For thousands of products, you can import freely into the U.S. without an import license. However, the government does restrict certain product types for the health and safety of consumers.

Some government agencies still require certain permits and licenses to ensure the security of business imports. For example, the FDA may regulate imported skin care products.

To fully protect yourself and your business, you want to ensure you have all the necessary licenses and permits to sell in the U.S. To mitigate liability and risk, as well as the threat of business shutdown, consider working with a sourcing firm or licensed broker.

Why would I need a license?

Any business, imports or not, may need a license or permit based on federal, state, and local laws. Necessary documentation and approval depend on your business type.

A license gives you permission to do or sell something. For example, a restaurant may obtain a liquor license to sell alcohol or a real estate agent may get a professional license in order to sell homes.

A permit is related to safety issues, like a health permit. These usually require an inspection and approval.

As an importer, you have to consider typical business licenses along with those related to overseas trade. You may need permission to import or certain permits to prove health and safety of your product.

An import-export license allows you to transport and sell certain merchandise in the U.S.

You never need a license if you’re importing for personal use. For example, you have no restrictions if you’re buying a skincare product from China for your wife. (However, you would be restricted if you tried to import illegal items, like unlicensed guns or narcotics, even if for personal use.)

When you want to sell these imports in a business, you may have to obtain certain permits and registrations. This is meant to protect Americans from access to illegal or low-quality goods.

How Do You Acquire An Import License? cardboard boxes with signs reading import and export

Who issues import licenses?

The U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security is responsible for the regulation of imports and exports. In order to import, you’ll need a company identification number (CIN). This helps the Department of Commerce track trade activities to keep an eye out for illegal processes or liabilities.

There’s no “one size fits all” import license. You have to obtain different licenses for different products from different federal agencies. For example, if you sell firearms, you need a license from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. Food items would go through the FDA.

Contrary to popular belief, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) doesn’t actually require any licenses or permits from your business. However, if you don’t have proper documentation or you don’t meet certain regulations, they’ll penalize you. They can fine you, seize your items, or suspend your business.

Even though you don’t need an import license for CBP, you need to meet the requirements of other governmental agencies if you want to get your items through customs. For example, you should be aware of regulations from the following departments:

  • Food & Drug Administration (FDA)
  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
  • Department of Transportation (DOT)
  • Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)
  • Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
  • Department of Agriculture (USDA)
  • Department of State

You’ll also need an importer number, which is usually your IRS business registration number or personal social security number.

Below are some of the restricted import products and their associated agencies, so you can ensure a legal customs and selling process. In many cases, the below agencies will require quality and standard inspections as well as proof of social compliance criteria.

What products need licenses?

Agricultural Products

Products:

  • Live animals
  • Animals products
  • Plant products
  • Wood products

Regulated by: U.S. Department of Agriculture – Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service

Process: Fill out all USDA paperwork; learn more here

Automobiles

Products:

  • Cars
  • Car parts
  • Train parts
  • Other vehicle parts

Regulated by: Environmental Protection Agency & Department of Transportation – National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Process: Gather documentation to send to NHTSA: letter from manufacturer, letter from recipient, vehicle ID number, letter with manufacturer name, address, and info; learn more here

Chemicals

Products:

Regulated by: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

Process: License requirements outlined in Toxic Substances Control Act; obtain certification statement from EPA before shipping

How Do You Acquire An Import License? application for license with red pencil

Defense Articles

Products:

  • Firearms
  • Ammunition
  • Explosives
  • Defense articles

Regulated by: Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF)

Process: Fill out form 6 with correct information; find more info with International Traffic in Arms regulations

Nuclear Materials

Products:

  • Nuclear/radioactive products and materials

Regulated by: U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Process: Apply for general or specific license with NRC; learn how here

Food/Beverage

Products:

  • Fish
  • Beef
  • Lamb
  • Pork
  • Peanuts
  • Grain, rice, pulses
  • Wine
  • Alcoholic beverages
  • All perishables

Regulated by: FDA

Process: Licenses vary by product and destination; check with the FDA for specific regulations

Pharmaceuticals/Biotechnology

  • Human drugs
  • Biologics
  • Cosmetics
  • Dietary supplements
  • Botanicals

Regulated by: FDA – Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act

Process: Check with the FDA for specific import policies and regulations of pharmaceuticals and drugs

Even if you don’t see a restricted product listed above, you should check with your local agency and a broker for full license and documentation needs. Some products require specific permits or inspections for selling approval. You can also check out Chapter 39 of the CBP Import Guide for more info.

How Do You Acquire An Import License? person filling out form with pen

How can I get a license?

Supplier

Talk to your supplier. If you have a good relationship with your manufacturer, they will be able to help you obtain necessary and relevant permits. They have likely dealt with clients importing similar products into America, so they have experience with these regulations.

It’s in the supplier’s best interest to help you. If you purchase from them without permits, you won’t be able to sell your goods in America. If you can’t sell the goods, you won’t be able to pay the factory. A credible factory will want to make sure you import legally to ensure no legal or financial troubles.

Transporter

You can also work with your shipper, like UPS or FedEx. Large global transporters deal with importing daily, so they can help you obtain necessary documentation. They also serve as your licensed customs brokers, ensuring you have the licenses and documentation needed to get your items through customs.

FedEx Global Trade Manager is a great way to find international documents, estimate taxes and duties, and more. Open a free account and select your location. You can then see if you need an import permit in that area. It will also list other necessary documents for international shipment, like duties, taxes, country requirements, and more.

UPS Global Trade also offers shipping, import, and export information. You can also check out their “Restricted from Import” section to see a checklist of regulations, including necessary import documentation and pertinent permits.

Licensed Broker

Consider hiring a licensed broker. They will make sure you have all necessary documentation to get your goods safely and quickly through customs. They will contact your local port of entry to learn more about your applicable import requirements and import licenses.

The Bottom Line

As the importer and seller, it’s your responsibility to comply with government regulations and laws.

Thankfully, you don’t have to take the risk yourself. Don’t worry about running into trouble with customs or American agencies. Get a sourcing partner on your side who’s aware of industry and importing regulations.

Contact us now to start importing.