If you’re looking to grow your ecommerce business, expanding beyond your borders could be a great next step—but that means you need to figure out how to ship internationally.
To do ecommerce international shipping right, you’ll need a strategy that works for you and your business. You don’t have to know everything about shipping, but you do have to understand the available options and find an approach that will fulfill your shipping needs in the long run.
There are a lot of reasons you might not be shipping internationally right now. Maybe you’re just considering it for the first time. Maybe you looked into shipping overseas and decided it’s too much of a hassle. You may have even tried international shipping services, then given up after one or two bad experiences.
In any case, here’ s what you need to know to make better ecommerce shipping decisions and expand your business on your terms.
Table of contents
What is international shipping?
International shipping is the transport of goods across foreign borders. It plays a pivotal role in connecting global economies and facilitating sales to customers outside of the country where you operate your business. International shipping has a few key differences from domestic shipping, mainly regarding costs and documentation.
International shipping is typically more expensive than domestic shipping, as the package has a longer distance to travel, often including multiple modes of transport spanning air, land, and sea. Additionally, international shipping often requires import taxes and duties owed to the destination country. As far as documentation goes, international shipments require customs forms—domestic shipments do not.
Ecommerce international shipping also typically takes longer than domestic shipments.
Why offer international shipping?
Selling beyond your borders can be an important growth area for your business, even if you only ship some products internationally, so it’s worth tackling the logistics head-on. Consider these figures:
- According to Oberlo, one out of every three people you see is an online shopper.
- Statista reports that retail ecommerce sales is going to grow from $5.2 trillion in 2021 to $8.1 trillion by 2026.
- Statista has the average order value of an international sale at $121—$9 more than the average domestic sale.
These figures show that online shoppers around the globe have come to expect international shipping, and ecommerce businesses are increasingly meeting that expectation. Shipping internationally creates an opportunity for stores like yours to sell to a larger audience.
The Shopify guide to shipping and fulfillment
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How to build an international shipping strategy
- Where and what you’ll ship
- Get familiar with country rules and regulations
- Be transparent about fees
While it’s difficult to create a definitive list of best practices for every business, there are a few central decisions you’ll need to consider for your ecommerce international shipping strategy.
Where and what you’ll ship
You’ll first need to identify which countries and regions you’ll ship to, and which products you’ll ship.
Unsure which markets you should expand to first? Here are a few indicators that can help narrow it down.
- Start small and close. By keeping the final destination of your shipments close to home—say, Mexico for a San Diego–based merchant—you can set realistic recipient expectations regarding delivery times and rates. Starting small and close also allows you to get a feel for what it takes to expand your shipments.
- Track current demand. Check out your shop’s traffic analytics and see which markets or countries are already visiting your online store. You can also gauge interest by direct consumer requests to sell to their market. Repeat visits or high traffic could show interest in your products or offerings.
- Consider the languages of any market for expansion. Communication is essential when dealing with customers. If you’re fluent in a few languages, consider expanding into the countries that speak those languages first. If you only speak one language, find other countries or markets where that language is prominent.
- Ensure there’s product-market fit for your target country. Are there markets around the world that you feel suit your business better than others? Some research may be required here. Checking into ecommerce penetration could be a good first step (explore that data here). Dig into the consumer trends and tastes of those markets. An item that’s a celebratory gift in the U.S. may mean something different in South Korea, for example.
You’ll now need to consider what to ship. You may want to offer your entire product line. However, before you start delivering all over the world, think about these aspects of your products and your business.
- Building on the points above, are there items that would appeal to the international market(s) you’re looking to ship to?
- Lightweight and smaller items will be easier to package and more cost-effective to ship.
- The more durable the packaging, the better. Shipping fragile products that can be damaged in transit if not packaged properly may increase the chances of a less-than-satisfactory delivery. If you decide to ship them, invest in sturdy product packaging.
Get familiar with country rules and regulations
Once you have an idea of which regions offer the most immediate opportunities and which products you’ll be sending, it’s time to check into country-based rules and regulations.
Some countries prohibit items outright; others may limit them. Being informed of the rules and regulations that exist and which may impact your shipments can help ensure a smooth delivery.
There are a few ways you can access this information:
- UPS has a tool that shows country-specific rules and regulations by origin and destination countries.
- Check and see if your products are eligible to be imported into a given destination country. For example, a shipment of artwork from the U.S. to Saudi Arabia is prohibited.
- Check and see if any of your products—or components of your products—are listed as “dangerous goods” while being shipped. In general, a dangerous good is defined as a product that may cause harm during transit. The best place for this info would be a country’s government website. Canada and the UK provide great examples.
- When in doubt, contact the local import or customs office at your prospective destination for additional information about shipping your products.
Be transparent about fees
This might be the most important part of any ecommerce international shipping strategy: Be as transparent and communicative as possible with your customers about delivery costs. Don’t surprise your customers with an unexpected total cost at checkout.
According to the Baymard Institute, nearly 50% of the cart abandonment they surveyed on ecommerce sites in 2022 was due, in part, to extra shipping fees and costs:
Our own research studies how customer trust develops during the purchase journey of shoppers who buy from a new online store. The study reveals that when shipping internationally, a shipping policy that clearly states who pays duties and taxes is a must-have to build trust and win a sale with a new shopper.
One place you can communicate these costs is on your policy pages. Clearly lay out how and where you ship products internationally, and what costs may be associated.
You can also do something as simple as adding flags to your top navigation to show your shipping availability. Letting your customers know where you deliver to doesn’t have to just be about costs. A tool like the Free Shipping & Hello Bar can help you promote your shipping and rates to a global audience.
It’s best to use all options available to communicate shipping costs—or potential costs—to a customer, whether it’s on your homepage, product page, or policy page. It’ll set expectations for you both, which can help give the customer added confidence to complete their purchase.
What to charge for international shipping
There are four key components for determining the costs of international delivery. All four contribute to how effectively you’ll ship around the world.
- Cost of shipping
- Handling charges
- Duties and taxes
Before you ship anything, you’ll need to get packaging supplies. You may need a few box sizes to accommodate different-sized shipments. You might also need cushioning, like bubble wrap or stuffing. You can get your packaging both online and at post offices or office supply stores.
In general, it’s best to keep your packaging sturdy but simple. No recipient wants to deal with three boxes of varying sizes when getting a single product from your business.
Working the cost of packaging into your total product cost should be pretty straightforward. Depending on the size and quality, most packaging should cost somewhere around $1 to $5 each.
2. Cost of shipping
Building the cost of shipping into your pricing approach is an essential part of correctly setting your prices. You don’t want to lose money on shipping or overcharge your customers. To make sure your approach works, think through these steps:
Consider and compare
Do you ship a lot of similarly sized products? Or maybe a few sizes or weights of packages? This difference, naturally, affects how you’d price a shipment.
Here's one way to find the costs of shipping internationally:
- Using a rate calculator for the carriers you’ll use, take your average domestic order and price it out as if you were shipping internationally.
- Then use the rate calculator for your smallest domestic sale.
- Now run the costs for your largest domestic sale.
With these three figures in place, you’ll have a sense of pricing for ecommerce international shipping. It’ll also help you determine which shipments may cost more than others.
If you’re in the U.S., use our shipping calculator to see how much it will cost to ship internationally with Shopify.
For reference, here’s a list of shipping calculators for some major carriers.
Here are two examples of this approach:
- Smallest domestic sale cost $5.33 to ship internationally
- Average domestic sale cost $15.47 to ship internationally
- Largest domestic sale cost $124.55 to ship internationally
- Smallest domestic sale cost $1.33 to ship internationally
- Average domestic sale cost $2.75 to ship internationally
- Largest domestic sale cost $3.25 to ship internationally
Merchant A has a broader range of shipping costs to cover, and Merchant B’s range is relatively narrow. Merchant A may be selling heavier and more varied products, while Merchant B’s offerings seem more consistent in size and cost.
Once you’ve determined your range, you’ll need a pricing structure that’s a good fit for you and your customers.
Structure your pricing
There are three main pricing structures when delivering around the world: Free shipping, carrier rate shipping, and flat rate shipping.
- Free shipping: Free shipping is an excellent option for customers. If your profit margins allow for international orders to be shipped for free, consider offering it. If you’re not sure, check out this post on calculating order thresholds for free shipping.
- Carrier rate shipping: Shopify already integrates with a few carriers (like USPS, DHL Express, and UPS in the US, Canada Post in Canada, and Sendle in Australia) and gives customers shipping options and real-time pricing. Carrier calculated shipping can be very friendly, since it allows your customer to choose and does the math for you. Plus, your customer will be charged the same rate it will cost you to ship their order with Shopify Shipping.
- Flat rate shipping: If your international shipping is consistent, in both the size/weight of your packaging as well as the cost of shipping (like Merchant B above), it may be worthwhile to consider flat or manual rate shipping.
3. Handling charges
Along with the cost of your packaging and materials, consider adding a handling charge.
International shipments pass through many more additional facilities than the typical domestic order. You should be packaging these shipments with more care, and that’s included in your handling. To determine your handling charges, ask yourself:
- What’s your minimum hourly wage when preparing and packing shipments?
- How long does it take you, on average, to prepare an order for shipment (from reviewing the order to sending it out)?
Now you can determine your handling costs. Here’s an example:
It usually takes 10 minutes to prepare an order for shipment. And at $11 per hour to prepare these packages, you would add a $1.83 handling charge to cover the cost.
(10 minutes / 60 minutes) x $11 = $1.83 handling cost
Again, adding in a handling cost is entirely up to you, and you need to do what’s best for your business. Keep in mind that international orders are typically a bit more expensive, and international customers usually expect to pay a bit more for quality shipping. A big part of a quality shipment is how it’s handled and packaged.
4. Duties and taxes
International shipments can be subject to duties and taxes depending on a number of factors. It’s important to do your research and factor any duties and taxes into your pricing strategy, especially for any key international market you are targeting. You can use a duty calculator to get an idea of what duties and taxes may apply to your products per destination country.
Taxes are based on a fixed percentage per destination country (and sometimes state or province). Duties, on the other hand, depend on a number of factors such as:
- The value of the items being shipped
- The country of origin or where items were manufactured
- The type of the items being shipped and materials used to make them
By default, the importer (i.e., your customer) is responsible for any taxes or duties on the shipment and will need to pay them before they can receive their order. This is called Delivered Duty Unpaid (DDU) or, more officially, Delivered At Place (DAP). It’s very important to be transparent with the buyer about additional fees to manage their expectation and avoid returns and chargebacks. Make sure to set up a clear return policy on your website.
To provide a smoother and surprise-free buying experience to your customers, you can choose to be responsible for paying these fees. This is called Delivered Duty Paid (DDP). In this case, you need to collect these fees upfront.
From a logistical standpoint, you’ll buy the appropriate shipping label, DDU/DAP or DDP, and include customs documentation with your international shipment. Use your domestic postal service as a local resource to make sure you know which documents you need to ship internationally. They’ll typically have these documents for you
When you buy your shipping labels through Shopify Shipping, you’ll be provided with the necessary customs documentation needed to fulfill international shipments.
The correct customs paperwork required for an international shipment can vary by country. But typically these two documents will be required: a commercial invoice and an export packing list.
The commercial invoice is the bill for the shipped product from the seller to the buyer that helps prove ownership and payment. Used to determine the true value of the product(s) being shipped, this document helps the country assess customs duties and taxes. Here’s some essential information that should be included:
- The merchant and customer’s names and addresses
- The price, descriptions, and quantity of the products included
- How the sale was made and the terms of the payment
- Shipping method
Depending on the shipping company you’re using, the customs information may be embedded in the shipping label. DHL Express provides Paperless Trade to most countries, reducing the need for extra printed documents.
Export packing list
The typical detail on a packing list is on this form (buyer, seller/shipper, invoice number, date of shipment, etc.), but it also includes more extensive information like:
- The mode of transport
- Carrier info
- Weight and dimensions of the package (usually in metric measurements)
- The type and quantity of packages
- Package marks
Ship internationally with Shopify
Shopify Shipping and Shopify Fulfillment Network provide all the resources you need to ship internationally. If your business is in the US, Canada, or Australia, you can use Shopify Shipping to ship internationally. If your business is in the US or Canada, you might be able to use Shopify Fulfillment Network, depending on your eligibility.
Shopify offers merchants in the United States, Canada, and Australia access to discounted rates—up to 88% in savings with international shipping companies like USPS, UPS, DHL Express, Canada Post, and Sendle—so you’re already set up to compare their rates.
When you purchase international shipping labels through Shopify Shipping, the correct customs forms and documentation are automatically generated for you and can be printed on any standard printer. When you use DHL Express to ship from the US, this documentation is electronically transmitted to customs—no additional paperwork necessary.
When you’re ready to get your shipments out the door, you also have the option to schedule a free or discounted pickup for any UPS, DHL Express, or Sendle shipment or link out to schedule one directly with USPS.
When considering which shipping carriers to use, there are a few factors to consider.
Using more than one shipping company can help you reduce your shipping costs overall.
Postal carriers are often more affordable, but may not offer many options for package types and speeds. Express carriers tend to be faster, can accommodate heavier or larger packages, and provide more service options, but can be more expensive. Regional courier services can solve any last-mile problems for your international package, but can be tricky to source and communicate with.
Do your research and price out postal, express, and courier options. It’s good to have a sense of service availability for your international shipping strategy.
2. Delivery options
Some customers will want their purchases right away, and others will be more willing to wait.
To best serve your customers, offer a good mix of delivery options. Providing a range of choices gives them the option to balance the tradeoff between timeline and price, and that might be the difference between a sale and an abandoned cart.
3. Tracking and insurance
Most international shipping companies provide shipment tracking, so you and your customers can easily see up-to-date shipment statuses. You can also add ePacket tracking to give customers end-to-end tracking options and a searchable tracking number.
If you’re worried about a shipment becoming lost or damaged, insuring your parcel against failed delivery is the way to go.
Insurance is offered by just about every global express shipper. If it isn’t automatically included in the cost of shipping, it’s relatively affordable and straightforward to add.
If you’re a US-based merchant, you can add Shipsurance insurance to any shipment, regardless of shipping method or order destination.
When using postal carriers like USPS or Canada Post, some international shipping services include insurance in the price of shipping. You can use mail classes like Priority Mail International and Priority Mail Express International with USPS or Priority Worldwide, Xpresspost-USA, or Xpresspost-International with Canada Post to get automatic coverage. You can always pay for coverage using a different shipping service—usually a few dollars per $100 of declared value.
Whatever you choose, consider adding insurance to any parcel over $200 being shipped to another country. Doing so will add some peace of mind to both you and your customer.
Send your first international shipment with Shopify
The first step to ensuring ecommerce international shipping success is to have a strategy in place. From what and how you’ll ship to where and at what cost, giving these factors some thought and research will better prepare you to grow your business around the world.
Remember to try out new approaches and techniques. Shipping is a fluid and seasonal industry. Be sure to reapply and refine your strategy as new offers or changes take place.
Set your business up for international success
Selling globally can be a great way to boost your revenue and get more international customers to buy your products. Shopify’s cross-border products provide simple easy to use tools that help you set up your store for international visitors.Sell cross-border
International shipping FAQ
What is the cheapest way to ship internationally?
If you’re only shipping a small number of international packages, USPS is one the most affordable options. However, if you plan to ship a large volume of goods to international customers, a combination of freight and local carriers may be cheaper in the long run.
Why is international shipping so expensive?
International shipping is more expensive due to a combination of factors, including import duties, more complicated logistics, and the high cost of fuel to ship goods overseas by air or sea.
Why do international packages take so long?
International shipping often takes longer than domestic shipping due to long distances traveled, multiple exchanges between different carriers, and potential customs delays.