How can I import items from the US and what does it cost?
I am asked this question frequently, and I will answer it today.
There are four main parts when it comes to importing items from the US, each of which has its own procedures and costs. They are:
- The US store you buy from
- A forwarding service
- Courier delivery partner
- Customs clearance
What you need to do, and pay, for each step is detailed below.
Shopping in the US gives you access to a range of online stores, including Amazon.com, Woot.com (which is an Amazon company), Walmart.com, and many more.
These stores offer great prices on a variety of products, but – more importantly – offer items which you cannot buy in South Africa.
To buy from these retailers, you need to create a customer account – just as you would with Takealot or Uber Eats – and include your personal details and payment method.
I use either a virtual credit card or physical credit card from Standard Bank, and have not encountered any issues to date with buying online from a US store.
The other key piece of information you need to provide is a delivery address.
Many online stores do not ship to South Africa, or only ship a limited range of items. Additionally, if they do ship to South Africa they may use the standard postal service – which means your items will go through the SA Post Office.
To remove these barriers, you can sign up with a US forwarding service.
A US forwarding service gives you a physical address in the US which you can ship your online orders to.
I use MyUS, which is based in Florida and allows me to ship any orders from US stores to my personal “suite” in the state. Other popular forwarding services include Aramex Global Shopper.
MyUS offers a free 30-day trial on its Premium subscription and a free “single package” shipping tier for those who want to try it out.
The Premium tier costs $7 per month and gives you access to the following:
- A US shipping address – The address where your online orders are sent to.
- Tax-free shopping – MyUS offer 0% sales tax when you buy from a US online store.
- Package consolidation – If you order multiple packages or from multiple stores, your items will be repacked into a single shipment to South Africa.
- 30-day storage – Orders can be stored at your US address free of charge for up to 30 days.
If you do not want to ship your order after it has been at your US address for 30 days, you will then pay the following storage charges:
- Day 31-60 – $1.00 to $1.50 per day
- Day 61-90 – $2.00 to $3.00 per day
- Day 91 and over – $3.00 to $6.00 per day
It is also important to note that you are also responsible for covering any fees charged for getting your item to your forwarding address.
For example, if you order a Kindle from Amazon and they charge $5.00 shipping, you will pay this on top of the Kindle’s price.
As I order regularly from Amazon, I have an Amazon Prime subscription which is $12.99 per month and provides discounts on orders, free shipping, and access to Prime Video streaming.
The next step is to consolidate your order, check the submitted values, and select a courier delivery option.
In the case of MyUS, when an item arrives from the likes of Amazon it is placed in your “suite” – which you can access via your user profile on their website.
This allows you to track which items have arrived and which are yet to be processed. This is very useful when ordering multiple items from one store which will arrive on different days, or ordering from multiple stores at once.
Once all your items have arrived and are in your suite, you must then check their values – i.e. that the invoice value MyUS has is the same as what you paid for them.
This is for customs purposes later on, as you will pay VAT and import duties based on the class of the item and what its price is.
You are able to edit the invoice values in your suite if the price is incorrect, by changing the US dollar value and then uploading an invoice to show what you actually paid.
Your items are then packed into a single box for international shipment – and it is now time to select a courier delivery option.
MyUS offers a variety of courier partners to choose from, including FedEx and DHL, and displays how much your package weighs and how much it will cost to ship it to South Africa.
I use FedEx Economy or FedEx Priority shipping for my orders, which sees a package taking 5-10 or 3-4 business days, respectively, to get from the US to my front door.
If you would like to plan ahead and get an idea of what a shipment will cost, the MyUS site provides a shipping calculator, which gives you an estimate of what you will pay for delivery.
Add-ons like package insurance and “fragile” stickers are also available for a nominal fee.
The last step in the process is to clear customs in South Africa, which is required before your order can be delivered to you.
Customs clearance consists of several elements:
- The party which engages with SARS to clear your goods through customs.
- The individual/company who is listed as the importer of record.
- The VAT and duties to be paid on the shipment.
In my experience, FedEx has always handled the customs clearance on my behalf – pre-clearing the order and paying the necessary VAT and import duties.
They then send me an invoice with a breakdown of what I own them for this, along with an administrative fee.
SARS states that VAT – 15% at the time of writing – on imported goods is calculated as: [Customs Value + 10%] x 15%.
“The 10% mark-up on the customs value in this calculation is applicable when goods are imported from a country outside the Customs Union,” said SARS on their website.
Items which are defined as non-essential or luxury goods will also receive higher import duties than items which do not fall into these categories.
Before this clearance and payment can take place, however, you must provide FedEx with your personal details and your ID number.
This is because each South African is only entitled to three import consignments per year. Additionally, the total value of each these three shipments may not be more than R50,000.
If you want to import goods of a higher value or bring in more than three shipments per year, you will have to apply for an importer’s code with SARS.
Once the invoice amount is paid to FedEx, which has cleared the goods on your behalf, your package hits the road and is delivered to your door.
A real-life example
To show you what this looks like in action, below is a real-life example of ordering from the US and getting the item shipped to South Africa.
- I ordered a gym clock and speed gun from Amazon on 26 August, and set my delivery address as my US suite. Total: $140.00 (R2,300)
- The Amazon order arrives at the MyUS suite on 1 September and is then processed by MyUS. The order is consolidated and ready to be shipped on 3 September.
- On 7 September, I selected FedEx Economy shipping for my order from the MyUS site. The package was 1.9kg and shipping would cost $44.99. I also added fragile stickers and package insurance for $2.00 and $5.98, respectively. Total: $52.97 (R870)
- The package is collected by FedEx on 7 September and shipped to South Africa. It arrives in the country on 13 September.
- FedEx sends me the invoice for VAT and customs duties – R387 – along with the ROD fee of R150. Total: R537
- The item is delivered to my door on 15 September.
- The total amount spent is R3,707. With the original order costing R2,300 and the shipment and importing coming to just over R1,400.
In this case, it was a relatively costly affair to bring items in from the US – with the shipping and importing fees nearly as much as the price of the products I ordered.
However, paying this price allows you to access goods not available in South Africa or get them in before they launch locally.
It is also important to note that items imported from the US do not come with warranties or guarantees which are supported in South Africa.
This means that if you buy a laptop, for example, and it breaks through no fault of yours, local suppliers and retailers are not obliged to assist.
Please note that this article is an opinion piece based on an individual experience, and does not constitute financial, tax, or customs clearance advice.