Susanna Walsh

Guide to International Shipping

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

Having helped thousands of businesses ship to countries all over the world, we’ve put together a guide to help you setup your first international shipping operation. 

Carriers and service levels 

Let’s start with the essential, you need to find shipping carriers deliver your shipments to your customers in a timely and cost-effective manner. Begin by evaluating who your customers are and what you are selling.

Some customers may be more cost-sensitive and patient, while others are willing to pay more for faster delivery. If you’re selling a premium product, customers are also going to want to get detailed tracking information to keep tabs on their purchase.

Since there’s a much greater difference across speed, service, and cost for international shipments, the most important take away is to provide your customers many options so that they can select the one that best fits their needs. Even if you opt for flat rate tiers, since shipping costs are much higher for international shipping, you should still consider diversifying your carrier portfolio to rate shop. 

Through Shippo you automatically have access to 2 great discounted international carrier options out-of-the-box:

DHL Express

DHL Express is a private carrier with an established global presence. They will be responsible for the shipment from pickup to delivery, providing detailed and reliable tracking information at every step. Especially important during the holiday season, DHL Express will work directly with the importing country's customs authorities to ensure that packages are not stuck in queue to be cleared at the border. Dive into the nuts and bolts of implementing DHL Express.

USPS 

USPS has 3 different types of international service levels: First Class International, Priority Mail International, and Priority Mail Express International. The benefit of shipping with USPS is that you can just drop it in the mailbox or the same process you would use for domestic shipments. 

The caveat to shipping with national postal service such as USPS is that they are not responsible for the shipment from pickup to delivery. At the border, your shipment will be transferred over to the local postal service for delivery. Depending on the country you may lose all tracking visibility.

Here's a comparison of their cost differences:

International rates

Documents to prepare

For most international shipments*, you’ll need 2 sets of documents - a customs form and a commercial invoice. On Shippo, you can easily input all the necessary information you need as part of the label purchasing process and we’ll generate the appropriate paperwork for you.

The customs “form” is additional information that appear 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.*

*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.  

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
  • Tariff Code (HS code) - a product-specific code as documented in the Harmonized System (HS) maintained by the World Customs Organization (WCO). Tariff codes exist for almost every product involved in global commerce. Required on official shipping documents for tax assessment purposes, a tariff code ensures uniformity of product classification worldwide.

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. One of the benefits of working with a private carrier like DHL Express is that are a registered customs broker who will manage all questions from the import country authority on your behalf. 

Especially if you ship high value products over $2500, DHL Express will be able to help you file export documentation (at an additional service charge) like getting an Internal Transaction Number (ITN) generated by the Automated Export System (AES).

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. 

Insurance

You should consider purchasing insurance for your international shipments, especially if you are selling a fragile or premium product. There are a lot more handling and transitional points where your package can be damaged, lost or stolen. 

Through Shippo you can purchase insurance easily in the first step of the label process. We offer insurance for all carriers through our partner Shipsurance. Learn more about when, where, and how shipping insurance works.

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.

Currency

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. 

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

To see what it’s like to create an international shipping label and the cost of shipping, plug in a few trial orders on the app. We offer discounted DHL Express and USPS shipping rates immediately upon signup and generate your international paperwork for you. Let us help you expand your customer base around the world. 


Shippo is a multi-carrier API and web app that helps retailers, marketplaces and platforms connect to a global network of carriers. Businesses use Shippo to get real-time rates, print labels, automate international paperwork, track packages and facilitate returns. Shippo provides the tools to help businesses succeed through shipping.
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