United States

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Import regulations and customs duties  - Distribution - Transportation of goods - Standards - Patents and brands

Import regulations and customs duties

Although most of the goods can freely enter the American territory, procedures must be respected to ensure all products comply with the American standards.
Farm products are subject to both the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) and the USDA (US AGRICULTURAL DEPARTMENT) rules.
- Dairy products require an import license and quotas do exist. Products should conform to the strict sanitary and labelling rules, a description of ingredients is also required.
- Most fruits, vegetables and hazelnuts are subject to import licenses. The APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) analyses the risks of disease.
- Meat-based products can only be imported via ports with checking sanitary installations authorised by the USDA. The APHIS examines all goods.

Nearly 20% of all imports into the US are food and food products. In 2002 Congress passed the Bioterrorism Act as a part of its ongoing effort to fight terrorism. The Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002 (Bioterrorism Act) requires that FDA develops two systems: one to support the registration of facilities that manufacture, process, pack, or hold food products intended for consumption in the United States and one to receive prior notice before food is imported or offered for import into the United States, beginning on December 12, 2003. Prior notice must be submitted electronically at www.access.fda.gov.

Manufactured goods should also conform the American standards, which implies potential additional costs. Electric equipment should be systematically guaranteed by a third part (the opposite of auto-certification and "after" market controls used in a lot of countries of the world). There are not less than 2,700 municipal or federal authorities able to distribute safety certifications, and they do vary from State to State. As there is no central source of information about the normative aspects, it is imperative to inquire beforehand with the help of an importer.
Whatever the nature of the product is, documentation is important, especially in terms of invoice and certificate of origin (as the EU origin is not being recognised, European exporters should be able to justify the origin of their product under the name of the appropriate country and supply extra documentation). The documentary formalities are notably very heavy for textiles import (above a part of 5 % in the composition of the textiled product, all the products should be listed very precisely). The labelling rules can also generate important additional costs.
Finally the USA apply a certain number of embargoes, forbidding the import of products manufactured with components originating from the following countries: Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Angola, Yugoslavia and Afghanistan.


Customs duties
The United States apply the Harmonised Customs System. Customs duties are calculated Ad valorem on the CIF value. There are several customs tariffications, depending on the origin of products. The general rate is usually quite low. The duties for Canada and Mexico, bound by the agreement of the ALENA, are either non-existent, or very reduced and in any case, lower than the general rate. There is also a preferential rate for countries included in the Generalised System of Preference, that is to say most of the developing countries (GSP - a lot of exemption of customs duties).




Given its large size, the United States represents a very important market. It is the ultimate test market for exporters. The country is open to all kinds of new products and technologies, but geographically it is very spread out and there is intense competition. This market is, however, very demanding and requires a considerable amount of preparation, ground work and long-term consistency.
In 2004, total retail trade was valued at 3,296 billion euros, a growth of 7.9%, the consumption level being the driving factor behind American retail growth.

The Business to Consumer (B to C) market

Market segmentation is drawn along various lines, including age groups, ethnic groups, even social and religious groups, which has forced distributors to adapt themselves to this situation. One of the most marked consequences of this absence of homogeneity is the emergence in the past few years of “Speciality Stores”such as (Home Depot, Best Buys etc) which currently represent 11% of retail sales. In fact, the American consumer is unique because of his demanding nature, the importance he attaches to price, and his product disloyalty. It is thus incumbent upon distributors to continuously adapt themselves to the market, and to engage in well-targeted marketing efforts in order to win the loyalty of the consumer. The majority of sales, however, are still achieved by large distribution chains:

- Wall Mart ( 4,000 outlets)
- The Kroger Co.
- Sears Roebuck & Co (bought by Kmart).
- Safeway.

The Business to Business (B to B) market
The American market is divided into economic regions and each region has its own distribution circuit.The market can be divided into 5 large geographical zones:
- The Northeast corridor centered around New York, Boston, Washington and Philadelphia,
- The South-Eastern zone centered around Miami, New Orleans and Atlanta,
- The Mid-West: Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland,
- The State of Texas: Houston and Dallas,
- The West in general and California in particular: Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The choice of a local distributor, be it an importer, a wholesaler, or an agent, is essential.
Distributors generally prefer to concentrate on a limited range of products within a small geographical area and once successful expand their market coverage. It is important to conduct documentary research in order to understand the financial situation, business references, and also the legal background.
Besides the contract that governs the distribution of products in the American market, the distributor must also guard himself against "product liability" risks that cover the responsibility of the manufacturer vis-ŕ-vis the product as well as "trademarks" in order to ensure that its brand is not being used by a third party (see below the chapter on patents and brands).
Participation in professional exhibitions and trade fairs is strongly recommended as a first step towards exporting to this market. These exhibitions are organized according to product sector, and as far as the current trend goes, specialized regional exhibitions are preferred where visitors can personally make contact with their local distribution network.


Transportation of goods

By road
The road network was some 6,500,000 million km long in 1999, of which 88,727 km were highways. The network in place for goods transportation is much wider than the one of travellers and concentrates on its own 30% of total goods transport. The future prospects for road investments are very good at the federal level, as well as at the state level. The question remains on hold for big conglomerations.

By rail
The railroad network extends over 315,000 km and transported 1,713 million tons/km in 1998. 40,000 km of railways are used to transport passengers. An important deregulation took place on the American railway freight market in the 80s, and since then, the part of total freight transport increased to more than 40%. Amtrak is the main railroad company. The organisation in charge of controlling the railway transport is the Federal Railroad Administration ( F.R.A).
The United States also shelters 3 million km of pipelines (oil pipelines and gas mainly).

By sea
All coasts of the country have important, highly computerised ports, automated for a fast distribution of the goods (especially in containers), some of them offer a direct connection towards waterways. The main ports are Long Beach, New York, Boston, Oakland, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, Charleston, Seattle, Portland.

By air
The United States possess more than 18,000 airports, the major ones being Chicago, New York JFK, and Los Angeles. The world's leading airports ranked by passengers traffic and by quantity of freight transported are Atlanta (more than 78 million passengers in 1999) and Memphis (2,400,000 tons of freight in 1999).
The main American airlines are: American Airlines, TWA, Delta Airlines, Continental Airlines, United, US Airways and Northwest Airlines. The internal network is extremely developed. As with railway transport, the air transport witnessed a strong deregulation in the 80s which helped increase its competitiveness.

Patents and brands

The body responsible for granting and respecting laws relating to patents and trademarks is the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
The United States signed the Agreement of Paris for the protection of industrial property, as well as the agreement establishing the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and the Patent Co-operation treaty ( PCT).

Texts currently applying to patents/brands

  Text Date entered into law Period of validity Comment
Utility models Industrial Property, Code (Decree-Law), No. 16/95/M 24/01/1995 15 years
Industrial models and Design Industrial Property, Code (Decree-Law), No. 16/95/M 24/01/1995 25 years
Patent Industrial Property, Code (Decree-Law), No. 16/95/M 24/01/1995 20 years
Trademarks Industrial Property, Code (Decree-Law), No. 16/95/M 24/01/1995 10 years Can be renewed indefinitely for equal periods of time.
Name and emblem applications Industrial Property, Code (Decree-Law), No. 16/95/M 24/01/1995 20 years Can be renewed indefinitely for equal periods of time.


Last modified in December 2006
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