This article is part of a larger series on Retail Management.
Importing products from China—commonly called “the factory of the world” due to its enormous manufacturing infrastructure, skilled population, and wealth of industry experience—can boost your store’s profitability by increasing your margins and making customized products more accessible.
To get started:
For products, transport, customs, and brokerage services
|A license or permit
For most goods—although certain high-risk products are regulated by government agencies that require licensing
|A sales channel
Such as a Shopify online store, an Amazon Seller Account, or a brick-and-mortar shop
|United States residency|
|A computer with internet connection||Knowledge of Chinese languages|
|An EIN, SSN, or Importer ID Number
If you don’t have a business or United States residency, an Importer ID can be obtained by submitting this form.
|A registered business|
For research, procurement, transit, and processing
Here’s everything you need to know about importing products from China in six steps.
Step 1: Select Products to Import
Sourcing Chinese goods to sell in your retail store gives you access to a wider range of products at significantly lower costs. This can help grow your business and improve your margins—but it’s important to select your offerings wisely. If you’re developing a new concept or aren’t sure what to sell, read our guide to the best products to import from China.
If you’re running an existing operation or building out a developed business plan, you may already know the category of goods you’re seeking to import. But it’s still vital to make sure your products align with the guidelines below before attempting to bring them into your country.
From a profitability standpoint, the products you choose to import should have:
- Consistent and sufficient demand
- Profit margins of at least 30%–50%
- Reliability (creating a low possibility for warranty cases)
- Low maintenance requirements in transit, warehousing, and/or storage (i.e., no need for climate control or special handling needs)
- No laws prohibiting them for sale in your state or country
Aside from those basic attributes, consider the following factors when selecting goods to import:
Most products are subject to import taxes (often called tariffs or duty) that are charged in addition to federal and local sales and use taxes. In the US, shipments with a customs value less than $800 are duty-free, so no additional taxes are charged.
If you plan on importing a more valuable shipment, tariffs should be a consideration when sourcing your products. The average US duty on imports from China is currently 19.3%, but certain products are taxed at different rates.
Duty rates are organized in the Harmonized Tariff System (or HTS), which classifies imports by category and assigns a taxation percentage. The U.S. International Trade Commission hosts an interactive database that can help you find the HS (Harmonized System) code and estimate the duty rate for any product you’re considering.
When selecting products to source, find each item’s HS classification to calculate its applicable tariffs and ensure its margins are still worthwhile.
According to the United States’ CBP (Customs and Border Protection), “some product categories are prohibited or restricted to protect the economy and security of the United States, to safeguard consumer health and well-being, and to preserve domestic plant and animal life.”
These laws and regulations prohibit the import of certain products altogether—such as ivory, coral, and cultural artifacts. In the case of other commodities, government agencies aside from the CBP limit entry to certain ports, restrict the quantity that may be imported, or require special treatment for the goods to be cleared through customs.
It’s important to know if these stipulations apply to any of the goods you plan to import before partnering with suppliers and making your first purchase. Failure to comply with regulations can result in fines, delays, confiscated merchandise, and even legal penalties.
Some examples of import regulations include:
- Commercial equipment: Products such as air conditioners, water heaters, and furnaces must have energy efficiency labels.
- Fruits, vegetables, and nuts: Many varieties must meet size, quantity, and maturity requirements. An inspection certificate must be issued by the FDA.
- Meat, poultry, and egg products: All varieties must include government-issued inspection certificates from the origin country, and are reinspected by the USDA upon entry.
- Seeds: Shipments containing seeds are detained pending the drawing and testing of samples upon entry.
- Wood packing materials: Pallets, crates, boxes, and dunnage must be heat-treated or fumigated and marked to certify treatment.
- Toys: Children’s articles must comply with safety regulations under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act and be inspected to define hazardous sharp edges and points.
For a full list of commodity regulations and restrictions, refer to the CBP’s Importing Guide. Try searching the document for keywords that relate to your selected product(s).
If you have questions, contact your local port of entry.
Permits and Licensing
The US is one of the most import-friendly countries in the world, and in most cases, individuals and businesses do not need a license to import.
That being said, importing certain commodities require a special permit or license issued by one of the government agencies that works with the CBP. These categories include:
- Agricultural commodities such as plants and plant products
- Arms and ammunition
- Certain foods such as cheese, milk, and dairy products
- Livestock, animals, and insects
- Tobacco and alcohol
- Medical equipment and supplements
For a full list of license and permit requirements, refer to the CBP’s Importing Guide.
If you have questions or need help with permits and licensing, the CBP recommends hiring a customs broker. The basic role of customs brokers is to assist importers in meeting federal requirements—but we’ll cover their services in-depth down below.
Use the CBP’s free tool to find a customs broker near your local port of entry.
Why Are Chinese Products Less Expensive?
Integrated domestic supply chain: Manufacturers have easy access to a wide variety of affordable raw materials from local suppliers.
Government promotion: China promotes and boosts the competitiveness of its exports through means such as the establishment of special economic zones, tax and financial benefits, subsidized utilities, duty drawback, export insurances, and exchange rate management.
Efficient logistics: China has built numerous ports, roads, and railroads in a rapid effort toward industrialization. This system connects major cities to small towns used as industrial manufacturing zones, allowing for cheaper transport costs.
Technology and automation: Availability of the latest technologies allows Chinese factories to manufacture products with both high efficiency and scalability.
Labor: China hosts a vast population of educated, trained, or otherwise skilled workers, contributing to a wide talent pool. Additionally, the cost of labor is significantly cheaper than that of other countries.
Step 2: Find Chinese Wholesale Suppliers
Once you know which products you’re sourcing (or have an idea of the qualifications they need to meet), you’ll need to find a trade partner to supply them.
The majority of Chinese suppliers you’ll encounter are either factories or trading companies.
Does not primarily produce goods but rather sources a variety of products (from one or more factories) that they keep in stock
Higher levels of quality control
Wide assortment of products
Lower minimum order quantities (MOQs)
Best for sourcing a variety of products
Customer service and sales support are usually robust
Buyer has less control over design, materials, and production
Primarily manufactures goods from raw materials
Buyer has more control over design, materials, and production
Best for sourcing custom products
Smaller assortment of products
Higher minimum order quantities (MOQs)
The difference between these two models matters most for importers seeking a custom product and those looking to buy a range of goods for their inventory.
Aside from those details, the process of importing items from your Chinese supplier will be very similar, regardless of their business model. So if the offer is right, don’t get too hung up on whether the supplier is a factory or trading company.
Where to Source Chinese Suppliers
Here’s a list of helpful resources to source wholesale suppliers in China.
Supplier Directories & Wholesale Marketplaces
Supplier directories are platforms that host information on thousands of factories, trading companies, and other vendors.
Buyers can search by product, category, location, price, or apply filters to see a huge range of possible trade partners. From there, the directory either provides a messaging service or lists the vendors’ contact info in order to get connected.
Wholesale marketplaces, on the other hand, serve as B2B ecommerce sites that mainly specialize in import and export trade. They can be used to buy merchandise from suppliers in bulk.
Here are some of the top supplier directories and marketplaces for importing goods from China.
Alibaba & AliExpress
Unfortunately, a fair amount of fraud and scams take place on these sites. There’s no vetting process, and many of the vendors are unnecessary intermediaries. In fact, many high-quality suppliers choose not to list their products on Alibaba and are only discoverable elsewhere.
That being said, these sites are the easiest places to get started with access to suppliers around the world, and they offer amenities to simplify the process for beginners. So as a new importer, they’re definitely worth a look.
Read our guide to using Alibaba and AliExpress to learn more about how each platform works.
Global Sources is a large trade show exhibition based in Hong Kong and has expanded to provide a vast online supplier directory that’s available year-round.
The platform operates similarly to Alibaba but is geared toward the more advanced buyer. It is strictly a B2B wholesale directory and employs a much more involved vetting process for its suppliers.
This results in a lower volume of vendors that are consistently higher in overall quality. Global Sources is known as the go-to resource for products in the electronics and fashion apparel categories, but its sellers usually have higher MOQs (minimum order quantities) than that of other directories.
DHgate is similar to AliExpress in that it serves as a wholesale marketplace more so than a supplier directory. This means it’s product-centric, making it a good choice for beginners and casual importers.
The platform is known for hosting competitively priced merchandise, but buyers frequently report disappointing quality. Generally, products on DHgate are available at considerably low MOQs.
One major advantage of DHgate is its payment handling system, which secures funds until the buyer confirms receipt of the goods.
Arguably the best way to get connected with high-quality trade partners is to visit trade shows. Travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic are easing up in China, and these powerhouse events resumed in 2021.
While it may seem resource-intensive (and even intimidating) to attend a Chinese trade show, many retailers find that the benefit of handling products in person and forging a real relationship with their suppliers makes the trip more than worthwhile. These advantages reflect on your product quality and profit margins in the long run.
These exhibitions draw large, international crowds where English is commonly spoken, so the language barrier generally isn’t an issue. If you do desire a translator, one can be hired for about $15 per day.
Plus, most trade shows are free to attend, and the cost of room, board, and transportation in China is very affordable. This helps to make the expense an easy fit into your procurement budget.
Chinese trade shows are generally seasonal—occurring in the spring and autumn (usually early May and November). If you can’t attend in-person, many virtual options are available.
Here are the biggest trade shows to source Chinese products and suppliers.
Also called the China Import and Export Fair, this event is the largest trade show in the country. Anywhere from 20,000 to 60,000 vendors are typically present, and it’s widely considered to be the most important trade exhibition in the world.
The Canton Fair is held in Guangzhou, China, twice a year and occurs in three phases—electronics; consumer goods, gifts, and home decor; and textiles, garments, shoes, and office supplies.
Manufacturers and trade companies from all over China (as well as the greater Asia area) attend the event with products in tow. This assures that you’ll be able to find the products you’re looking for—or someone who can produce them.
Most suppliers who attend the Canton Fair are experienced in exporting to American and European buyers, so they have the infrastructure and know-how in place to facilitate transport.
For more information (plus a directory of exhibitors and products), check the Canton Fair website.
Global Sources Trade Show
This event takes place twice a year in Hong Kong. It’s strategically scheduled to occur just before the Canton Fair, which enables attendees to easily visit both exhibitions on the same trip to China.
The Global Sources Trade Show is considerably smaller than the Canton Fair, but it attracts a greater number of suppliers in certain key categories—including electronics and apparel.
It also provides a host of educational services during the event, including a conference on how to run a successful importing business. Prominent ecommerce entrepreneurs from around the world attend the conference to speak and learn.
Visit the Global Sources Trade Show page to learn more.
East China Import and Export Commodity Fair (ECF)
The East China Fair has been taking place in Shanghai every March since 1991.
ECF vendors primarily specialize in fashion accessories, consumer goods, art, decor, and housewares, and the fair is divided into four categorized exhibition areas.
While it is a smaller event, the majority of ECF attendees come in from foreign countries. This leads to a low language barrier and focuses on import/export infrastructure.
For more info, visit the East China Fair website.
Yiwu Wholesale Marketplace
If you’re not opposed to visiting China in person, the Yiwu Wholesale Marketplace is another live way to source products and suppliers. Unlike China’s popular trade shows, this exchange is open every day of the year (except for national holidays).
The city of Yiwu itself—located in East China, about 200 miles south of Shanghai—is known as China Commodity City (or CCC) and serves as a hotspot for consumer goods trade. In addition to the primary trade center, there are multiple marketplaces around the city that specialize in various types of merchandise.
Most of the vendors that populate the marketplace are trading companies that work closely with factories in neighboring provinces. You can work with them to arrange transport and future reorders, or you can choose to hire a local agent (who also aids in negotiation and purchase agreements).
Products sold in Yiwu are generally very inexpensive and have the reputation of being low in quality. Many products don’t display any branding soever, and the majority of those that do are counterfeit.
This makes Yiwu a popular sourcing destination for retailers seeking cart-stuffers and filler items for their stores. These products can be useful for cross-selling or offering “free gift” promotions.
It should be noted that most suppliers in Yiwu primarily do business with Indian, African, and Middle Eastern buyers. The import laws in these countries vary dramatically from that of the US, so you cannot trust Yiwu suppliers to comply with safety, trademark, and labeling regulations automatically.
Be sure to know which regulations and restrictions apply to your product categories before purchasing. To avoid risk at customs, avoid sourcing these goods in Yiwu:
- Toys and Children’s Products
- Medical Devices
To get more information and see a variety of the products sold in Yiwu, visit the Official Website of the Yiwu Market.
One of the best ways to source reliable suppliers is to see who your competition works with. This can be accomplished through public import records.
When imported shipments enter the US, the government retains a copy of the bill of lading and makes it available for public access. This means useful information—including the importer’s name, the supplier’s name, and shipment details—is readily available. This information is limited to shipments that have arrived via boat, but that still accounts for roughly 10 million records per year.
Obtaining these import records is perfectly legal—but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. To get it straight from the customs bureau, you have to request the information, pay a fee, and wait multiple weeks for processing.
As an alternative, you can use these third-party tools to eliminate the waiting period and simplify the process:
- Port Examiner is a free tool that allows you to search through archived import records instantly. It is functional on a small scale but lacks the features needed to aggregate raw data and export it as a CSV or Excel file.
- ImportGenius is a global trade database that allows users to download aggregate import data in spreadsheet format. Its starter plan costs $149/month, but a one-month free trial is available to get started.
- Panjiva is a much more robust tool that comes at a steep price. Its platform includes advanced search functions to find relevant import data by HS number, item category, location, and more. It also expands many import records into full company profiles and provides contact information. Membership costs aren’t disclosed, but a one-month trial is available for $400.
Once you have names of potential suppliers to pursue, search the internet for contact info and try getting in touch. We feature tips on initiating contact below.
If you already work with a reliable Chinese vendor but seek another product they don’t supply, try using them as a resource. It’s standard for suppliers to have tight networks and happily refer clients (they often make a 5%–10% finder’s fee).
By taking advantage of these resources, you’ll have access to a myriad potential suppliers. So how do you know who to work with?
In your search for Chinese trade partners, look for suppliers that:
- Have long term experience with the product or category
- Have a well-established and professional operation
- Agree to a price that gives you a sufficient profit margin
- Provide after-sales support and/or warranty services
- Have all applicable certificates needed in your country
- Already export to your country and can provide references
- Give you reasonable payments terms
Before working with a new supplier, try searching SupplierBlacklist.com to see if other importers have filed any reports.
How to Begin Working With a New Chinese Supplier
Once you’ve identified potential suppliers that align with what you’re looking for, the next step is to initiate contact.
If using an online resource, begin a dialogue with many prospective suppliers at a time, then refine your search as you go. Try sending an initial email or message that introduces yourself and requests any basic info that wasn’t covered in the product listing. To get started, reference our template below.
Hi, (supplier name).
My name is _____, and I’m a buyer for _____, a store in (your country) that sells (product offering). We are interested in carrying many of the products that you have to offer.
Specifically, I would like to get pricing and availability for the following items:
- (Item name, include listing photo)
- (Item name, include listing photo)
- (Item name, include listing photo)
If you could send more info, as well as your product catalogs, and MOQ requirements, I would greatly appreciate it.
MOQs are often strict and vary greatly from supplier to supplier, so this is an important detail to iron out early on. Startups and small stores may be limited by the MOQs they can manage.
If you receive a response that seems promising, proceed to establish key info, such as:
- Product sample options
- Lead times
- Payment terms
- Material specifications
- Quality standards
- Shipping terms
If the supplier’s prices and terms are sufficient, you can “test” their goods by requesting a sample. This is a great way to preview a few products, but keep in mind that the samples you receive are likely hand-chosen and may not be representative of the supplier’s stock as a whole.
To get a more accurate picture of the vendor’s regular output, try placing a trial order. Many suppliers allow new buyers to make one purchase under the normal MOQ. By ordering a small but sufficient trial order, you can test the true quality of the supplier’s product.
Once you’re satisfied with your new supplier, you can attempt to negotiate before making a full purchase. Of course, high-volume businesses have more bargaining power, but even small operations may be able to negotiate price, freight terms, deposit terms, and packaging details.
Whether you’re initiating a new business relationship or maintaining an existing one, visiting your suppliers in China is a worthwhile investment of time and money.
Many retailers choose to get eyes on the factory or operation in person to understand quality standards and customization options. Additionally, the concept of forming friendships before partnerships run deep in Chinese culture—so spending quality time with your suppliers is essential in creating a solid and profitable supply chain.
Gianluca Boncompagni of Off Road Tents recalls that visiting his trade partners in China improved their relationships dramatically. “Communication totally changes; they put a face to the name, they realize you are for real and legit, and they know you are prepared and not joking around.
“They know you want a long-term relationship, so they are more open and willing to work with you. It helps negotiating perhaps not always price, but certainly minimum quantities, cost of demos, and even changes and adjustments they wouldn’t normally do to their production line.”
If you can’t manage a trip overseas, it’s possible to hire a local inspection company to visit your supplier(s) on your behalf. This can be done before placing your first order or on a regular basis for the sake of quality assurance.
Companies such as QIMA (formerly called AsiaInspections) have local agents who can perform on-site inspections, quality checks, compliance tests, and more. Multiple US-based retailers report having used QIMA for about $300 per day.
What to Expect When Working With Chinese Businesses
Business culture in China is unique and potentially surprising to Westerners. Here are some tips for working with Chinese businesses—both remotely and face-to-face:
- Mind the language barrier. Many Chinese professionals can read English better than they can understand it in spoken conversation. Use typed or printed communication when possible and aim to write concisely.
- Don’t assume anything. Chinese culture tends to be non-confrontational, so business dealings are often less straightforward. Be sure to ask direct questions, reiterate, clarify, confirm everything, and make sure there are no misunderstandings. Cover every detail of the transaction when creating purchase orders, and operate under the assumption that anything you don’t spell out clearly will be done differently than you expect.
- Be wary of contracts. Contracts and signed agreements hold a different meaning in China. Your purchase agreements are still an important part of the transaction, but beware that they are not final and are subject to change at any time without notice or penalty.
- Form a relationship. Friendly relationships and social networks are vitally important to Chinese culture; they form the foundation of business dealings. Some vendors may be inflexible and difficult until you’ve established a relationship or met in person. Others will value your business significantly more once you’ve stopped by for a visit—resulting in better negotiations down the line. If you are limited to remote relationships, be sure to stay communicative, cordial, and friendly.
Step 3: Purchase Products
With the legwork of sourcing out of the way, you’re ready to place an order with your Chinese supplier(s).
When placing your first order with a new supplier, it’s typically best to start with a low initial quantity before you know how a new item will perform. You don’t want to end up with hundreds (or thousands) of units on hand and no sales coming in—but, as mentioned above, suppliers usually have a minimum order quantity that buyers must meet.
The details of each transaction are laid out within purchase orders and invoices.
These documents should clearly define all details of the transaction without leaving any room for misinterpretation. This includes basics (like item specifications, unit quantities, pricing, and packaging) but should also cover shipping terms (also called Incoterms) and payment terms.
In addition to a purchase order, it’s important to agree with the supplier on a product specification document to ensure you’re getting what you pay for.
Click below for more information.
Shipping Terms (or Incoterms)
When importing from China, shipping terms often refer to Incoterms (or International Commerce Terms), which are predefined sets of universal rules and guidelines that clarify the logistics of trade.
The Incoterm of your purchase describes the breakdown of shipping responsibilities between you and the supplier—including payment and liability obligations.
The main Incoterms used for importing and exporting Chinese goods are:
- FOB – Free Onboard (or Freight On Board): Indicates that the seller’s responsibilities end when the goods board the ship leaving the port of origin. On FOB, the seller manages inland transportation, loading, export customs clearance, and port expenses. The buyer selects the carrier and shipping route and manages import customs clearance and expenses. Usually, this is the best and most cost-effective option for new importers.
- EXW – ExWorks: Indicates that the seller’s responsibilities end once the goods are made available to the buyer at the manufacturing site or warehouse facility. In other words, once the order is packaged for shipment, it’s up to you to handle the rest. On EXW, the seller provides packaging and export certificates/documentation, but the buyer must arrange inland transportation, loading, and customs clearance on either end. The buyer also selects the carrier and shipping route, as well as manages import expenses.
- CIF – Cost, Insurance, Freight: Indicates that the seller is responsible for insuring the goods up until they arrive at the buyer’s port of destination. The seller also handles inland transportation, loading, and export customs clearance. The seller is in control of the carrier and shipping route, but the buyer manages import customs clearance and expenses.
It’s vital to establish the shipping terms of your order to avoid unexpected costs, liability, and potential delays—so be sure to communicate this detail with your supplier. Typically, vendors have a standard Incoterm they prefer to use, which you can address while negotiating the order.
Sending payment for bulk quantities of merchandise coming from the other side of the globe is complicated for obvious reasons. You’ll want to ensure that the right party successfully received the payment and that your order will actually be shipped once you’ve made the investment.
Typically, Chinese suppliers require a 30% deposit on each order prior to shipping, then the remaining 70% is paid once the goods are received. This helps to mitigate the risk of theft on both sides.
As you build a business relationship with your vendors, the deposit amount can be negotiated. It’s common to request a 20% or 25% deposit on the second or third order with a new supplier. Once you’ve met your trade partners in person, these terms tend to become much more flexible—you can even request 100% payment upon completion of the order.
Do I need to worry about currency conversion?
No—USD is the primary global currency, and the vast majority of Chinese suppliers accept it.
As for sending the payment itself, there are common methods when purchasing Chinese goods for import:
1. Telegraphic Transfer (TT)
This method is a standard electronic transfer of funds between banks. TT payments are accepted by virtually all Chinese suppliers and incur a smaller fee than other options.
This method includes no level of protection against theft but is still the most highly recommended payment option by import professionals. Their reasoning is that security can be better assured by doing your homework and personally vetting new suppliers.
2. Letter of Credit (LC or LOC)
This payment option is essentially a transfer of funds that includes a level of insurance. You pay your bank, which then issues an assurance to the supplier. After your bank confirms that the exact quantity of items in your order has arrived at the correct destination, the vendor is paid.
While this added security seems helpful, it may not be worth the sizable fees that it incurs. It’s very unlikely that a vetted supplier will take your money and run—the bigger risks that importers face are problems with item quality and shipping delays. An LC provides no protection against either of these possibilities, so it’s commonly used for very large transactions only.
3. Alibaba Trade Assurance
Alibaba offers a payment processing option that works similarly to getting an LC from your bank. You submit the payment to a designated Alibaba account (with the Singapore City Bank), then it’s released to the supplier once shipping is confirmed.
Unlike LC payments, Alibaba Trade Assurance will refund your money if the shipment is delayed beyond a specified date or if the quality of the goods is not compliant with the agreed product specifications.
This method requires both parties to have an Alibaba account, but it is free to use. The only fee that incurs is the cost of processing your initial payment to the Alibaba account.
This option is secure and straightforward—but not commonly used by importers. PayPal charges very high transaction fees, and many suppliers don’t have PayPal accounts to accept the payment.
When it is used, PayPal is usually reserved for small, introductory purchases—such as samples and trial orders.
Unlike domestic US dealings, having a hard-and-fast purchase contract isn’t particularly helpful when importing from China. As mentioned earlier, contracts don’t carry the same weight that they do in the US.
It does, however, help to include clearly defined product specifications that your supplier signs and agrees to. This document isn’t legally binding, but it greatly decreases your chances of winding up with a batch of low-quality, misrepresented products.
Along with your purchase order and invoice, submit a checklist or spreadsheet stating the product’s specs—such as weight, dimensions, color, material type, fabric thickness, component manufacturer, and labeling requirements. It also helps to create visual references when applicable (the more clear and straightforward you can be, the better). Here’s an example.
Product Specification Checklist
Item: Women’s chino pants, size medium
Fabric: Organic cotton, 200 gsm
Fabric Color: Pantone 443
Design: As specified in product_listing_image.png attachment
Dimensions: As specified in product_measurements.png attachment
Care label: As specified in label_design.png attachment
California Prop 65 Compliant: Yes
CPSIA (US) Compliant: Yes
Step 4: Arrange Cargo Transport
Depending on the shipping terms of your order, you may need to facilitate inland transport, including export customs clearance and loading. But more often than not, orders placed with new suppliers will be on FOB (as explained above)—in which case these steps will be handled by the supplier.
Freight shipping is also dependent on Incoterms, but for most orders, it’s up to the buyer to book and manage it. You can ask your supplier to arrange freight transportation for you and simply bill you for it, but this leaves you with minimal control over the cost, speed, and security of the shipment (and they may tack on a surcharge for their assistance).
The best way to handle import shipping is to use a freight forwarder such as Flexport.
Freight forwarders specialize in the arrangement and management of cargo on behalf of shippers. They facilitate scheduling, tracking, insurance, and more and can save you money by consolidating LCL (Less than Container Load) cargo with other deliveries.
This service incurs a cost, but freight specialists have access to volume discounts through partnered shipping companies—so they’re able to offer highly competitive rates.
Here’s a breakdown of your options for cargo shipping methods:
Average port-to-port time
Average door-to-door time
(includes customs and inland transportation)
Express air courier freight service is door-to-door
12–16 days to the west coast, 30–42 days to the east coast
Air courier shipping is typically a door-to-door service, meaning your goods are shipped straight to their final destination (be it your home, office, or third-party fulfillment center).
DHL, FedEx, and UPS are commonly-used air courier services. If your goods are valued at $800 or more, these carriers will provide customs brokerage services to get your shipment cleared for entry—although it usually incurs an additional surcharge.
Air and sea freight methods are booked from the port of origin to an airport or seaport near you. From there, you’ll need to arrange shipping to your final destination. This can be done by your freight forwarder or scheduled yourself using a freight broker. We recommend FreightPros as the best freight broker for small businesses.
When it comes to transport rates, sea freight is quoted by volume, whereas air shipments are quoted by weight. Using an air courier is the most expensive method, while booking air freight costs about half as much and choosing sea freight costs about 10% as much.
Step 5: Clear Your Shipment Through Customs
Customs clearance is a critical part of importing from China. If you don’t provide the correct documentation and follow the right procedures, you run the risk of having your goods detained and/or examined—both of which result in delays and hefty fees. In the worst-case scenario, your merchandise is seized by CBP and destroyed or sold at auction.
As mentioned earlier, you don’t need an import license to bring most goods into the US from China. However, to obtain clearance from CBP (Customs and Border Protection), you must take the necessary entry, examination, valuation, classification, and clearance measures.
The customs process, costs, and requirements vary depending on the value of your shipment, as shown below.
Import tax (duty) applies
‘Formal entry’ documentation and process required
Customs bond required
Customs broker advised
Subject to potential holds and examinations
Here’s a breakdown of each of these factors.
Customs Duty (Import Tax)
Imported cargo valued at $800 or more (as according to the order’s commercial invoice) is subject to duties and other taxes. Shipments below the United States’ de minimis value of $800 are duty-free.
According to the United States’ CBP, “Customs Duty is a tariff or tax imposed on goods when transported across international borders.
“The purpose of Customs Duty is to protect each country’s economy, residents, jobs, environment, etc., by controlling the flow of goods, especially restrictive and prohibited goods, into and out of the country.”
Duties—also called tariffs—are paid at the time of import by the importer of record—which can be you, the exporter, or another party that you designate (like a customs broker).
These taxes are assessed either as a percentage of the shipment’s value or on a per-piece (or per-pound) basis. As mentioned above, duty rates are calculated based on the precise type of commodity (identified by each product’s HSN) and the country of origin.
Refer to the government’s Harmonized Tariff Schedule to estimate duties for your shipment—but keep in mind that calculating import tax isn’t as simple as it seems. CBP’s specialists spend years training to determine correct duty rates properly, and the final charge assessed at import is up to them.
For the most accurate information on what tariffs to expect, contact your local port of entry or hire a customs broker (which is an option we’ll explore below).
Import duties are paid to the port of entry, prior to release of your cargo. Accepted forms of payment include US currency, personal checks, government checks, money orders, and travelers’ checks. Some ports also accept Visa and Mastercard.
Entry Requirements & Documentation
As your merchandise reaches the United States, it will need to be filed for either informal or formal entry.
As stated above, shipments valued at less than $2,500 don’t require formal entry—they are processed through informal entry, which can be done on the spot.
In these cases, the shipping company can clear them through customs on your behalf—although it often incurs a charge. Alternatively, you can process the entry at the port yourself or authorize another party to do so for you. For more info on these options, contact your carrier company, or refer to the CBP’s website.
Some products are restricted from informal entry regardless of value. These include goods subject to quota, anti-dumping, countervailing, or high-risk regulations—including many foods products. See the CBP’s guide to importing to check on your product’s eligibility.
Cargo with a value of $2,500 or more must be filed as a formal entry. This requires a hefty amount of documentation as well as a Surety bond (which we’ll explain below). Generally, it’s advisable to hire a customs broker for filing formal entries.
You can expect roughly $200–$300 in customs fees for formal entries and $100–200 in brokerage fees. Of course, these charges depend on the details of your cargo.
If you used air or sea freight to transport your shipment, you’ll be notified five days from the cargo’s expected arrival. If you shipped via air courier (such as DHL), it’s standard for the carrier to take care of customs clearance for you, then bill you for the service (along with any incurred fees).
Once notified, it’s your responsibility to file an entry with the port director at the port of entry (or to hire a broker to do so on your behalf).
You’ll need to have the following documents prepared:
- A receipt or a bill of lading that states the importer of record (i.e., you or your hired broker) and the items to be imported.
- An official invoice that lists
- US port of entry
- Contact information of Purchaser, Vendor, and Shipper
- Detailed description of merchandise (including country of manufacture)
- Piece count of each product (quantities and measures)
- Cost per item and currency
- All charges relating to the shipment including packaging, shipping charges
- Date of purchase
- The invoice must be in English or accompanied by an accurate English translation
- An arrival notice, issued by the shipping carrier and authorized by a U.S. Customs Agent.
If your goods are restricted or regulated by a PGA (Partner Government Agency, such as the FDA), they may require additional forms or documents. Check the CBP’s Guide for Commercial Importers to ensure that you have everything you need for your goods to enter.
To speed up the customs process and ensure things go smoothly, work with your supplier on the following tips:
- Be sure that all information on the provided invoice is legible, clear, organized, and well-translated.
- Submit a packing list along with other documentation.
- Mark or number the outside of each package in your shipment with corresponding designations on your invoice or packing list. This will help customs officials identify particular items in your shipment.
- Assure compliance with government regulations in your country before export.
If your shipment is a formal entry, you’ll also need a customs bond.
A customs bond is a legal contract between you (the principal), a surety company, and CBP. Its purpose is to guarantee that the importer complies with customs regulations and that CBP is paid for applicable import duties, taxes, fines, and penalties.
If the principal doesn’t pay up, the CBP will collect from the surety company that issued the bond. From there, the surety company can use legal means to collect what is owed to them. When a bond is required, Customs will not release the goods until the bond is posted and regulatory requirements are met.
To obtain a customs bond, you must go through a surety licensed by the U.S. Department of the Treasury—which includes many customs brokers. To get more information and a full list of sureties, visit the CBP’s webpage on customs bonds.
Using a customs broker is not legally required in the case of importing any shipment. It is, however, strongly recommended by both CBP and industry pros when importing formal entries.
As explained above, the role of a customs broker is to assist importers in meeting Federal requirements for entry. These import/export professionals are licensed by the CBP but are not government employees—they usually work for freight forwarders, independent businesses, shipping lines, or dedicated customs brokerage firms.
Customs brokers serve importers by working as liaisons between you and relevant agencies, preparing and submitting necessary documents, properly classifying goods, and providing personalized consulting. Plus, many customs brokers sell bonds and are also agents for sureties.
Overall, customs brokers are extremely savvy in import and export laws and are actively regulated by the government agencies they work with. This makes them a vital resource to have while navigating your first formal entry.
The cost of customs brokerage varies depending on the agent and shipment, but expect to spend somewhere around $100–$200 for their services. Alternatively, many brokers are available for consulting on an hourly basis.
Use the CBP’s free tool to find a customs broker near your local port of entry. You can also contact the CBP Broker Management Branch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Holds and Examinations
In an effort to improve the security of the supply chain, CBP can (and will) select certain shipments to examine during customs. This results in delays, and the responsible party is charged an examination fee.
Highly confidential algorithms are used to evaluate the degree of risk for each shipment entering the United States. If your cargo is flagged as potentially risky for any reason, it may be selected for a customs exam.
While it’s impossible to know what exactly goes into the CBP’s algorithms, it’s accepted that these factors increase your chances of being selected for an exam:
- Lack of shipment history
- Infrequency of shipments
- Questionable chain of custody
- High-risk products or materials
- Problematic packaging or labeling
- High-risk country of origin
- Incomplete paperwork
- Consolidation with other shipments that have high-risk attributes
Ultimately, even if your shipment is totally benign and you follow every precaution, your cargo may still be included in the 1%–3% that are randomly chosen for examination.
Multiple types of exams may be done. The least invasive is an x-ray that takes two to three days and costs around $300. “Tail Gate Exam,” another possibility, will break the seal of your container or packaging to inspect its contents visually; this takes five to six days and generally incurs a $350 charge.
The most dreaded and intrusive exam requires your shipment to be transported to a Customs Examination Station, where it is thoroughly inspected and sometimes laboratory-tested. This process takes anywhere from a week to 30 days or longer and incurs thousands of dollars in fees (including drayage charges).
The best way you can avoid being selected for customs holds and examinations is to ensure your paperwork is complete, provide accurate valuations of your goods, and work with well-vetted suppliers.
Retrieving Your Imported Goods
Once your goods have been cleared through customs and all parties have been paid, the cargo needs to either be retrieved or transported to its final destination.
If you shipped LCL (Less than Container Load), your goods would arrive in a container with a variety of other shipments. Typically, after customs clearance, this container will be transported to a separate location for destuffing. In these cases, you (or your freight forwarder) will be provided with a secondary location near the original port.
If you shipped FCL (Full Container Load), the port of entry would be the location to use.
You’ll also be provided with a Cargo Control Number that serves as a unique identifier for your shipment. These details can then be used to pick up or ship the imported goods.
Hiring a freight forwarder is the most common way to handle transport to your final warehouse, office, or retail space. Depending on the distance, this can require delivery by train, air, truck, or a combination of modes. Expect to pay $100 or more for this inland shipping. Alternatively, you can use a broker such as FreightPros to book inland freight.
If you choose to retrieve your goods personally rather than have them delivered, you can bring your vehicle to the port or warehouse. Be sure to carry a small amount of cash ($25–$75) to pay potential parking, loading, and/or dock fees.
It’s important to act fast after customs clearance—if your goods are not picked up within 15 days of arrival, they’re sent to a General Order Warehouse, where storage charges are assessed on a daily basis. In order to retrieve your merchandise from the G.O. Warehouse, those fees will need to be paid.
After six months of storage, unretrieved goods may be discarded or sold at auction.
Step 6: Process Imported Goods for Sale
When your imported goods reach the end of their journey at your warehouse, store, or office, the final step is to process them for sale like you would any other merchandise. This usually involves:
- Pricing products profitably
- Creating product listings with product descriptions and photos that sell
- Managing inventory
- Fulfilling orders in-house or through a third-party service like ShipBob
Selling imported goods requires a few slight differences in your operation. Be sure to consider these final and ongoing tasks when importing goods from China:
Product quality is a common pain point importers struggle with when buying from new suppliers, and it’s always best to detect discrepancies early on.
When you first receive an imported shipment, check the order against its invoice to verify that the quantity is correct. Then, thoroughly evaluate the goods you received against your agreed-upon specification checklist.
If the product you received is not what you expected, start by identifying who is at fault. Did you accidentally overlook a crucial detail in your specifications or design illustrations? Or did the vendor simply deliver a misrepresented product? Unfortunately, the real cause may be somewhere in between, making resolution even more difficult.
If the supplier is at fault, there are a few courses of action you can take. If you opted for Alibaba’s Trade Assurance option or used PayPal for the transaction, there’s a high chance of getting your money back through those companies.
You can also try contacting the supplier to request some form of resolution—be it a replacement order or a complete (or partial) refund. Some vendors will be responsive and cooperative in these situations, but often, you’ll be met with a rebuttal or radio silence.
If the loss is great enough, you may be tempted to consider litigation. You would need to carry out any legal action in China because the country’s courts do not enforce judgments from those in foreign countries. Needless to say, this process is resource-intensive—and it comes without any sort of assurance that you’ll come out on top.
When all else fails, you can discourage others from using crooked suppliers through social media, industry forums, and sites like SupplierBlacklist.com.
Ultimately the best way to approach quality issues is to avoid them in the first place by thoroughly vetting your new suppliers and placing trial orders.
If you were satisfied with the supplier(s) you initially worked with, continue negotiations with them as you place future orders.
Remember that price isn’t the only factor subject to negotiation—you can improve transport costs, Incoterms, MOQs, sample sizes, packaging, payment terms, and more by forging a relationship with your supplier.
Here’s an example of negotiation strategy over the course of a budding trade partnership.
Minimum Order Quantity
750 units from 1,000
FOB from EXW
$2.71 from $2.84
20% from 30%
As you sell and reorder imported goods, monitor your processes and costs closely. Be sure to keep track of your procurement, freight, insurance, handling, duty, and inland transportation costs—as well as the charges involved in hiring a customs broker and/or freight forwarder.
These expenses can be rolled into the core item cost to accurately measure profit margins, which is a metric commonly called landed costs.
As you analyze the performance of your products and operation as a whole, identify ways to improve profitability and promote growth. To learn more, read our guide to retail analytics.
If your imported goods are a hit, it only makes sense to reorder as stock depletes. But when your suppliers are on the other side of the world, replenishing inventory can take months.
Additionally, keep a calendar of Chinese holidays in consideration when forecasting your upcoming orders. Celebrations throughout the year will affect lead times, but Chinese New Year is the biggest obstacle to work around—it halts business dealings for the majority of a month every year.
Manufacturers put the squeeze on to boost production in the weeks leading up to Chinese New Year, which often results in lower-quality output. Forecast properly and place your orders well before this rush to avoid quality issues and transport delays.
Here are some key dates to be aware of when working with Chinese suppliers in 2022.
New Year's Day
Chinese New Year, Spring Festival
Jan 31–Feb 15th
Qingming Festival (Tomb Sweeping Day)
International Labor Day
Apr 30–May 4
Dragon Boat Festival
National Day/Golden Week
In addition to smart forecasting, some retailers find it beneficial to use two different suppliers for each item that they sell. This way, if one manufacturer can’t provide a product due to material or labor shortages, there’s a backup source to ensure your stock never runs dry.
Importing goods from China is a great way to increase profitability while drawing from a wide and diverse pool of products. Despite the cost of tariffs, transport, and customs, the low prices you’ll get on Chinese imports makes the procurement process more than worthwhile.