As a shipper, you need a valid trade license to transport certain goods internationally, especially to the US. And you need an export and import license for that.

The process for obtaining a US import-export license can be complex due to numerous compliance requirements and regulations set by the government. At Maersk, we’ve made it simpler for you to understand the licensing process.

Read on to find out:

  • What is an import/export license?
  • How to get an import license in the US?
  • Do you need an export license in the US?
  • What documents are required for an import/export license?
  • How much does an import/export license cost?

What is an import/export license?

An export/import license is a vital shipping document issued by government agencies that authorize the trade of certain goods across US borders.


  • Not all imports and exports require a license. Before shipping, check with the relevant agency for goods that require a permit/license to carry out the trade.
  • The issuing agency for import and export licenses varies depending on the type of goods you’re dealing in.
  • The export license has limited validity, typically 4 years if the Bureau of Industry and Security issues it.

Import license vs. export license in the US

Let’s understand the difference between an import and export license in the US.

Import license:

Export license:

Import license vs. import permit

Both permit and license are issued to allow the import of a specific category of goods to the US. While an import license is a permanent document given to the shipper (valid for a fixed period), an import permit is a temporary document (valid for a specific import only).

How do I apply for a US import license?

Step 1: Determine whether your goods require an import license 

Not all goods require an import license. It depends on several factors, like:

  • The actual item being imported (product or technology).
  • The country from which it is exported.
  • Who are the sender and receiver.
  • What is the port of entry in the US.
  • What’s the intended usage of imported item.
  • Regulations set by the concerned Partner Government Agencies (PGAs).

Common product categories that require a PGA import license include:

  • Agricultural goods such as dairy products.
  • Arms, ammunition, explosives, and implements of war.
  • Commercial equipment.
  • Consumer products.
  • Precious metals.

For a detailed list of all items that require a license, refer to this CBP guide.

Note: The US exercises ‘Informed Compliance’ for imports. It means the importer and CBP share responsibility for import/export rules. CBP bears the onus of clearly expressing all the regulations related to imports. While importers, on the other hand, need to be informed of and meet CBP guidelines.

Step 2: Identify the agency responsible for issuing the license

After you review CBP guidelines, determine the type/category of imported goods you’re dealing with. Then, identify the Partner Government Agency managing that category.

Licensing agencies for some popular commodities are:

commodities agencies
Agricultural and food products
Arms & ammunition
Radioactive materials and nuclear reactors
Wildlife and pets
Dairy products
Dairy Import Group, Foreign Agricultural Service, US Department of Agriculture

If you’re unable to identify the relevant agency, contact a CBP import specialist. They assign an executive for each category of goods. They’ll direct you to the right agency to answer any paperwork-related questions.

Word of Caution: CBP does not demand money for providing information over the phone. Beware of any such claims.

Step 3: Apply at the agency to secure an import license

The import license application process varies with the different agencies involved. Apply online through the relevant PGA’s website.

Note: Some agencies might have specific regulations you must follow for import licenses, like quota limits, restrictions on the port of entry, and labeling or processing guidelines.

How do I apply for a US export license?

The International Trade Administration (ITA) states that 95% of US exports don’t require an export license. So, before exporting, it’s imperative to identify whether your goods need a license.

Export license/permit requirement depends on several factors, such as:

  • The item being exported (product or technology).
  • Where it is exported.
  • Who is the consignee.
  • What’s the intended usage of the shipped item.

Here’s how you can apply for an export license in the US:

Step 1: Determine if your goods require an export license

Step 2: Check for other license requirements

Apart from EAR, other Partner Government Agencies may also require a license for certain types of exported goods. For example:

Note: Obtain the required export license from the concerned agency’s website.

Step 3: Submit your export license application

Is your company registered with BIS and has a Company Identification Number (CIN)?

Documents required for US import/export licenses

Some essential documents required for obtaining an import-export license in the USA include:

  1. Employer Identification Number (EIN): Obtained from the IRS.
  2. Dun & Bradstreet Number (D-U-N-S): A unique 9-digit identification number assigned to businesses by Dun and Bradstreet (D&B); government agencies recognize it as a standard identifier for a specific business entity.
  3. Incorporation or business registration documents: Proof that your business is legally registered and operating in the USA.
  4. Product information: Such as Harmonized Tariff Schedule (HTS) codes and country of origin for the products you plan to import/export.
  5. End-use statement: A statement outlining the intended use of the imported or exported goods.
  6. Broker's license: If you use a customs broker for your imports/exports, they need to have a valid customs broker license.
  7. Power of attorney: If you plan to authorize someone else to act on your behalf during the licensing process.Other shipping documents include the bill of lading, commercial invoice, inspection certificate, CBP entry form, and relevant certificates from relevant Partner Government Agencies (PGAs).

Other shipping documents include the bill of lading, commercial invoice, inspection certificate, CBP entry form, and relevant certificates from relevant Partner Government Agencies (PGAs). 

Note: Depending on the type of goods being imported or exported and the regulations of the country of destination, additional documentation may be required. It's always best to check with the concerned authorities to ensure you have all the necessary documents before starting the process.

Why is the import/export license important?

What is the purpose of an import license?

  • Protects domestic businesses from unfair foreign competition by implementing certain restrictions on incoming goods.
  • Forecasts entry of prohibited or unsafe items into the country.
  • Limits the outflow of currency from the country.
  • Provides importers with legal remedies against disputes or any losses incurred during the transaction.
  • Ensures potentially volatile or dangerous substances or services are handled carefully on entry.

What is the purpose of an export license?

  • Helps the government track the nature and quantity of goods moving out of the country.
  • Allows businesses to expand to new markets with strict trade restrictions.
  • Ensures that potentially hazardous or sensitive materials are adequately managed during exit.

Cost of an import/export license in the US

You generally don’t need to pay any fees to get an import/export license in the US.

The procedure for obtaining a trade permit depends on the agency you are dealing with. For imports, most PGAs only require you to complete the necessary forms and adhere to their trade guidelines. For exports, BIS doesn’t need you to pay for a license.

However, some agencies, such as the US Fish & Wildlife Service, have a permit fee for import/export (I/E) licenses. If you import or export wildlife goods, you need to pay USD 100 for a new permit or renewal of an old license and USD 50 for permit amendments.

Summing up

The United States is the world’s leading importer. Obtaining trade permits and licenses in the US is therefore a top priority for logistics businesses operating globally. The process can be complex and time-consuming, but essential for ensuring compliance with trade laws and regulations.

Work with an experienced professional or logistics partner to navigate the licensing process and stay informed about any changes in trade policies.

Need someone to guide you through the import/export process and handle your import/export and customs requirements? Talk to our customs clearance experts at Maersk.

Frequently asked questions

  1. What is the validity of an import/export license?

    The validity of an export-import license in the US depends on the issuing agency. Generally, BIS-issued licenses are valid for up to 4 years unless requested otherwise.

  2. How long does it take to process my import/export license application?

    Licenses are typically issued in 30-60 days when filed online through an agency portal. Items pertaining to national security, biological threats, or the like take longer to process. So, it’s best to start your application process before time to avoid delaying your shipment.

  3. Are import/export licenses different for different products in the US?

    Yes, different types of products require licenses from various agencies. For importers, you can refer to CBP guidelines to find the licensing agency. For exports, ITA provides resources on licensing authorities and processes.

  4. Who handles the import and export regulations in the United States?

    US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) handles US import regulations. Export regulations fall under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) or the US Department of State’s Directorate of Defense Trade Controls (DDTC).

  5. How much is an import-export license in the USA?

    Import-export licenses in the US are generally free of cost. However, some agencies may require a nominal fee to issue or renew the permit.

  6. What types of goods require an import license?

    Certain agricultural products, arms and ammunition, radioactive material, and commercial equipment require an import license. You can find the complete list on the CBP website.

  7. What types of goods require an export license?

    Dual-use items that fall under EAR jurisdiction or items such as arms and ammunition that are governed by International Trafficking in Arms Regulations require export licenses. Certain nuclear materials or food products also need export licenses.