What online sellers need to know about landed cost

Selling internationally can offer a big opportunity for online sellers to expand their markets or find a niche that doesn’t exist domestically. With the help of technology, new international customers are just a few clicks away.

However, dealing with the logistics and red tape involved in getting goods into another country can be intimidating. International shipping, tariff codes, customs clearance, and import taxes add an additional level of complexity to the process of getting your products to your customer. But the rewards for your business can be great if you can conquer that complexity.

As a seller, part of successful international sales is overcoming any complexity on your end and making sure that buying from you is simple for your customers, no matter where they are located.

Your customers don’t need to know all the steps it takes to get your product to their doorstep. But they do need to know how much they have to pay for it to get there. The total cost it takes to get a product from you to your customer in another country is called the landed cost, and this includes the cost of goods, door-to-door shipping and insurance, as well as all customs duties, import taxes, and fees.

Why the landed cost is important

Getting the landed cost right is crucial for making international selling a success. First of all, if you don’t have a full and accurate accounting of how much it costs you to get your products to your customer, you can’t correctly calculate your profit margins on international transactions. Failing to take certain costs into consideration or miscalculating them can result in transactions where your profit gets wiped out altogether.

And without correct landed costs, you may have a hard time attracting and keeping customers. If the entire cost of your product is not clear, they may not even get as far as checking out. Lack of clarity on the total cost of a sale is a significant driver of online cart abandonment.

And if a customer does buy a product that shows up with unexpected extra costs, your customer could refuse the shipment altogether, meaning you lose a sale, most likely lose a customer for good, and pay both the initial and return shipping costs out of your own pocket.

For the best shopper experience, it’s key that customers understand the estimated total cost of their purchase as early as possible in the shopping process. This allows retailers to give customers upfront transparency and control the customer experience.

The customs process

In order to better understand how landed costs are calculated, it’s important to understand the journey a shipment takes when you send it to a customer abroad.

When you ship an item to a customer domestically, the process is familiar. Chances are you’ll be using a common carrier, such as the United States Postal Service, UPS, or FedEx. You pay shipping based on the weight, size, destination, desired speed, and possibly insurance against anything happening to the shipment, then send it off with the carrier. The carrier delivers it to the customer, and that’s it.

In contrast, when you ship something out of the country, it won’t be allowed to officially enter the destination country until it clears customs, or in other words, the destination country determines that it can legally enter. This often means that items shipped from another country are held when they first enter the country until they’re released for delivery.

At this point, customs officials determine whether the item can be legally admitted and how much, if any, customs duty needs to be paid. Depending on how the item is being shipped, the recipient, seller, or a third party may be responsible for paying any duties, import taxes, or fees.

Customs officials may also charge a processing fee. In some cases, private customs brokers may clear the item through customs on behalf of their clients (sellers, couriers, or recipients, for example), who will be charged fees for that service.

What makes up the landed cost?

Many different expenses can go into total landed costs, but they commonly include shipping costs, duties, import taxes, and customs costs. Getting landed costs right requires correctly calculating each of these elements and adding them up for a true total for each and every shipment.

It’s crucial to remember that one size does not fit all. Every country is different, with its own unique tariff codes, duty rates, import taxes, forms, and procedures. When you’re calculating landed costs, it’s important to research the specifics of your shipping destination.

Shipping costs

There are three main ways to ship items internationally: postal service, courier, or freight.

  • If you use the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), the shipment will originate with USPS, then transfer to the national postal service of the destination country.
  • Courier or express services include door-to-door carriers such as UPS or FedEx.
  • Freight shipping means contracting directly with a shipping company to get your item transported by land, air, or sea.

The carrier that provides your shipping can give you an estimate of the shipping costs to the destination country.


Customs duty is a type of tax, or tariff, imposed on goods when they’re transported from one country to another. Duties make imported goods more expensive, discouraging imports and protecting each country’s domestic industry while also generating revenue for the government.

The duty rate is determined by the Harmonized System code (also known as an HS code, or tariff code) for each product. These 8–12-digit codes are part of the Harmonized System, an internationally standardized system of names and numbers to classify physical goods. While the first six digits of tariff codes are the same for a product regardless of where you’re exporting it, the last characters vary by country. Each tariff code corresponds to its own customs duty rate, so it’s crucial to get the right code for your products in each country for correct duty calculation. Automated solutions like Avalara Item Classification can help you efficiently and confidently assign country-specific tariff codes to your products.

The customs duty rate is typically assessed as a percentage of the value of the product, but can sometimes be assessed based on other factors, such as weight, number of units, or other item-specific criteria.

Keep in mind that the duty rate can be assessed on the total value of the shipment, including shipping costs. Make sure you know what the policy is in the import country so you determine the correct amount.

Each country typically has a minimum value below which duties are not assessed, called the de minimis value. If your shipment’s value is below this threshold, customs duty may not apply. This threshold amount varies wildly. For example the de minimis in the United States is $800 US (with certain exceptions), but in Canada, it’s $20 CAD, one of the lowest in the world. Therefore, a retail shipment from France valued at $500 and shipped to an end customer in the U.S. may not be subject to customs duty, but would be if the end customer was in Canada.

Customs costs

Beyond duty taxes, you may be charged additional customs fees. These may be processing fees charged by customs officials or fees for private customs broker services.

VAT and other taxes

On top of customs duty, countries may also assess other value-added or sales taxes on international sales. One example is the value-added tax (VAT) often charged when a consumer buys a product in the European Union.

Common international commerce pitfalls

Selling internationally is complicated and businesses starting out may not even know what they don’t know. Here are some common mistakes to avoid.

  • Don’t assume customs authorities only pay attention to big box retailers. In recent years, the volume of smaller, international ecommerce packages has risen and governments are taking note. With new technologies and government modernization efforts, authorities are able to target and monitor enforcement activity, which may lead to an increase in import audits for businesses of all sizes.
  • Misrepresenting the value or contents of your shipments (for example, misdeclaring a shipment as a “gift” or “sample”) in order to avoid duties and taxes is illegal. If you’re caught, you can be slapped with fines and penalties, seizure of merchandise, or even revocation of import/export privileges.
  • Some types of items may not be legal to send to certain countries, or extra taxes and fees may make them cost-prohibitive. For example, shipping a car to Singapore can result in tens of thousands of dollars in duties, special fees, and import tax — sometimes as much as or more than the car itself.
  • Keep in mind that duty and tax rates can and do change often. You need to stay up to date on the correct rates to avoid possible serious miscalculations in landed cost.
  • Make sure you keep good records. International shipping can generate a lot of paperwork and it’s important for you to be able to find that information. Misplacing import and export paperwork can lead to significant delays in processing shipments, and in the event of a customs audit, having full supporting documentation will lead to an easier and less costly audit process.
  • Businesses often choose to pass the burden of customs duty and import tax issues to transportation or fulfillment providers. However, if that provider gets the rates wrong, it’s still your or your customer’s responsibility and that’s who’ll be liable for the consequences of any mistakes.

Solution for online sellers

Many businesses don’t have the expertise or resources necessary for researching correct tariff codes and duty rates for each individual international sale. But automation can help. Avalara’s Cross-Border solution enables businesses to offload the manual and error-prone tasks required for selling and shipping products internationally. Avalara Item Classification helps sellers maintain compliance more efficiently by mapping HS codes to products for multiple countries.

Armed with country-specific tariff codes, the AvaTax Cross-Border tax engine calculates the customs duty and import taxes for any country you ship to in real time. The software integrates seamlessly into your shopping cart software and is constantly updated, so you can be confident you’re getting the right rates no matter where you’re selling.

Get the information you need to stay compliant — from item classification to duties calculation — and reduce your risk of penalties, fees, and unhappy customers.  Download our free ebook: Selling Cross-Border For Dummies.

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