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International Trade: Importing and Exporting

Global trade is accessible even to the small-business

Technology developments in international trade in the last century have grown the import and export of goods into a multi-billion dollar industry. No longer the exclusive venue of giant corporations, global trade is accessible even to the small-business owner.


The number of imports entering the United States far outstrips the products we export. While popular sentiment recently has demanded more U.S.-made goods, there are reasons we continue to buy across borders:

  • Availability. Some things we just can’t grow or make in the U.S. These may include certain produce, textiles and luxury goods.
  • Cachet. High-end goods such as caviar and champagne project more of an "image," if they’re imported rather than home-grown. Think Scandinavian furniture, German beer, French perfume and Egyptian cotton.
  • Price. Some products are cheaper when brought in from outside the country. Foreign factories can often manufacture products such as electronics, clothing and toys for far less money than can U.S. plants.

Buying direct from foreign countries is time-consuming and requires substantial paperwork, but it is not nearly as difficult as one might think. A thriving import business can be established using a few practical guidelines:

  • Fledgling entrepreneurs should contact trade representatives, usually through their embassies, and ask for lists of product manufacturers. These individuals often will assist because they are interested in promoting the sale of merchandise to the U.S.
  • Correspond with top prospect companies to pin down prices and terms, and to obtain samples. Before you commit to a contract, make sure your trade partners are aware of your quality standards, and that you understand their policies. Get a reference from another importer who has worked with the company.
  • Have an attorney check the contract, including checking for items like import tax and shipping procedures.


If you are thinking about exporting your goods, carefully assess the pros and cons of expanding into global markets. Advantages include:

  • Enhanced competitiveness
  • Increased sales and profits
  • Reduced dependence on domestic markets
  • Boost in sales potential of existing product lines
  • Insurance against seasonal market fluctuations
  • Enhanced potential for corporate expansion
  • Reduction of overstock

Alternatively, exporting does carry some disadvantages. Be prepared to:

  • Develop new promotional material
  • Subordinate short-term profits to long-term gains
  • Incur added administrative costs
  • Allocate personnel for travel
  • Wait longer for payments
  • Modify your product or packaging
  • Apply for additional financing
  • Obtain special export licenses

Some questions to keep in mind:

  • How do I sell to customers who speak a different language?
  • How do I locate qualified foreign personnel to sell my products?
  • What U.S. government agencies can I go to for assistance?
  • What if the ship sinks before it arrives at its destination?
  • How do I move money between countries?

International Import/Export Resources

For assistance in setting up your import or export operations, visit these links. They provide valuable content to help manage and grow your business:

  • U.S. Commercial Service. With offices in 100 U.S. and 80 foreign cities, this Dept. of Commerce unit offers a network for counseling, market research and leads.
  • Export-Import Bank. Main government source for loan guarantees and credit insurance.
  • Unz & Co. Industry leader in providing international traders and dangerous goods transporters with compliance forms, references, and training.
  • Federation of International Trade Organizations. Extensive overview of the global trade ecosystem, with links to many useful directories.
  • Features a search engine that ferrets out country-specific news coverage.
  • U.S. International Trade Administration. U.S. Department of Commerce site providing access to other international trade-related sites, including home pages for specific regions around the world.
  • U.S. SBA Office of International Trade. Offers information on SBA export finance programs, federal export programs, market-specific publications and trade regulations
  • U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Provides directory of international chambers of commerce and links to their Web pages.
  • U.S. Trade & Development Agency. Provides business leads in developing countries; offers training grants and workshops.
  • American Translators Association. Contains a directory of U.S. companies and independent contractors that can translate, edit and proofread contracts and documents.