How to Get an Import-Export License

Jul 26, 2018

The requirements to gain an import-export license typically vary based on specified criteria, such as the items being imported-exported and where the products are being imported-exported. This article will explore some of the common import-export classifications and their requirements. View article »

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  • 0:03 Defining an…
  • 1:02 Govt Regulations on…
  • 1:30 Applying for a License

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Video Transcript

Defining an Import-Export License

Federal and international standards for import and export vary depending on the product, the country of origin, and the destination. Individuals who are considering importing and exporting goods can benefit from information about what it takes to import and/or export agricultural products, automobiles, chemicals, defense products, food and beverage products, industrial products, and pharmaceuticals.

An import-export license is mandated by various federal agencies, and it identifies what products are shipped or delivered between international locations. A license may or may not be required for importers or exporters, depending on the product. A temporary license for the transport of merchandise, also known as an ATA Carnet document, can be sought through the United States Council for International Business.

Government Regulations on Import-Export

The U.S. Department of Commerce's Bureau of Industry and Security regulates export and re-export of items for both commercial and military use. An individual sending or receiving low-technology consumer goods doesn't need a license, unless the items are going to or coming from an embargoed destination. However, certain individuals overseas are prohibited from receiving items from the United States and need a license.

Applying for a License

Licensing standards may differ based on the second country's licensing laws. Various licenses are needed to ship and receive certain items within the United States. There are also specific categories of items that require a license for import or export.

Agricultural Products

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service regulates the import and export of live animals and related animal products, as well as plant and wood products. For an export license, one must provide proof that the receiving country's laws are satisfied. Individuals may also be required to supply information on the country the animal is from or has visited, and the length of stay in that country. In addition, to export live animals an accredited veterinarian would complete and sign an international health certificate and then seek approval from a local veterinary services office. For an import license, it is necessary to make sure that state and local regulations are fulfilled and USDA paperwork is completed.


Importing automobiles requires:

  • Documentation to be sent to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
  • Letter from both the manufacturer and the recipient
  • Vehicle identification number
  • Letter with the manufacturer's name, address, and information about the products that it makes in order to ensure that they conform with federal motor vehicle safety regulations

When the automobile is shipped, it must have its certification affixed on a particular part.


Import and export licensure requirements for chemicals are specified by the Toxic Substances Control Act, which is administered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Before shipment, individuals must obtain a positive certification statement from the EPA indicating that the shipment is in compliance with all TSCA regulations. Specifications for imported pesticides are even more strict. All pesticides must be registered with the EPA before they can be shipped into the United States.

Defense Products

There are a variety of regulations that must be met when importing or exporting defense products. Depending on the product, it may be necessary to provide documentation that the shipment is in compliance with the Arms Export Control Act and/or the International Traffic in Arms regulations. In addition, there are particular forms that must be filled out when selling products to NATO. When applying for a license for shipping and receiving arms, the importer-exporter must submit an application to the Directorate of Defense Trade Controls. Importers-exporters are required to supply documentary information on the items, as well as complete an application.

Nuclear Materials

Nuclear materials licenses are handled by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. These standards are similar to the standards for shipping and importing arms. The regulations are based on the exact material being imported or exported, as well as where it is going to or coming from. There are two types of nuclear material licenses: general and specific, with specific being the stricter.

Food and Beverage Products

When it comes to the import of food and beverages, licensure requirements can vary significantly based on the identity of the product, as well as its desired destination. For example, the 2002 Farm Bill specifies that all imported perishable agriculture, beef, lamb, pork, fish, and peanuts must be labeled with their country origin. There are also specific forms required when importing or exporting wine and other alcoholic beverages. Exporting to the European Union requires paperwork indicating that it complies with the EU's Health Certification Program. The export of grain, rice, and pulses may require documentation that the shipment is in compliance with the Unites States Grain Standards Act and/or the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946.

Industrial Products

To trade industrial products internationally, it is necessary to comply with Foreign Trade Zone procedures. There are also specific import requirements when bringing steel mill products into the United States.

Pharmaceuticals and Biotechnology

All imported human drugs and biologics must be approved by the FDA to ensure that they are in compliance with the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. Some foods, cosmetics, and medical devices are also subject to these regulations depending on their identity. An export certificate must be obtained in order to export human drugs and biologics.

Import and export regulations vary significantly by product, so it is essential for potential importers and exporters to make sure that they have the appropriate licensure and documentation for all of their shipments.

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