10 tips for shipping internationally

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Are you keen to expand into more markets, reach new audiences and grow your profits?

Exploring your overseas opportunities and enabling international shipping could be the answer.

The problem is, with this process comes many additional rules and regulations to abide by, not to mention the potential issues of scaling your order management processes globally.

So, how does international shipping work? How much does it cost? And what’s the best way to approach shipping internationally for small businesses?

In this article, we outline our ten top tips for shipping internationally including how to keep your costs down, provide a smooth experience for your global customers and keep your order fulfillment under control.

1. Determine the international demand for your products

Before launching a site-wide campaign targeted to international customers, do your research to determine if there’s actually demand for your products abroad. If you already have requests from customers around the world to start shipping to them, then this gives you a clear indication of which countries to expand into. However, if you don’t have international customers knocking on your door, then you will need a well-thought-out strategy for entering new markets around the world.

Start by looking into what is currently being offered in countries you want to ship to, and if there are any similar products being sold already. And don’t forget to take note of your key competitors in each country. You might be able to offer one country something entirely unique, but join a sea of competitors in another territory.

Once you’ve judged the demand for your products in certain countries, it’s be a good idea to test the waters by selling via a native marketplace. What’s more, this would be a great way to begin growing your international audience, just as you’ve done with your national audience. This takes time, so don’t rush. Make sure you have a strong strategy in place before promoting international shipping throughout your online business. Remember that international customers will shop slightly differently and likely use different marketplaces to Amazon or eBay.

Here are a few of the largest international marketplaces to be aware of and to potentially test out your product offering:

2. Keep your international shipping costs low

It’s really important that you have a good understanding of the costs involved when offering your customers international shipping, and how to keep them down.

Here’s a few ways to reduce your shipping costs:

Firstly, don’t be afraid to negotiate with shipping couriers. They will adjust their rates based on your annual shipping volume, meaning the more you ship, the lower your rate will be. Do your research and shop around for the best courier for your needs. Of course, different couriers ship to different locations, so you will need to find one that ships to your international destinations and at a low cost.

Be aware:

Depending on which courier you use, you may be charged for unexpected fees, such as Saturday delivery, fuel surcharges and delivery signatures. Make sure you discuss these costs in advance with the courier company. Remember that some of these features may be important to your customer base but you don’t want to end up paying for something that isn’t important to them.

Another way to minimize international shipping costs is to go elsewhere for your shipping insurance. Most couriers charge more for shipping insurance than third-party companies, so it’s worth looking around to find the best deal. The savings here might not be huge, but they will definitely add up, especially if you ship high-ticket items.

What’s more, you’ll certainly save time and money by using order management software to show automatic shipping updates, bulk print shipping labels, invoices, picking lists and packing slips.

That’s not all though.

You can also use this software to compare available shipping services from a range of international couriers, meaning you can ensure you’re using the cheapest courier service for every order and help you cut back on costs.

On top of this, it’s important to note that most shipping couriers charge based on the size, weight and destination of your parcel.

So, make sure you’re always using the lightest and smallest packaging for your shipment e.g. don’t use a large box if a bubble mailer will do.

Speaking of shipping supplies, you can seek out a discount here too.

Depending on the shipping method you go with, you can often get your hands on free shipping supplies from some of the larger couriers.

Alternatively, you can find discounted rates when buying in bulk online.

3. Choose the right international shipping strategy

Choosing the right international shipping strategy for your business is essential for providing your customers with what they want while remaining as cost-effective as possible. There’s no one-size-fits-all here.

Your shipping strategy will need to depend on your audience, budget, margins, product and a variety of other factors. If you’re new to international shipping, you may find it easier to use an experienced fulfillment partner when breaking into new territories, as they can help you navigate different regulations. With that said, before you can decide which shipping strategy you’re going to use, it’s important you have a good understanding of the key elements involved in the process.

There are three main considerations you should take into account…

  • The size and weight of your products
  • The shipping destinations
  • Your specific shipping needs i.e. what is the best shipping service for your business?

Let’s explore these a little further:

The majority of major shipping couriers use a pricing technique called dimensional (DIM) weight to calculate their shipping costs. What this means is the size of the package, as well as its weight, is taken into account.

Courier services will then charge shipping costs based on whichever is greater: the weight of the package or its DIM weight. As well as the size and weight of your products, when looking for a shipping courier, you need to keep in mind that rates can vary significantly for different countries.

And lastly, make sure you manage your shipping options so you can delight your customers while keeping your costs in check. This might mean looking beyond the big-name couriers to find a service that meets your current needs best. Not only that, but in large cities you’ll often find a local courier will be able to deliver your products more quickly and at better rates than the bigger companies can.

So, now we’ve laid the groundwork, let’s explore your international eCommerce shipping options:

  • Free shipping
  • Flat rate and table rate shipping
  • Live rates from a courier
  • Mixed and alternative strategies

1. Free shipping

Offering free shipping is a great way to meet customer expectation and improve your cart abandonment rate.

Of course, free shipping is not free for your business. You will have to pay the courier fees while still making sure you’re turning a profit.

Keep in mind that free shipping can cause serious damage to your bottom line if not used with caution.

Therefore, the most effective approach to free shipping would be to only offer it for orders where you know you’re making enough money to cover shipping costs and not impact your profits.

So, if you want to offer your customers the benefit of free shipping, we’d recommend setting a subtotal threshold that makes logical sense for your business, and perhaps exclude certain products that are going to cost considerably more to ship.

2. Flat rate and table rate shipping

Offering a fixed rate when it comes to shipping could be a great alternative to free shipping, as your customers know they’re not going to get any nasty surprises at the checkout.

Flat rate shipping is when you set a single amount for all your orders, for example £5 shipping regardless of the order value.

Table rate shipping gives a bit more flexibility.

This refers to shipping costs that are based on certain brackets, such as location, distance from fulfillment center and subtotal e.g. £2.99 for orders up to £50, £5.99 for orders up to £100 and free shipping for orders over £100.

3. Live rates from a courier

Getting live rates in real-time directly from a courier may be the most reliable way to ensure you’re offering fair and affordable shipping prices to your customers.

While it’s harder to use this approach as a promotional tool, offering live rates ensures that your customers are getting the cheapest shipping option available, as they are being charged exactly what you’ll be charged by the courier.

You can also make changes to these rates to suit your business needs, such as applying a surcharge to help cover your additional costs, like packaging, or a discounted rate to undercut your competitors.

4. Mixed and alternative strategies

Combining the previous three shipping strategies could also prove beneficial in balancing your bottom line and promotional opportunities.

Try thinking outside the box in order to take full advantage of your international shipping options.

Moreover, you could offer a range of shipping options in order to suit the various needs of your customer base.

For example, free standard shipping (5-10 working day delivery) alongside table rate or live rate shipping options for those who want their items delivered sooner and are happy paying for it.

4. Abide by country-specific rules and regulations

When shipping internationally, you need to have a good understanding of the rules and regulations of the countries you want to ship to. If you’re not careful, you may end up breaking the law.

So, how do you decide if your products are suitable for international shipping?

Ask yourself: Are your products suitable for travelling long distances? And if they are fragile, are you prepared to go the extra mile to make sure they are protected in transit?

What’s more, shipping perishable goods or large items overseas could prove difficult. Do you have the order management processes in place and the know-how to execute this properly?

If your answer is no, you may want to spend a little bit more time planning before expanding your business globally, as committing too soon could end up with bad customer reviews that leave you with a damaged reputation.

And that’s not all.

Once you have decided to go ahead, you need to make sure you take the following shipping restrictions into account before you begin strategizing your international shipment methods. You will need to have the ability to enable restrictions for products based on the origin or destination of shipment, as you may find that some of your products are legally restricted from being imported or exported from certain countries.

The following items are all restricted from international shipping:

  • Aerosols
  • Air Bags
  • Alcoholic Beverages
  • Ammunition
  • Cigarettes
  • Dry Ice
  • Explosives
  • Fresh Fruits and Vegetables
  • Gasoline
  • Nail Polish
  • Perfumes (containing alcohol)
  • Poison

And, of course, customs always has the final say and the right to stop the shipment of any package at any time if they suspect the items to be more valuable than you claim.

Therefore, never misrepresent or under-declare the value of your shipments or you could find your parcels confiscated or delayed as a result.

5. Protect fragile parcels during international shipment

If you plan on sending fragile items around the world, it’s crucial you take the steps to protect them from getting damaged or broken during transit.

The key is in the packaging.

You will need to make sure you select a suitably sized box for the job. Ideally, it should be big enough to hold your items but still with enough room for protective materials.

A general rule of thumb:

You want to allow around 2” on all sides for extra packaging. Any more than this and you run the risk of your items moving around too much in the box.

What’s more, it’s best to use a brand new box, as used boxes could be weaker and therefore more likely to give way.

If possible, choose a double-walled corrugated box, especially if your items are heavier, as these are the strongest variety.

When it comes to packaging, there are a few dos and don’ts.

Do use:

  • Bubble wrap for protecting individual items and then bunch together with wrap to prevent them from colliding in the box.
  • Kraft paper to fill empty spaces like items with an opening in them.
  • Styrofoam wedges for protecting large flat items with corners.
  • Corrugated liners to help improve the structure of the box.

Don’t use:

  • Newspaper as the print could run and transfer onto your products, especially if the box gets wet.
  • Air bags as these could pop and take up a lot of unnecessary space in the box.
  • Polystyrene ‘peanuts’ as these don’t offer much protection in general.

In addition, take care not to overfill your box with too many protective materials, as this could have the opposite effect (either bursting or crushing the items or making it difficult for the recipient to unpack safely).

Furthermore, it’s important to seal your box properly in order to keep it secure and the contents inside protected.

You need to use a tape that is strong, robust and at least 2 inches wide, such as pressure-sensitive plastic tape, nylon-reinforced filament tape or vinyl tape.

Now for shipping labels:

Remove any old labels that could cause confusion to the couriers and print off the address label in accordance with the format of the recipient’s country. Using an order and inventory management system here will help you to speed up this process and ensure the labels you’re using are accurate.

Moreover, shipping labels should not be placed across a seam in the box, in case the package needs to be opened for any reason during transit.

Make sure you also include a return address and contact details outside as well as inside the box, in the event that your goods are broken and need to be sent back at any point during transit.

Lastly, be sure to label your box as ‘FRAGILE’ as this could encourage the courier to handle your package with extra care.

6. Provide a commercial invoice where necessary

A commercial invoice is a document that contains all the relevant information about the goods you are shipping, and is also used to create a customs declaration.

It is not usually required for sending to EU countries, however there are some exceptions, such as special territories like San Marino and Gibraltar, so make sure you check this beforehand. In comparison, all non-EU countries will need a commercial invoice to be completed.

What’s it for, though?

There are a few reasons you are required to provide a commercial invoice for the international shipment of goods:

  • Incorrect information can lead to delays, so it helps to prevent hold ups if accurate details can be presented via the invoice.
  • It ensures the right taxes and duties are paid for your items.
  • It is a legal requirement.

So, how do you complete a commercial invoice correctly?

You can find downloadable templates online, or you can simply make your own, either way you will need to include the following information:

  • Your address
  • The recipient’s address
  • Tariff code
  • Description of the goods
  • Reason for export
  • Value of goods (in the relevant currency)
  • Delivery times
  • VAT and EORI numbers (can be found at your local HMRC office and are used to identify you to customs as an international trader)
  • Your signature

As an international seller, it’s essential you meet these commercial invoice requirements in order to avoid costly delays during transit and run a successful online business overseas.

7. Streamline your international shipping processes

Taking your business international means additional processes to get your head around.

For example:

There are plenty of new fees to be aware of and information to provide such as valid and accurate contact and address details for your customers. What’s more, increased data entry means increased risk of manual error, which can lead to all sorts of complications further down the shipment line. This is where shipping management software comes in.

With the ability to automate shipping processes, such software can eliminate input errors by allowing you to automatically import orders from your various marketplaces.

And, by integrating your international shipping couriers with all your selling channels, you can manage your entire order fulfilment process from start to finish, from one location.

Furthermore, shipping management software allows sellers to secure the cheapest rates by comparing quotes from a range of international couriers for each order, meaning you can purchase discounted postage and accurately and automatically print labels too.

In addition to this, you can quickly locate orders and track international shipments from a single, centralized dashboard, helping to streamline your fulfillment operations.

Having easy access to all this information means any issues with customs can be handled smoothly, making for a more predictable international shipping experience for both you as the seller and the customer.

That’s not all though.

Shipping management software can help you to avoid being suspended from marketplaces such as Amazon and eBay, by reducing the risk of late dispatches.

And with automatic shipping updates and bulk printing of relevant shipping labels and documents, you can ensure fast order fulfillment every time.

If that wasn’t enough, you can also save valuable time by creating bespoke shipping rules within your shipping management system.

These include automatic allocation of courier services based on specific conditions, such as weight, dimensions, order value, channel, destination and more, as well as the ability to assign orders to locations, like fulfillment centers or dropshippers.

Overall, order management software is reliable way of streamlining your shipping processes, which is particularly important if you want to expand your business globally as you need the infrastructure in place to succeed.

8. Use translation services when entering a new market

Shipping internationally to new countries around the world doesn’t just mean new rules and regulations to abide by, it also presents many new cultures.

Understanding the cultural details of each country you expand into is essential for a smooth, hassle-free international shipment of your products.

However, language barriers and a lack of cultural knowledge can cause bumps in the road.

Using a native translation service means this can be taken care of. while you focus on expanding your business into international markets.

These native services work with international transport and freight companies, as well as a number of ports, docks and railways to provide shipping translations of paperwork, records, phone calls, returns and refund documentation.

By employing a native translation service, you can feel confident that there will be no language confusion during transit that could lead to shipping delays.

What’s more, you’re not just benefiting from a direct translation, but a multi-layered service that means several highly experienced and qualified linguists in your chosen language are checking your documents for errors – both grammatical and cultural.

This way, the tone, inference and expression can be conveyed in the way you intended and one that specifically matches your brand.

Often, a shipping translation service will go through four stages of checks and edits from multiple linguists, to ensure high quality and complete accuracy.

9. Choose the right international shipping service 

When choosing the right international shipping service for your business, there are a couple of important factors to take into account.

For example: 

  • Shipping costs
  • Tracking services
  • Delivery times
  • Pricing guarantees

Before opening your gate to the world, you should take the time to find the service that meets your needs as the merchant, but also the expectations of your customers.

Ask yourself: What is important to them?

Good shipping options could be the difference between securing the sale and your customers going elsewhere, so it pays to get it right.

You may prefer to have the backing and reliability of a big shipment company, such as Hermes, Royal Mail or DPD, as these companies have years of experience in shipping all over the world.

Prices are often higher with larger couriers, but you can always try to negotiate with them.

What’s great about large international couriers, however, is the fact that they offer a high level of shipping services, such as door-to-door tracking and pricing guarantees.

Alternatively, you could explore smaller international shipping companies, as these may be able to meet your specific needs better and at a more competitive price.

With the help of modern order fulfillment software, you’ll be able to compare prices from a wide range of shipping couriers to determine the best value for your individual orders.

Another slightly more expensive option is to use an international freight forwarding service.

This is where you send your packages to an international freight forwarder’s postal hub and they take care of the shipment thereafter, including all the preparation and processing involved at customs and other shipping documentation.

Another advantage of using a freight forwarder is that you’d only need to deal with one person, and many are experts in import and export which can be extremely helpful when trying to navigate a new country.

Not only this, but most also have great local connections and the ability to negotiate on shipping, haulage and warehousing costs on your behalf.

However, a freight forwarder could increase your overall costs and also mean that you don’t have so much control over the details of your shipment.

Also, not all forwarders cover every international market, so make sure to check their credentials first before going ahead with this service.

While this option could solve a lot of headaches and make breaking into the global market easier, it’s only really suited to sellers with a large shipping budget, as you have to factor in all the additional services provided to sellers.

10. Know the correct shipping terminology

Our final top tip is to have a good grasp of shipping terminology.

Regardless of which international shipping service you choose, it always helps to know some of the basic terminology so you can always ensure coherent conversations with couriers and everyone involved with your shipment.

What’s more, having this knowledge helps you to have more control over the shipment process as a whole and to avoid unwanted surprises both for you, and your new global customers.

  • Harmonized tariff code – This is a code given to each of your products which indicates a description of the item and it is required when completing your commercial invoice document.
  • Commercial invoice – A customs document that contains all the relevant information about your products, which is used when calculating the duties and taxes for your package.
  • Certificate of origin – An official document that authenticates the country of origin for your shipment.
  • Export declaration – A form that provides information on amount, nature and value of your items, that is presented during customs and serves as an export control document.
  • Duties and taxes – Charges imposed by the country importing your shipment.

Furthermore, duties and taxes are calculated based on product value, trade agreements, country of manufacture, use of the product and the product’s harmonized system code.

It’s up to you as the merchant whether you want to cover these fees (delivery duty paid) or if you charge them to your customers (delivery duty unpaid).

If you want your customers to pay for any duties and taxes, just make sure they are fully aware to expect these additional charges once they have received their package.

Ready to start shipping internationally?

Ecommerce sales growth worldwide is poised to increase by 8.9% in 2023 after increasing by 6.5% in 2022, according to Insider Intelligence. This growth trend will continue in 2024 to 9.4%.

With so many new countries to sell to, the potential for business growth could be endless. But, jump too soon and without a fully developed international shipping strategy and order management process in place, and you could fall flat on your face.

We hope these tips have helped you gain a better understanding of what it takes to expand your online business abroad, and the steps you should follow to achieve a successful international shipping experience for you and your customers.