The Essential Guide to Exporting to the USA

USA Field

There is no denying that exporting is good for your bottom line, which is why more and more companies are looking to expand their global market share. No matter the size of your company, exporting can be profitable and is likely to lead to faster sales, quicker growth, and higher revenue. 

That being said, as companies explore new opportunities, it is common for them to discover that conducting international business presents unique challenges. This is particularly true if you are considering exporting to the USA – the richest market in the world. After all, the advanced US economy is competitive across the board, and American consumers have high standards and expectations. 

However, one of the biggest mistakes you can make is to think of the US as one single market. Instead, start to appreciate that this is an enormous country with 50 states and four time zones (To put it in perspective, it takes five hours to cross it by plane), not to mention that there are significant cultural differences between the areas. Before you get into the practical parts of exporting to the U.S. (which this article focuses on), make sure you understand the culture of the country. 

From the required documents to the length of transit times, the restricted goods to the benefits of working with a freight forwarding company, read on for the essential guide to shipping to the USA

1. Understand the required documents. 

Before you can start shipping to the United States, it is essential that you thoroughly understand the required documents. 

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency (CBP) specifies that you have 15 calendar days (from when your shipment arrives at a U.S. port) to file the necessary documents. These include a CBP Form 7533 (Entry Manifest), a CBP Form 3461 (Application and Special Permit for Immediate Delivery) or potentially a different type of form for merchandise release. Additionally, you will need to provide evidence of the right to make an entry, a commercial or pro forma invoice, and packing lists.

For international shipments with values over $2,500, you are required to present evidence that a bond has been set with CBP to meet any duties, taxes, and charges that may accumulate. Additional paperwork may be needed to decide the admissibility of your products. For example, if you are utilizing ocean freight, an electronic document called an Importer Security Filing (ISF) is to be submitted. This must be sent before your goods arrive at the U.S. port of entry.

For this reason, it is highly recommended that you work with a freight forwarder who offers a platform with an integrated compliance engine to aid you in arranging and filling out these documents. 

2. Educate yourself on the restricted goods. 

As with most countries, the United States has a list of goods and materials that are restricted from being imported into the country. Here is a sample list of products that have permissions, quotas, and requirements:

  • Cheese, milk and dairy Products
  • Fruits, vegetables and nuts
  • Livestock and animals
  • Meat, poultry and egg products
  • Plants and plant products
  • Tobacco-related products
  • Arms and ammunition
  • Household and electronic appliances
  • Industrial and commercial equipment
  • Children’s toys
  • Bicycles 
  • Fireworks
  • Flammable fabrics
  • Radiofrequency devices
  • Drug paraphernalia
  • Pesticides
  • Toxic or hazardous substances
  • Petroleum products
  • Alcoholic beverages
  • Motor vehicles and boats

To avoid customs issues, make sure to verify the admissibility of your intended U.S. imports with the relevant controlling agencies.

3. Ocean freight is a popular option from Asia. 

When it comes to importing goods into the U.S. by ship, the five busiest routes are Shanghai (China) to Savannah (Georgia), Shanghai (China) to Miami (Florida), Shanghai (China) to Long Beach (California), Busan (South Korea) to Oakland (California), and Qingdao (China) to Savannah (Georgia). 

Generally, the busiest routes are also the longest, as they frequently start in Asia and end up on the East Coast. For example, the transit time required from Singapore to Norfolk, VA, is almost 43 days. Shanghai to Savannah takes 26 days, while Hong Kong to Miami requires 40 days. That being said, several Asia-US trade lanes have significantly shorter transit times. These tend to be the ones that end up on the West Coast. For example, Busan to the Californian ports of Los Angeles or Long Beach is only 10 days. 

If you are looking to ship goods to the U.S. from other parts of the world, there is a wide variation on timings. From European countries, the transit time ranges from seven to 30 days. The shortest route is Le Havre (France) to New York, while the longest is Antwerp (Belgium) to Mobile (Alabama). Other options include Bremerhaven (Germany) to Charleston (South Carolina), which requires 11 days, and Barcelona (Spain) to New Orleans, which takes approximately 24 days. 

From South/Central America, the transit times range from two to 28 days. The shortest route is Altamira (Mexico) to Houston, while the longest is Rio Grande (Brazil) to New Orleans (Louisiana). Other options include Puerto Cortes (Honduras) to Savannah (Georgia) which takes 13 days and Callao (Peru) to New York which requires approximately 14 days. 

4. Air freight is a popular option from Europe and Central/South America.

Many companies opt to use air freight to export their goods to the U.S. This is particularly beneficial if your products are high-value or need to be moved quicker than they can be moved via ocean routes. When it comes to air freight, five of the busiest routes to the United States are Mexico City (Mexico) to New York, Mexico City (Mexico) to Dallas (Texas), London (United Kingdom) to Los Angeles (California), Frankfurt (Germany) to Chicago (Illinois), and Frankfurt (Germany) to New York. 

Due to the long transit times for air freight from Asia to the United States (Singapore to Los Angeles takes around 16 hours), many Asian-produced products arrive by ship. However, for those goods coming from Europe or Central/South America, air freight routes to the U.S. can be significantly shorter. For example, Guatemala to Miami takes under two hours, while Brussels (Belgium) to Chicago (Illinois) requires nine hours. Guatemala City (Guatemala) to Miami (Florida) is only two hours, whereas Amsterdam (Netherlands) to Houston (Texas) is 10 hours. 

Furthermore, goods arriving by plane from the Middle East also have a longer transit time. The shortest option is Doha (Qatar) to New York which clocks in at 13 hours, while the longest are Abu Dhabi (UAE) to Los Angeles (California), Doha to Houston (Texas), and Doha to Los Angeles (California) – all requiring 16 hours of flying time. 

5. Professional services ensure efficient shipping processes. 

As global shipping has become more accessible for all sized businesses, no matter where in the world they are located, certain professional freight forwarding services have emerged to help. While it is possible to organize your exports yourself, most companies opt to enlist the services of those who are in-the-know – as this is the only way to guarantee that everything is being done correctly.

By choosing to work with an online freight forwarding platform, you can be assured that your firm is using the best option of services for you (sea, road, air, rail, or a combination). Furthermore, you can massively benefit from their supply chain value-added services (including documentation, shipment tracking, and cargo insurance) which can make it easier and less overwhelming to start shipping to the USA. 

Does your company have plans to start shipping to the USA? Are you focused on exporting to other markets instead? What is holding you back from getting started? Let us know your thoughts and any challenges you are currently having in the comments below!


As Chief Product Officer for Shipa Freight, Paul Rehmet is responsible for translating the vision of Shipa Freight into an easy-to-use online freight platform for our customers. Formerly Vice President of Digital Marketing for Agility, Paul managed Agility’s website, mobile apps, content marketing and online advertising campaigns. In his 25-year career, Paul has held various technology leadership positions with early-stage startups and Fortune 500 companies including Unisys, Destiny Web Solutions, and US Airways. Paul has a Masters in Software Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University and a Bachelor of Computer Science from Brown University. Paul is based in Philadelphia.


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