Navigating Customs Procedures: How to Transport Samples to Potential Buyers

Transporting sample products to potential customers overseas can be a challenge, regardless of which market you are shipping or travelling to.  If your company has experienced difficulty in clearing samples through foreign customs, check out the information below for information and quick tips on getting your products in front of future buyers.

Several shipping documents are required in order to bring products to international markets, regardless of whether the product will be commercially sold.  A Commercial Invoice (CI) is required to move all products through customs, even samples.  A Certificate of Origin may also be required depending on the country to which you are travelling or shipping. 

It is essential to accurately describe your sample products on required documents (i.e. Commercial Invoice) in order to clear customs.  A description should answer the following questions where applicable:

  • What is the item?
  • How many items?
  • What is the item made from?
  • What is the intended use of the item?

For example, instead of listing “sample” as the item description on your CI, fill in the form with “2 x 2 foot nylon carpet samples for demonstration at trade show.”

When declaring a good’s value, list the item’s value per unit and in total.  A CI does not state that the item will be sold; instead it indicates the market value of the goods so that tariffs can be assessed if necessary.  Each country will assess tariffs according to their individual standards – for example, some countries will assess tariffs only if the value of the goods exceeds a set dollar value.  In many countries, tariffs can be refunded when the samples leave the country.

Check with the embassy of the country to which you are travelling in order to see if there are any additional restrictions or paperwork that you must complete prior to shipping/bringing samples.  For example, the China Customs Bureau requires that you add an Importer/Exporter Customs Registration Code on shipping documents. 

Below are some tips for getting samples through foreign customs in a timely manner:

  • Make sure you fill out the correct documents – you may need export papers from the country you are leaving and will need import papers for the country you are entering.
  • Make copies of all of your documents in triplicate and carry them with you.
  • Split your samples up, if possible.  Place several in your checked baggage, a few in your carry-on, and ship several ahead of you.  This ensures that you will have backup samples for important meetings even if luggage is lost or shipments are delayed.
  • Declare your samples.  The price of not declaring them (having samples confiscated or being detained) is not worth the risk.
  • When listing a declared value on CI’s and customs forms, list a reasonable amount (not $0) so as not to draw additional scrutiny from customs officials.
  • Consider obtaining an ATA Carnet.  An ATA Carnet is a “merchandise passport” that is recognized in 80 countries.  ATA Carnets can eliminate duties and taxes, simplify customs procedures, and facilitate reentry into the U.S.  To read more about the benefits of obtaining an ATA Carnet, visit

For more information, talk to your local VEDP Trade Manager and check out these links: