How to Get a License for an Import-Export Business

The Constitution allows Congress to regulate and tax international imports and exports, and the U.S. has traditionally relied on an effective tariff system, together with careful regulation of imported goods, as a way to raise revenue for the Treasury. If you want to run a business that requires getting goods from or sending goods overseas, it is important to know how to get a license for an import-export business. Congress has delegated the specific regulation of imports and exports to the Department of Commerce.

Obtain Your CIN

You’ll need a company identification number, or CIN. This is a unique identifier the Department of Commerce can use to track your international trade activities and liabilities. To do so, fill out the company registration request form online at the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security website (see Resources).

Research Export Controls

Familiarize yourself with the Department of Commerce’s export controls. The federal government restricts exports of items that may have military applications in other countries. Other federal agencies may restrict exports of specific items. For example, the Department of Energy restricts exports on items that may be useful in creating nuclear weapons.

Apply for an Export License

Some items, such as basic consumer goods with no particular technological sophistication, can be exported without a license. If the Department of Commerce’s guidelines state you need a license to export your product, you must apply for a license via the Department of Commerce’s SNAP-R site. Pay close attention to the specific instructions.

Apply for Import Licenses

Obtain an import license. You must obtain an import license from each country you plan to export to. Procedures vary, but you can get assistance by hiring legal counsel in that country, or via contacting that country’s embassy or a consul office in the U.S.

Contact Appropriate Agencies

Get the appropriate U.S. import license for the particular goods you plan to import. There is no single license you can get to authorize you to import everything. Instead, you must get a license from the specific federal agency that has regulatory jurisdiction over the products you wish to import. For example, to import firearms, you must get clearance from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. To import food items, you must get a food import license from the Food and Drug Administration. In each case, you must contact the specific agency and follow their specific procedures.


These licenses are in addition to the normal business licensing requirements imposed on all other businesses.