For e-commerce companies of any size, shipping can be one of the most complicated areas of the business to navigate. To start, shipping carriers have their own rules. And while they may often seem similar on the surface, the devil is in the details. Those rule variances can already be fairly complex when shipping domestically. But with international shipping, there’s a greater number of factors involved. Those factors can include aspects such as size and weight differences, delivery service levels, service names, and add-on services (e.g. Saturday delivery, delivery signature, and insurance).
International shipping companies might also use more than one logistics provider as the parcel travels through different countries. Plus, there are customs and border matters, duty collection and inspections, as well as import restrictions. And with all of these aspects, each country will have its own take on the requirements.
International Shipping Carriers
Four of the most prominent international shipping carriers in the United States are USPS, UPS, FedEx, and DHL. The latter three ship to more than 220 countries and territories, while the USPS ships to over 190. With the big four, only USPS puts it’s starting prices on their website. With the others, you need to put your package information in, and then get an estimate. Shipping discounts are often available with a contract, or if you utilize a shipping solution such as Shippo. Of the big four international shipping companies, here are some key points to consider.
USPS international shipping: The USPS is not typically thought of for international shipping, as it’s an independent agency of the United States government. Yet, the USPS offers four international shipping options. These are similar to domestic Priority Mail, and they also offer a more economical First Class service. The fastest, and most expensive, is Global Express Guaranteed, which delivers internationally in 1 to 3 business days. The international portion of transportation and delivery is contracted out to FedEx Express, and pricing starts at $71.10. The other three services (Priority Mail Express International, Priority Mail International and First-Class Mail International) will cost less, but take longer, and are not managed by FedEx. But, these less-expensive services still offer tracking information, and flat rate shipping is available if using USPS packaging. USPS international shipping allows a maximum weight of 70 pounds, and a maximum combined length and girth of 108 inches.
UPS International shipping: UPS also restricts the packages in size and weight, but with a higher limit than USPS. Individual packages can be up to 150 pounds, up to 165 inches in combined length and girth, or up to 108 inches in length. Send an item larger than that and it’s going to incur additional charges. As often happens, these rules apply to most destinations and most packages, but not all. UPS offers a variety of shipping options, balancing delivery location, delivery dates, and price. You can now also get UPS Paperless through Shippo. This will allow you to send international shipments without having to print and attach a customs invoice to your parcel, saving time at the customs agency and reducing the risk of losing that invoice during transit.
DHL international shipping: DHL’s package characteristics are different than some of the other carriers. DHL will ship parcels at a maximum of 44 pounds (66 pounds for Canada), with a package length and girth of no more than 118 inches for their International Standard service. When shipping International Direct, that length and girth can’t exceed 79 inches, and the service is narrower, covering 38 international markets.
FedEx international shipping: FedEx also offers a handful of international shipping options, ranging from the next available flight to more than 220 countries and territories, to FedEx Ground service to Canada’s residential areas. The packages will arrive between 1 and 7 days, depending on the chosen service. They will take packages up to 150 pounds, 108 inches in length, or 130 in length plus girth. They also have some flat rate options using their boxes. FedEx® International Connect Plus is a new option available on Shippo that can deliver in 2-5 business days and can handle less heavy shipments (70 lbs or less). Rates are also deeply discounted for all web-app users with no volume requirements.
While these are the best-known carriers for international shipping, there are quite a few other international carrier options available. Other International shipping companies include some you may already be familiar with such as Canada Post and Deutsche Post, as well as others lesser-known in these parts such as Hermes and Asendia.
Finding the Right International Shipping Carrier
If you’re already working with a major carrier, it makes sense to ask about their international services first. That gives a baseline understanding of which factors are important when pricing and sending parcels. Some carriers specialize in a certain region or country, which may be helpful if most international shipping is directed there.
To get started, you may decide to dip your toe in the water, by only shipping internationally to a handful of countries at first. This may allow you to better understand the landscape and costs. You can also reference your site’s traffic analytics to track demand when choosing which countries to ship to, or base it on where inquiries come from. Also, consider the languages spoken in those countries, as well as common consumer tastes or trends, to look for the best fit—and to provide the best service. When researching the best carriers to use, some e-commerce businesses find value in sharing their experiences with other retailers, noting which companies provide the services and quality they need, and at what prices. Getting those recommendations can make a big difference in comparing apples to apples.
International Shipping Insights
When determining which carriers to use, consider these factors.
Landed cost: Landed cost is the all-in price which includes shipping, duties, taxes, and fees. Plus, there may be add-ons like insurance. Your company should spell out the landed cost before the customer completes the purchase, including information on who is responsible for additional fees.
What’s included: When choosing which international shipping companies to work with, it helps to know if insurance is included. Some carriers may include up to a $100 maximum within the shipping cost. You may want to supplement that amount for valuable items. It’s helpful to know what other services come with the shipping, like whether they charge for proof of delivery, and what tracking looks like.
Trade regulations: Different countries have different trade regulations and customs requirements. Some countries may not allow the import of certain items. For example, Austria doesn’t allow shipments of alcoholic beverages, medicine, plants, or plastic kitchenware among other things. Some highlights of what Egypt prohibits include smoked salmon, satanic items, textiles, gambling devices, and tobacco. And among other things, China doesn’t allow the import of toy guns.
Customs forms: Ensure that customs documents are filled out properly, as customs is the gateway to your package arriving at your customer’s doorstep. Shipping domestically, you don’t need to put the contents of the package on the label. When shipping internationally, though, you do. It’s not the time to be coy about what’s inside. Being specific with items, like, literally listing a kitchen tea strainer, is better than stating it as a more general category such as “household goods.”
The customs form will ask about the product’s intended use, whether it’s for sale, resale, or manufacturing. You’ll need to share the product’s country of origin (not where it was shipped from) and its materials. You’ll also need to share the shipment value per-unit, in the currency of where you purchased the product. Knowing the harmonized tariff code is important, too, as an incorrect code could delay delivery. In fact, starting March 1st, 2023, countries within the EU will require that you have this code as well as a thorough description of what the item or items you’re shipping are. When thinking of a description, ask yourself what these items are, what they’re made of, and what do they do. This can help get your products past customs and into hands of your customers.
Size limitations: Just like with domestic shipments, weight, and size play a huge role in determining the shipping cost. That’s why it’s important to choose the right packaging size.
It pays to consider your options upfront when shipping internationally since services, requirements, and rates vary and it can quickly get costly and time-consuming. Determining some of the key points in the international shipping process is helpful, so you can consider all options available based on your own distinctive business needs.
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.