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Starting your own import-export business can be fun, exciting… and even lucrative.

Your job is simple – shop for the kind of goods that people want, buy them, and then sell them for a profit.

Most world travelers know that when you’re shopping in The States, prices on imported goods can be marked up by as much as 800%. That leather cushion that sells for $100 or more on the shelves of Pier One, Pottery Barn, and other large chain stores, is the same one you can find in Morocco for twenty bucks…

Somewhere, somebody is making a huge profit. And if you cut out the middlemen, that person could be you.

Starting an Import-Export Business: How to Find the Right Product

Choosing the right product is one of the biggest keys to success in the import-export business. Even if you already have an idea of what you want to sell, it’s still best to keep an open mind. Plan B could make the difference between a hobby that merely funds your travels and a highly profitable business.

Doing your homework is imperative. First, make sure that, by law, you can easily import or export a product. Each country has its own list of restricted products. For example, in Thailand, it’s illegal to export antique Buddha images. And in China, each U.S. citizen is allowed only one knock-off purse or watch, no furs, and no ivory (unless it comes with papers proving that it’s at least 100 years old).

Choose a product that you already know a little about or something you’re interested in learning about. And consider, too, that you’ll want to pick products for which there’s a market back home.

Starting an Import-Export Business: How and Where to Sell the Product

  • Magazines: If you specialize in imported goods from one country in particular, you can see if there are any publications that cater to people from that country or those interested in that country. For example, the US-published German Life magazine is full of ads for German goods.

  • Markets: Thousands of communities across North America have cultural, musical, or other events where you can rent a booth to exhibit and sell your wares. Most visitors shop those markets for goods that are unique and/or one-of-a-kind.

    Take note of the price of the booth and whether or not the festival charges commission. Then, decide if you’ll have a large enough profit from sales to invest.

    You can find fairs, festivals, and other events (for a fee) on the website

  • Stores: If you’d like to sell to smaller, independent boutiques, you could simply pop in and introduce yourself to the owner. Explain your travel schedule and what you’re doing – or plan to do. Would the owner be interested in seeing samples when you return home?

    However, if it’s a large city department store you’re targeting, it may be more appropriate to initially write to the decision-maker in the buying department after you’ve been on a buying trip. Ask for a meeting – tell them who you are, and the kinds of product you can supply, and arrange a meeting to show your wares.

  • The Internet: If you want to reach a national audience, even an international audience, you cannot afford to ignore the Internet. Consider putting up your own home page. These days, it’s gotten easier and easier to do this with customizable templates.

Mountains of opportunities exist on sites like eBay. Billions of dollars of goods are sold on eBay every year.

Starting an Import-Export Business: How to Promote Your Product

Once you’re back home with your carefully selected wares (woven blankets, silk scarves, paper lamps, necklaces, etc.), you’ll want to come up with some descriptions that make your product irresistible. You’ll need these for your website, for brochures, perhaps for “description cards” that might sit in a display case next to your items.

Tell a story. That’s the secret to making these descriptions strong and effective. Don’t merely describe the features of the thing — what it’s made of. But tell your reader about the history of the item. Tell what it’s used for in the culture or who it’s made by. Share the story of the artisan you bought it from. You can write up a little card and include it in the package or on the tag.

Whatever you do, don’t lie about the history, origin, or use of the thing you’re selling. Take the time to do some research and find out more about it if you didn’t gather enough information while you were on your trip. This story you weave about your product will help to distinguish it from others, make it unique, and make it more attractive to the buyer.

Starting an Import-Export Business: Customs and Regulations

As an importer, you will have to deal with Customs regularly. It’s worth taking a little time to get to know why they are there… and more importantly, how to work with them.

We can’t overstate the importance of following the correct procedure when you import goods. When you consider the amount of traffic that US Customs handles, it’s hardly surprising that bad paperwork delays consignments.

You can keep up with any changes to procedure by regularly checking the U.S. Customs website at

Another thing to be aware of before you tote a suitcase of products home to sell, is something U.S. Customs calls “reasonable care.” What this means to them is that any importer coming back into the United States must take “reasonable care” to properly fill out the necessary paperwork.

You can find a handy “reasonable care” checklist on the U.S. Customs website by going to and typing “reasonable care checklist” into the “search” field.

Starting an Import-Export Business: Programs for the Beginning Importer

Starting an Import-Export Business: More Resources

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Starting an Import-Export Business: Outside Resources

[Editor’s Note: Learn more about opportunities to profit from your travels (and even from your own home) in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel.]