This blog tends to attract a lot of international readers and one of the most common questions I get is from non-American readers asking how they can sell their imported and private label products in the United States. Readers are eager to get access to the 330 million + consumers in the states and understandably so- the American ecommerce market is huge.
This happens to be a question I am well versed in answering as I live in Vancouver, Canada and the vast majority of our company’s sales are in the U.S.. Almost all of the products we import are warehoused in the U.S.. And no, I do not have a U.S. corporation or some fancy other legal workaround. I give a more detailed account of how to get started doing business in the United States in my book How Foreigners Can Do Business in the United States available on Amazon here or included for free with a purchase of your Importing from China is Easy book directly here. However, this article will give you a great start on the basics you need to know to start selling in the United States.
Also, let me give the necessary disclaimer and say that I am not a lawyer or a customs broker, so please consult these professionals first before relying on the information I outline here.
To begin, let me address a couple of common misconceptions:
FALSE: I Need to Open a U.S. Company to Ship and Sell My Goods from the United States
If you are simply shipping your goods to the United States to have another company fulfill them (i.e. Amazon FBA) you do not need to have a U.S. company. Lobbing your goods into some U.S. warehouse to be shipped to Americans is perfectly easy. The need to have a U.S. company starts to become an issue when you start wanting to work in the United States or employ people there.
FALSE: I Need to Pay U.S. Income Tax if I sell my Goods in the United States
Simply selling your goods in the United States does not normally make you required to pay U.S. income tax. You will have to pay sales tax in any state your products are stored (which would be 0% if you store them in a state like Oregon with no sales tax) and you can easily register, even as a foreigner, to pay sales tax with local state authorities.
Shipping Your Goods to Your Fulfillment Center
The first obstacle is getting your goods to the fulfillment center you are shipping your products from in the United States the big key is to ensure that you ship them to whatever fulfillment center you’re using (be it FBA or someone else) with all duties and taxes paid. This is critical because if they do not come this way, your Fulfillment Center may rejects delivery of your goods.
If you’re shipping your goods via sea, you will almost certainly be using a customs broker. This customs broker, by definition, is the party who will ensure your products have their duties and taxes paid, so you’re unlikely to run into any problems with your Fulfillment Center rejecting your goods. Your customs broker will walk you through everything and they will proactively deal with any issues with you, opposed to Amazon FBA who will just flat out reject your goods.
If you’re shipping your goods via air you must ensure your products are shipped Delivery Duty Paid (DDP). Most common carriers, i.e. UPS, FedEx, DHL, etc., can arrange for this. I should point out that myself personally have had extreme headaches with sending goods via air to Amazon FBA and I’ve had shipments refused by them. I recommend sending a small shipment to FBA at first as a trial.
There’s two small caveats to be aware of no matter how you’re shipping your goods. This concerns two fields on a customs declaration field called the Importer of Record and the Ultimate Consignee.
The Importer of Record is simply the person who accepts legal responsibility for ensuring your products meet local legal requirements. Amazon will never accept being named the Importer of Record and may reject your shipment if you name them as the Importer of Record, so don’t do it. You should simply be able to name yourself and your foreign address as the Importer of Record. I’ve read of some people shipping via air and not being given the option of entering a foreign address. I am not aware of any restriction on a foreigner being an Importer of Record and this appears to be a mere system technicality.
The “Ultimate Consignee” is simply the warehouse you are sending your goods to (including FBA). FBA will allow you to list them as the Ultimate Consignee as will most other Fulfillment services. Enter the warehouses name and address as the ultimate consignee. You will also be asked for the consignee’s tax ID. Simply ask your warehouse for it (if using Amazon FBA, you can contact them at email@example.com for this information although there’s a good chance your Customs Broker already knows this information).
Customs Entry Summary with suggested Consignee and Importer of Record information
Taxes, Legal Requirements, and Money
Once you get your goods to whatever warehouse it is that you’re using, believe it or not, there’s not a lot of other legal considerations. In fact, your biggest consideration is sales tax.
You technically have to collect and remit sales tax for whatever warehouse your goods are stored in. Why do I say technically? Well because 95%+ of FBA Sellers do not remit sales tax in the 10+ states they’re supposed to. If Americans can slip through the sales tax cracks, a foreigner should not be subject to any more investigation than an American. That’s not to say you shouldn’t remit sales tax, I’m just giving you the reality of the situation.
Each one of those little “A”s represents a state you technically need to collect sales tax in.
In terms of income tax, simply shipping your goods from a U.S. warehouse does not normally make you a U.S. company. Therefore, you should not have to pay any Federal Income Tax. Also, the United States has tax treaties with a lot of countries which will likely make you “exempt from U.S. taxes on certain items of income [you] receive from sources within the United States”.
I personally file what is known as a Form 1120-F with the IRS which basically tells the IRS “Hey, I sold some stuff in the U.S. but I’m not paying tax because I’m a foreign corporation”. Again, like with FBA, a good portion of foreigners never file this, although when your revenues get to be substantially large (I’ll leave it for an accountant to deem what ‘substantially large’ is considered) you should consider filing such a form. Tthere’s a ton of freelancers on elance who are happy to do this for a few hundred dollars. I tend to be ultra paranoid about the IRS and personally used a large CPA named Moss Adams to get me completely legal in the U.S. to the exact letter of the law. All in all I paid about $1000-2000 and they helped me to get extras such as an EIN and Reseller Certificate in Washington State. This would be overkill for most importers first starting out, in my opinion.
Money and U.S. Bank Accounts
Foreigners can open up bank accounts in the United States relatively easily. I recently opened a bank account BMO Harris (which is a U.S. based subsidiary of the large Canadian bank, Bank of Montreal) and it was easier to open a bank account with them than their Canadian parent company! I’ve heard conflicting reports from non-Canadian foreigners that they were required to be physically present at the American bank they were opening a bank account with (if someone can confirm this in the comments box, please do).
BMO Harris is a subsidiary of Canadian Bank of Montreal and is well accustomed to helping foreigners, especially Canadians, setup U.S. based bank accounts.
I make this point about U.S. based bank accounts because a U.S. based bank account is very different than a US Dollar bank account in your home country. For whatever reason, PayPal and Amazon (two services you’ll likely be using) will not allow you to withdraw US Dollars to a non-U.S. based bank account, even if that bank account is in US Dollars. This can result in big losses. For me, if Amazon withdraws U.S. funds to my Canadian bank account, I lose about 2% on the exchange rate (you will NEVER get the posted rates you see on TV). Moreover, because I pay all of my Chinese Suppliers in USD, this means I need to convert my Canadian dollars back to US Dollars and I lose another 2%. Ouch! Therefore, it’s a good idea to have a US Bank account, ideally that does not have any monthly service fees.
One of the strengths of the American economy is how easy they make it for Americans and foreigners to do business in their country. For importers looking to sell into the largest economy in the world, this article should give you a good starting point for getting started selling in the United States.
Are you a foreigner selling in the United States? What have your experiences been? Please comment below.