How to import

Written by Allan Britnell

Importing goods from abroad makes a lot of sense for a lot of reasons: you may find cheaper grommets for your widgets, exotic merchandise for your retail shop, or simply need something that’s just not manufactured in Canada. Once you’ve identified what you want and where to get it, what comes next?

Expect red tape

As you can imagine, before you can import goods into Canada, you have to deal with the government. What may surprise you is how many different departments and agencies you may have to contact during the process. Chris Neilson, international trade analyst at the Canadian Association of Importers and Exporters (CAIE) says that before you start, become familiar with services offered by the following agencies, since you’ll likely have to contact some or all of them during the process:

  • Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA);
  • Canada Revenue Agency (CRA);
  • Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT);
  • Food Inspection Agency;
  • Health Canada.

Note that CBSA and CRA are newly separated arms of the former Canada Customs and Revenue Agency. And don’t forget your provincial government may have its own set of restrictions, as may the export regulating bodies in the country you’re buying from.

Admittance restricted

Don’t get too excited until you make sure you’re legally allowed to import the items you’re after. The Export and Import Controls Bureau of DFAIT maintains the Import Control List of goods that are restricted or prohibited. Depending on the product, you may also have to seek approval and/or permits from Agriculture Canada or the Food Inspection Agency (if you’re importing food), Health Canada (if you’re importing drugs) and the Canadian Standards Association (if you’re importing electronics), to name a few.

Take a number

Once you’re cleared for landing, you must register for a federal business number. Every importer has to have one. You may already have a nine-digit business number, but importer registration will add a two-letter code and four more digits. “Your company will be known by that number whether you’re dealing with the revenue side [CRA] or the import side [CBSA],” says Patrizia Giolti of the CBSA’s Toronto-area office. You can register for the number online or at any customs office. There is no fee.

Taxing concerns are your duty

Business number in hand, you next need to find out the tariff classification number for each product you’re importing in order to calculate any duties and any excise taxes on the goods. You can find the necessary classification number and tariff rates for each item on the CBSA website ( or, again, back at your local Customs office. Don’t forget to add GST to the whole bill.

Not-so-secret agents

Starting to feel a little overwhelmed? Thankfully, there is help available. Customs brokers are licensed to take care of much of the paperwork (and related headaches) for you. “Customs brokers make sure that the goods get across the border as quickly as possible and that there aren’t any problems,” says Carol West, president of Ottawa-based Canadian Society of Customs Brokers. Brokers can provide everything from preliminary consultation to door-to-door shipping. Fees greatly vary depending on the complexity of the transaction.

Read on

You could write a book on the subject of importing, and many people have. The CAIE, for example, publishes “How to set up an import business” ($39.95). There are also a number of detailed guides to importing available online. The CBSA has an importing guide for SMEs on its site as well as information on free importing seminars across the nation.

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© 2004 Allan Britnell

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