The World or Bust

A few tips help take the worry out of shipping internationally.

by staff writer
- Apr 25, 2008

As an online merchant, opening your sales to a global audience can give a huge boost to your business. Particularly now, when the U.S. Dollar is weak, international buyers are eager to purchase American goods.

Why don't more eBay sellers accept international transactions then? More than likely, they are scared off by the idea of exorbitant shipping costs—not to mention the hassles of sorting out customs requirements and duties.

True, sending a package outside the country can cost quite a bit more than shipping to a domestic address. Experienced international buyers will understand this. Still, it's a good idea to add a reminder in your shipping terms that costs can vary greatly depending on the destination, the weight and size of the package, and which shipping service you use. Better yet, include eBay's shipping calculator in your listing and buyers can estimate for themselves what the cost will be.

All the major parcel services ship internationally, and usually up to $100 worth of insurance is included in the shipping fee; however, for packages under 4 lbs., the good old U.S. Postal Service is almost always the cheapest option.

For inexpensive and lightweight items, First Class International is cheaper than Priority

A Flat Rate International Priority envelope costs $11 ($9 if shipping to Canada or Mexico), and a Flat Rate International Priority box costs $37 ($23 to Canada and Mexico). Priority boxes have a 20 lb. weight limit and can be insured, unlike Priority envelopes. You can also get a 5 percent discount on Priority international shipping if you print your labels online.

Better yet, for inexpensive and lightweight items, First Class International is cheaper than Priority, and parcels generally arrive in about the same amount of time.

Assuming the item could be securely shipped in an envelope, the Priority flat-rate envelope would still be the lowest-cost option, but this mode is not insurable, so use your judgment.

TIP: When shipping parcels via Priority Mail International, split high-value purchases into smaller shipments, if possible, to take advantage of $100 of built-in insurance.

You might also suggest your buyers open an account with Bongo International to save anywhere from 25 to 80 percent on global shipping costs. Bongo provides a U.S. address for you to send items to, where it consolidates shipments in order to get discounted rates on international delivery. Individuals can subscribe for $15 per month, or on a pay-per-use basis for a $5 sign-up fee. Business subscriptions cost $35 per month. Duties and other fees are the responsibility of the buyer, and are charged on receipt.

To insure or not

It's almost always better to insure the packages you send so that your costs are covered in case the item gets damaged or lost in transit. If insurance is not included in your shipping method of choice, and you can't get the buyer to pay for coverage (it doesn't do them any good, after all), it may be worth the extra couple of bucks to pony up yourself—if for no other reason than to secure your own peace of mind. Note: Discounted shipping insurance, which can even earn you a rebate, is available when you list with Auctiva.

PayPal does provide fraud protection for transactions between the U.S. and Canada or the U.K. through its Seller Protection Policy. But by limiting your sales to buyers only in these three countries, you are missing an opportunity to reach potentially millions of other buyers. With a few precautions, you can safely sell and ship to most countries in the world.

If you ship to a non-confirmed address, insuring your item becomes that much more important. Third-party providers like DSI and U-PIC offer shipping insurance at a discount over postal or major carrier rates. Not every country is eligible for coverage though, so make sure insurance is available for the item's destination.

Avoid customs tie-ups by splitting large shipments into multiple parcels, each with a declared value of less than $200

It's also a good idea to do your due diligence on the buyer—check their feedback history and the number of PayPal transactions they've completed. And try to confirm their address through e-mail communications. Be aware that certain countries are hotbeds for fraudulent activity—Nigeria and Russia are notorious for being the origination point for many online and e-mail scams, for example. That doesn't mean all buyers in these locations are cons. We're just sayin'…

One common approach is to tack on a small additional "handling" fee, say $1, for every international shipment you make, and deposit it in a separate account. That way, when the occasional mishap occurs, you have some money set aside to cover your losses.

Another good practice is to get an international shipping number—similar to USPS Delivery Confirmation—and e-mail it to the buyer immediately. International shipments take 5 to 10 days on average to reach their destination, but bottlenecks in customs or other issues can add days, or even weeks, to delivery time. By communicating shipping information early on you can head off potential PayPal disputes that might cost you money, your item and potentially, positive feedback should the package get waylaid en route to your buyer.

Clearing customs

Keeping track of every country's rules on duties, taxes and customs fees would take way more time than you have, but if you don't do your homework, you could get a rather large, unexpected bill at the shipping counter.

In many cases, the sender is responsible for paying customs and country-specific fees—a huge variable cost that you probably would rather avoid. There are exceptions: If you ship by U.S. Postal Service, buyers—irrespective of location—will be required to pay duties on receipt. Alternatively, for shipments to Canada, UPS offers a Non-Resident Importer account, which allows U.S. sellers to charge buyers those fees upfront; and because there's no waiting for customs clearance, UPS can guarantee faster delivery.

Avoid customs tie-ups altogether by splitting large shipments into multiple parcels, each with a declared value of less than $200. Shipments valued at more than $200 are usually subject to duties or taxes.

Before you list your item, check U.S. Customs' export rules. Certain items are more highly regulated—such as computers and electronics—and some may be restricted or banned.

Make sure you have the proper documentation to ship your item outside the U.S., but be aware that each country may have different requirements. All internationally bound packages will need to have an invoice, but some will require additional documentation such as an export declaration or a U.S. or NAFTA Certificate of Origin.

Some international customers might ask you to declare a package for less than it's actually worth to save on duties and fees. Politely decline these requests

If you will do a lot of international business, it might be worthwhile to check out subscription services like that automatically generate and print customs forms and international mailing labels. Or by printing your USPS shipping labels through PayPal, you can save a good deal of time filling out customs forms.

Some international customers might ask you to declare a package for less than it's actually worth to save on duties and fees. Politely decline these requests. If customs flags the item for investigation, you've just added an unnecessary delay to your shipping time that an impatient buyer might take out on you in the form of negative feedback. Even worse, if the item is lost or damaged in transit, you won't be covered for its full value.

Be extra diligent about securely packaging items for international shipping, and make sure the package is properly labeled and addressed so it doesn't end up in a customs bin awaiting a resolution.

By understanding your shipping options and taking a few extra steps to secure your packages, you can literally have the world at your fingertips.

About the Author

Auctiva staff writers constantly monitor trends and best practices of those selling on eBay and elsewhere online. They attend relevant training seminars and trade shows and regularly discuss the market with PowerSellers and other market experts.

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