International Shipping for Beginners: The Basics

Breaking down the basics of international shipping with USPS, UPS, FedEx, and DHL
international shipping basics
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Need to send a package internationally but don’t know where to start? You’ve come to the right place! At the end of the day, international shipping isn’t so different from shipping domestically. The basics of shipping still apply: you decide what you’re shipping, protect it with the proper packing material, and you’ll need to buy postage. There are four major players when it comes to international shipping: USPS, UPS, FedEx, and DHL. Before we go into each one, however, we need to talk about customs.

Table of Contents

What are Customs?

Customs are taxes imposed on goods when they are shipped internationally. Here’s the bottom line: if you’re shipping anything internationally, it is REQUIRED that you fill out a customs form. The customs forms you’ll need to fill out depend on the destination country you’re shipping to, and whether the purpose of your shipment is business or personal. Here are some links to grab customs forms for all four major international shipping carriers:

Pro Tip: If you use shipping software to buy postage for international parcels, you actually DON’T need to fill out customs forms! Most software solutions out there automatically take care of that for you. Pretty cool, right?

Which Carrier Should I Choose?

Choosing the right shipping carrier for your international shipment depends on three factors: where your shipment is going, how fast you want it to arrive, and your budget. If speed is what you’re looking for, UPS and FedEx are typically the best options. On the other hand, USPS provides the best rates and competitive delivery times for sending smaller items, such as letters, cards, or smaller parcels under 4lbs.

International Shipping with USPS

If you’re sending out letters or cards under one ounce, USPS sells global forever stamps starting at just $1.15. You can’t beat that! USPS also offers other international shipping services for packages, which we’ve listed below:

  • Global Express Guaranteed: This is the fastest international shipping option for the USPS, offering date-certain delivery to more than 180 countries. Delivery occurs within 1-3 business days.
  • Priority Mail Express International: Also available to more than 180 countries, this choice offers flat international shipping rates and a delivery time between 3-5 business days. Maximum package weight is 4 pounds.
  • Priority Mail International: If your package weighs more than 4 pounds, this will be your cheapest option to ship internationally with USPS. Depending on the destination, delivery occurs between 6 to 10 business days.
  • First Class Package International: This is the cheapest international shipping service USPS offers for packages under 4 pounds. Delivery occurs between 1 to 3 weeks, depending on the destination.

How Shipping Software Can Help

Buying international postage with USPS can get expensive. Therefore, you shouldn’t buy postage at the retail rate. Just like shipping domestically, you can save money when you use free USPS shipping software to buy postage at discounts!

Simple Export Rate: The Ultimate International Shipping Cheat Code

Speaking of shipping software: you NEED to know about an exclusive service only available on Pirate Ship called Simple Export Rate. Simple Export Rate is hands down THE CHEAPEST way to ship packages under 4 pounds internationally with USPS. When you ship Simple Export Rate, you get hooked up with the deepest discounts possible on your lightweight international shipments. In fact, you can save up to 40% compared to similar services. As a result, you can reinvest the money that you save back into your small business.

To learn more, check out our guide: Conquer the World with Simple Export Rate.

International Shipping with UPS

UPS offers quite a few international shipping options, starting with UPS Express Critical, which goes out on the next best available flight. UPS also provides services such as pickup, delivery notification and special handling for an additional cost. Here’s a quick list of their other international shipping services:

  • Worldwide Express/Express Plus: This option will get your parcel delivered within 1-3 business days, either before noon for Worldwide Express, or before 9:00 am for Express Plus.
  • Worldwide Saver: This service also offers delivery within 1-3 business days, but delivery is guaranteed by the end of the day.
  • Worldwide Expedited: With this option, packages are delivered by the end of the day within 2-5 business days.
  • Standard: If you don’t need the package to arrive at a specified time, this will be the least expensive international shipping choice for UPS.

International Shipping with FedEx

FedEx ships to over 220 countries worldwide. If you’re in a pinch to deliver a package quickly, FedEx offers convenient next-flight shipments, available 24/7. However, FedEx also has a few options for less urgent shipments. We’ve listed those out here:

  • International Priority: This service delivers to major cities in Canada and Mexico within 1 business day. Delivery occurs within 2 business days to major cities in Europe, Asia, and Brazil.
  • International Economy: This is a cheaper shipping option, with delivery taking place within 5 business days. Packages still arrive in Canada, Mexico, and Puerto Rico within 2-3 business days.
  • International Mail Service: This is best for low-value, low-weight items such as clothing, books, and catalogs. Premium services gets them there within 4-7 days, and standard service within 7-11.

International Shipping with DHL

While you may not see them around the United States as often as the three other carriers, DHL is the premier shipping carrier for fast international shipping. DHL offers a wide variety of shipping options for you to choose from, which we’ve laid out below:

Same-Day Shipping

  • Same-Day Jetline: This emergency service places your parcel on the next flight out, giving you the shortest possible delivery time.
  • Same-Day Sprintline: Similar to Jetline, this service places your parcel on the next available van or truck, delivering your shipment in the shortest possible time to any regional destination.

Time-Definite Shipping

  • Express 9:00: Delivery occurs on the next possible day by 9:00 a.m.
  • Express 10:30: Delivery occurs on the next possible day by 10:30 a.m.
  • Express 12:00: Delivery occurs on the next possible day by 12:00 noon.
  • Express Worldwide: Package delivery occurs by the end of the next possible day.
  • Express Envelope: Documents are delivered by the end of the next possible day.
  • Express Easy: Delivery occurs by the end of the next possible business day. This service is only available at DHL Service Points.

Day-Definite Shipping

  • Global Mail Business: This service is used for international business mail correspondence.

Determine If You Need to Submit an AES Filing With the US Census Bureau

When you shipping high-value goods internationally from the United States, there’s a chance that you’ll need to submit an AES export filing with the US Census Bureau. You’ll need to submit AES export filings when the value of goods in a single shipment is $2,500 or greater. The data that you provide directly contributes to our national Gross Domestic Product (GDP) calculation.

Don’t Forget to Buy Shipping Insurance

Be careful—most international shipping services don’t come with built-in insurance. Therefore, Shipping School recommends that you ALWAYS protect your packages by purchasing shipping insurance. It’s worth it to pay for insurance if anything in your package is damaged or broken on its journey abroad.

Pro Tip: Before you start the whole international shipping process, make sure you can ship your item in the first place! Some items fall under USPS’ list of shipping restrictions, and therefore can’t be shipped internationally.

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  1. Mac

    I am looking to ship vinyl in bulk from Glasgow, Scotland to Las Vegas.
    Duration doesn’t matter.(well as long as it’s not 6 months)
    Possibly 2 x 40LB boxes. ANY suggestions would be helpful, and welcome!

  2. Bridget

    I would like to ship a washer and a gas dryer from USA to Europe.what is my best shipping option and how much approximately should I expect to pay?

  3. Dee

    sending a usps ready post envelope with birthday card etc to uk from us. Does this need a customs form and does it go through customs

  4. Cailee

    I want to ship a powdered lemonade drink mix, it is FDA registered in the US, is there anything else I need to do to ship internationally? I understand the customs forms but I am asking in regards to any registrations.

  5. ZY

    How can I prevent my product from being mistakenly classified as herbal extracts or nutritional supplements? It’s actually holy water. But the countries I ship to think it needs to be registered with their version of the FDA.

  6. Sandra

    Sending a newspaper to South Wales, UK
    Do I need to fill out a customs form? Or, can I send with PRINTED MATTER on envelope
    I did this about a month ago and it came back because of no declaration form. I have resent but had been told the first time I did not need any form.

  7. Fallene

    I’d also like to ship vitamin supplements for our animals from the vet to Spain. I noticed it says no medication but I don’t know if this would be different, they’re liquid and some tablets. All vitamins

    • Rockwell Sands

      Vitamins are typically okay, too! Just make sure Spain doesn’t restrict ay supplements or tablets before you buy your label. You can see the kinds of items that Spain restricts here: It seems they don’t allow saccharine of any kind, so just double-check to make sure none of the liquid or tablets contain that!

  8. Fallene

    I’d like to mail a box of professional tubes of hair color and the bottle of developers to Spain. Nothing is aerosol, how do you recommend I do that, who do I use. It didn’t show up in restricted and I don’t think it would be defined as hazardous. The hair color ships to the US from Italy.

    • Rockwell Sands

      Hi Fallene – if none of the products are aerosols, you shouldn’t have any issues! It sounds like they’re lightweight and smaller items, so you’ll likely get the cheapest rates with USPS…and you can save the most money with shipping software instead of going to the Post Office. This guide goes into more detail on that. Hope this helps!

  9. Tony
  10. Gina

    I want to send boxes of cheap shoes to Mexico that can be distributed amongst the poor. Typically 25 lb boxes. Looking for cheapest rate.

    • Rockwell Sands

      Hi Gina – you’ll only get the cheapest international rates if you use shipping software to buy discounted postage online. You can check out some of the best options on our Reviews page!

  11. John

    I want to ship several boxes of documents and books from the US to Australia to a university library. Speed of delivery is not an issue, but security of the contents is. Which courier service do you recommend and what kind of shipping containers/boxes are best to use?

    • Rockwell Sands

      Hi John – I would use a private carrier like UPS or DHL that can offer delivery confirmation and tracking every step of the way. DHL may offer the better rates here, but this is something you’ll need to look into. As for the containers, you can use any kind of secure cardboard packaging you like! I’m not sure if DHL offers free boxes you can take advantage of, but they do offer the DHL Express Envelope for documents.

      • John

        Thanks very much for your response. Would USPS Certified/Registered Mail offer the same degree of security at even cheaper rates?

  12. Lilly

    I want to courier a document of two pages from a company in South Africa to the United States .How so I go about this?

  13. Sami

    What should I prepare if I want to ship my pet dog’s saliva swab sample to the United States? What’s the best courier for it?

  14. Jim

    whats the best carrier to send a magazine international and to get tracking number. Amazon requires a tracking number. I have used usps large envelope service but i dont get a tracking number?

    • Rockwell Sands

      Hi Jim – USPS should have given you a tracking number when you purchased the label that you can then plug into Amazon. If you didn’t in fact use USPS, I would use either UPS or DHL to send a magazine internationally. Hope this helps!

  15. pat

    Tell me about thecost of shipping one book to the Philippines via USPS media mail. The clerk at the post office today did not know anything about MEDIA MAIL.

    • Rockwell Sands

      Hi Pat, you can’t actually use Media Mail to send internationally. You’ll need to use either First Class Package International or Priority Mail International for this. Media Mail is only a US-based domestic service.

  16. Ella

    Your writing talents make me WANT to read about shipping, Rockwell. Thank you for smoothing the way for this nervous shipper.


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