Potential Issues

International shipping can be mysterious to those of us who do it rarely or occasionally. Subject to export and import controls, duties, taxes and regulations of the 196 countries — each different from the others — even professionals run into problems. Fines, payment of unnecessary taxes, confiscation, or incarceration can all result.

It can be costly and time-consuming when it goes wrong:

UMass Lowell was fined $100,000 for shipping an EAR99 atmospheric testing device to Pakistan. This wouldn’t ordinarily be a problem, but the recipient was identified on the Commerce Department’s Entity List as ineligible to receive any items subject to the EAR.

MIT sent two shipments of experimental equipment to Italy on two carnets (which allow temporary import without duty or VAT). All the material was sent back to the US — but on one carnet.  As far as Italian and US Customs are concerned, that means everything shipped on the *other* carnet is still in Italy, and MIT owes $29,924.31 in VAT.

A researcher in Europe sent white phosphorous to an MIT PI as a gift. In addition to being hazardous, it's also used to make methamphetymine and controlled by DEA. It sat in storage, running up storage fees at $200/day because we could neither receive it nor send it back.

MIT returned an instrument to its manufacturer in the Netherlands for repair. Since it wasn't set up as a temporary import, FedEx paid the import VAT (about $3,000) for us, and then sent MIT the bill. 


Everything that crosses the border is an export...

        ...even if it's temporary
        ...even if it wasn't sold
        ...even if it will be used for research

If you're shipping to a destinations outside the US, refer to the Export checklist. Remember — once an international shipment is on the way, it's difficult to fix it if there are problems. Delays, unexpected costs, or worse can result.

MIT is the shipper of record, responsible for shipping correctly and getting the paperwork right. FedEx, UPS, DHL, a freight forwarder may help or offer advice, and they record the shipment in the government's Automated Export System, but if there's a problem, it's MIT's problem, not theirs.

Most items, as well as some software and information, are subject to U.S. export controls. The impact of these controls on a particular shipment depends on the item, the country it's being shipped to, the entity or individual who will receive it, and the use to which it will be put.

There are additional U.S. restrictions on transactions — including but not limited to shipping — with certain countries, entities, and individuals.

Some items are hazardous, and need to be packaged and labeled appropriately:

  • Biologicals
  • Chemicals
  • Batteries and fuel cells
  • Radioactive materials

And bear in mind that every export from the U.S. is an import somewhere else — your shipment will need to go through Customs in the destination country. Some items may be prohibited or require prior authorization. Some items may incur duty or VAT costs.


If you expect to receive a shipment from outside the US: refer to the Import checklist

All incoming shipments are cleared by U.S. Customs, with varying (and unpredictable) levels of scrutiny.

Some items are restricted at the Customs stage:

  • Biological specimens
  • Certain fish and wildlife, and products made from them
  • Fruits, vegetables, plants, seeds, soil
  • Items from Cuba, Iran, Myanmar, and most of Sudan

Some items are restricted at the delivery stage. For instance, some items controlled by the Drug Enforcement Administration can only be delivered appropriately registered with the DEA.

Import duty may be due, based on the item's tariff code and its value. The shipment can be delayed or incur unexpected costs if the paperwork is wrong or incomplete. It can be difficult to fix problems once the shipment is sitting in US Customs.