The world of international e-commerce is constantly in motion, and it’s not uncommon for the 190+ countries out there to change their product prohibitions and restrictions on a dime.
As a seller, you probably know there are certain items you shouldn’t be shipping anywhere, like illicit drugs, weapons, or radioactive material. Obvious no-no’s aside, there are several categories of products—some of which may surprise you!—that merchants need to keep a vigilant eye on when trafficking their goods overseas.
In this guide, we’ve outlined five restricted categories that can be a gamble in international trade and the best practices your business can use to ensure your imports make it over the border.
Prohibited vs Restricted: What’s The Difference?
First things first: let’s get granular about the difference between prohibited and restricted items when it comes to international shipping regulations:
Prohibited items – Prohibited items are roundly forbidden to be received by customs authorities in a given nation. There are several reasons for product prohibitions, ranging from environmental hazards to local codes of social decorum. For instance, in Muslim-majority countries like Saudi Arabia, the shipment, storage, and consumption of alcohol is prohibited for religious and cultural reasons.
Restricted items – Restricted items are subject to inspection and approval from Regulatory Compliance authorities before entering circulation in a foreign country. Limitations may be imposed due to safety concerns or even the economic competition they pose for domestically-created commodities. For instance, as one of the world’s top producers of black pepper, India restricted the spice to be imported from abroad.1
If you’re doing business abroad you should know that every country adheres to its own code of international shipping laws and regulations.
What’s more, individual provinces or states within a given country can have their own rules surrounding what can and cannot be imported. In Australia, for instance, alcohol is a federally permissible substance, but it cannot be delivered to territories like Queensland, which regulates alcoholic beverages independently.2
5 Essential Product Restrictions To Know Before You Ship
There are a handful of product restrictions you should absolutely be aware of before you box up any products for delivery.
Given its popularity and potentially damaging effects, it’s not surprising that alcohol is one of the most highly-regulated substances in the world—both in domestic markets and in the world marketplace.
A few major countries that regulate it heavily are:
- And Pakistan.
Not only are adult beverages prohibited or restricted in many countries, but certain items containing substantial or trace amounts of alcohol may also be turned away at the border. These may include:
- Hair sprays,
- And hand sanitizer.
Bear in mind that while alcohol is more tightly regulated around the globe—and subject to much more rigorous inspection by customs authorities—it’s not necessarily barred from sale or consumption in those same places. Certain regions or individuals within a given country may be barred from purchasing alcohol from abroad, but the country itself may have more laissez-faire rules regarding its circulation and consumption.
This variability is why it’s essential to know what country you’re shipping to, who the recipient is, and the most up-to-date legislation on imports so you can avoid getting tied up (or rejected) by customs authorities.
If you’re the type of person who can’t imagine their morning without a piping hot cup of java, it may come as a shock that many countries prohibit or restrict the shipment of coffee or coffee samples in their import codes. A few of these international heavyweights are:
- The Czech Republic,
- And Romania.
The international shipping restrictions around coffee are an excellent example of how mercurial international shipping rules can be. In November 2021, the EU proposed an import crack-down on coffee (as well as other commodities like soy, cacao, and palm oil) in an effort to combat deforestation and climate change.3
While deliberations are still in progress and no legislation has been passed yet, this does illustrate the volatility of global e-commerce and how certain countries in the EU have stricter import codes than their peers.
3. Children’s Toys
You already know that you shouldn’t be shipping illicit firearms overseas, but in many cases, even imitation weapons aren’t permitted for import.
As it turns out, products intended for use by children or young adults receive a high degree of regulation around the world. Common products that may be restricted include:
- Toy guns (e.g., Nerf-style guns),
- Toy knives,
- Foam swords,
- And collectible coins.
In addition to electronics, coins, and toys that resemble weapons, some children’s products are manufactured with noxious chemicals that may be restricted in foreign countries. Lead is one of the most common substances routinely found as a surface coating material in children’s products, and most countries are stringent about admitting products containing high traces of the chemical.4
Moreover, many types of children’s toys, like yo-yo’s, are deemed hazardous for mechanical reasons (e.g., strangulation) and may be subject to more rigorous inspections at border protection.
4. CBD Products
American merchants in the cannabidiol (CBD) business have made a killing since CBD products were federally legalized in 2018. But while CBD products are among the most popular new health, personal care, and lifestyle commodities in the U.S., CBD remains a restricted item in many countries around the world.
While CBD is now considered a legal substance in major countries like Canada, Mexico, and the U.K., shipping protocol can be considerably more restrictive. Some considerations include:
Product formula – Most CBD products outside of the U.S. must present less than .2% THC in their formulas—half of the legal limit within the United States.
Use restrictions – In other countries, CBD is only permitted for purchase under certain circumstances. In Australia, for instance, citizens may only buy and use CBD with the endorsement of a physician’s prescription.5
Beyond the food and drug-related rules of your products’ destination country, carriers and freight forwarders themselves have their own set of rules to abide by for CBD shipments. To ensure your product is compliant with the destination country, you’ll need to provide adequate documentation, licensing, and evidence of certification for it to be eligible for international shipment.
No matter how progressive a particular culture may seem, pornography and other categories of sexually explicit media constitute a globally prohibited product that won’t fly in most countries around the world.6 Lewd materials in the following forms are often subject to restrictions:
- Magazines and pamphlets,
- Video and DVDs,
- And computer software.
Furthermore, the definition of obscenity inevitably varies from country to country. For instance, if you’re in the candle-making business and one of your molds is in the shape of a nude torso, you may receive border clearance in Canada, but you could run into more difficulties shipping to a customer in Singapore. Remember: one customer’s tasteful sexual euphemism may very well be interpreted as a moral affront to someone else.
How To Ensure Your Shipment Makes A Safe Landing
These commodity categories are just the tip of the international shipping restrictions iceberg. There are a host of products that may be a little more difficult—or outright impossible—to ship worldwide, from agricultural products to perishables like caviar.
Even so, there are a few tricks of the (international) trade you can deploy to simplify shipping:
Prepare the necessary paperwork – One of the easiest ways to get tied up at the border is to have your shipment arrive unprepared. There are several customs documents your shipment must exhibit when it arrives at the border, including commercial invoices, certificates of origin, and insurance. Squaring off your paperwork ahead of time will ease the inspection process and avert any hold-ups with customs authorities.
Work with an IOR – IORs, or Importers Of Record, are key players in the world of international commerce. They’re in charge of fielding imports in a foreign country and taking care of the duties, fees, and documentation associated with a given shipment. Not only can they stay abreast of the changes of individual country’s import laws, but they’re also indispensable for resolving any problems with customs clearance.
Streamline overall shipping strategy – Whether you’re selling bedazzled T-shirts or toeing the line with kids’ yo-yo’s, most merchants will inevitably encounter a shipping snafu when breaking into foreign markets. The single best way to ensure your goods make it through customs—and to cushion the expense on occasion they don’t—is to shore up your overall shipping strategy with a trusted partner.
So, who should you call on to ensure your products bypass the customs compliance process?
To Navigate International Product Restrictions Efficiently, Choose Zee
You’ll be at a legal, logistical, and financial advantage by working with Zee. We’re a shipping partner with years of experience in the complex, often unpredictable universe of product restrictions used by today’s major players in the international marketplace. It’s our mission to:
- Stay abreast of all product prohibitions and restrictions in multiple countries around the world,
- Serve as your IOR to receive shipments and ensure they’re all compliant, thus ensuring a smooth passage through customs,
- And tap into our carrier network to make sure your cargo moves expediently to your destination once it’s cleared the border.
Whether you are searching for answers to questions like “How much does international shipping cost for international sellers?” or “What is the difference between GST vs VAT?”, our bread and butter is to support your operation beyond traditional borders. Whatever your bread and butter is (hey, we’re not judging!), you’ll get the most efficient shipping experience when you choose to partner with Zee. We’ll serve as your knowledge base and help streamline the process from A to Zee.
- Directorate General of Foreign Trade. Import, Export and SCOMET Policy, Prohibited Item Details. https://www.dgft.gov.in/b1ba3197-b99b-456a-8a8d-1e0e57939d54
- UPS. UPS International Alcohol Shipping Guide. https://www.ups.com/media/en/international-alcohol-shipping-guide.pdf
- The Washington Post. E.U. seeks to block import of commodities that drive deforestation. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2021/11/17/eu-commodity-imports-deforestation/
- Government of Canada. Industry Guide to Health Canada’s Safety Requirements for Children’s Toys and Related Products. https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/consumer-product-safety/reports-publications/industry-professionals/industry-guide-safety-requirements-children-toys-related-products-summary/guidance-document.html#a4
- Business Matters. What you need to know about shipping CBD internationally. https://bmmagazine.co.uk/business/what-you-need-to-know-about-shipping-cbd-internationally/
- FedEx. Global Prohibited and Restricted Items. https://crossborder.fedex.com/us/assets/prohibited-restricted/