The Perils of International Shipping With eBay and Paypal – A Guide to Successful Shipping Practices

19 Apr

You may also be interested in these guides: How to Print USPS International Shipping Label With Required Customs Forms and When to Buy Shipping Insurance Part 2 – The eBay Seller’s Perspective

One of the most important decisions any business will make is whether or not to ship internationally. In today’s world economy, opening up your business to billions of potential customers seems like a no-brainer. Unfortunately, shipping internationally can be a complex and frustrating endeavor as you try to make sense of all the options available. This guide will help you make an informed decision on which shipping services to use to get your items to your customers economically, while protecting yourself from the many potential problems that come with international shipment. This guide is written for a seller shipping internationally from the United States. If you’re lucky enough to find yourself on a beach in Barbados you may need to apply this information more liberally as your shipping options may include “By Banana Boat” rather than “Globally Insured.”

International shipping has come a long way. In the past few years USPS has made a serious overhaul of their international shipping options and at least attempted to make choices easier for sellers. It is now possible to print international shipping online both with Paypal and on USPS.com, which means no more waiting in line at the Post Office and no more filling out forms by hand. USPS packaging supplies are no longer split into international and domestic, so you can use the same envelopes and boxes you use to ship to Arkansas to ship to Tanzania. Postal systems in other countries are improving, speeding up shipping times and reducing the number of “lost” packages. International shipping has never been a more attractive option than it is today.

USPS offers a variety of international services, ranging from the relatively inexpensive First Class Mail International to the most expensive Global Express Guaranteed. When selling online and accepting payments with Paypal, you must have online verifiable proof that your item reached the buyer. Because of this, you should never ship an item via First Class Mail International because it is impossible to track First Class Mail International Packages. There are buyers on eBay who prey on sellers who offer First Class Shipping. With the push of a button they can tell Paypal they did not receive the item and Paypal will refund their payment in full every time because the seller is unable to provide any proof that the item was delivered. No amount of phone calls, complaint letters, or postage receipts will get your money back. This is one lesson many sellers have learned the hard way.

After First Class, comes Priority Mail International, formerly called Global Priority. Many sellers on eBay offer Global Priority International as their featured international shipping method. The USPS advertises it as taking 6-10 days and although it is still expensive, it is much cheaper than competing services offered by DHL, Fedex, or God forbid, UPS. One important note is that tracking is not available on Priority Mail International Flat Rate Envelopes or Small Flat Rate Boxes. Although it does say this on the USPS website, many sellers are surprised to find this out because Priority Mail Flat Rate Envelope online labels print with what looks like a tracking number. Don’t be fooled, USPS will not scan this number and it will not be trackable in any way. This is one of the reasons why the Flat Rate Envelopes are much less expensive than variable Priority Mail International rates. Because tracking is not available on Flat Rate Envelopes or Small Flat Rate Boxes, these services should never be used by sellers who accept the payment via Paypal or any other payment method where the buyer can dispute the payment. Another problem is that USPS advertises Global Priority International as only having tracking available for “major destinations.” Thus, there is no guarantee that your package will be tracked accurately, or for that matter, that it will be tracked at all. Even if your tracking number shows the item was delivered, it may still be difficult to win a Paypal dispute if the buyer says they did not receive it. Paypal has increasingly been siding with buyers on all types of disputes and it is difficult to guess what they will do in this particular situation now or in the future.

Next is USPS Express Mail International, which is what I recommend all sellers offer as their only method for international shipments. It is expensive, but in reality it isn’t much more expensive than Priority Mail International variable rate, which as I have explained is your only other real option. USPS Express International drastically reduces the amount of buyers who will try to fraudulently say they “didn’t receive the item.” I have never lost a Paypal dispute when I used USPS Express Mail nor have I ever had a package lost in the system, which is a serious feat considering the distance packages travel and the numbers of hands that touch it. If a package is undeliverable you can choose to have the item returned to you at no additional cost. USPS Express International offers 3-5 day shipping times to most destinations, full tracking including a signature by the recipient, and includes up to $100 insurance at no additional cost. USPS Express Mail Flat Rate Envelopes also offer all of these benefits at a reduced cost and I strongly recommend you utilize them to fit any item that has a chance of fitting. Be forewarned that for some inexplicable reason it is not possible to print Express Mail International Flat Rate Envelopes through Paypal. You will have to manually copy the information over to USPS.com.

Since cost is a serious concern, let’s quickly compare the prices of shipping a 2 pound package from the United States to Canada. If you choose to ship internationally on eBay, you can pick specific countries you are willing to ship to. Even if you are not comfortable shipping to Europe or Asia, Canada is a relatively safe location because they generally speak English and their postal system is pretty good. If you are new to shipping internationally I recommend trying to ship to Canada only to start. You will get a feel for how international transactions go and can familiarize yourself with the many shipping options available to you. International shipping to Canada is also less expensive than shipping overseas to Europe etc. so your potential losses are minimized.

As you can see the cost of First Class International is by far the cheapest option. Unfortunately, it is not a viable choice. Neither is Flat Rate Priority. So our options are Priority for $19.71, Express Mail Flat Rate for $23.87 or variable rate Express for $30.82. Hopefully most of your items will fit in the Flat Rate Express envelope as it is nearly identical in price to Priority, plus it includes insurance, signature confirmation, and full tracking. If your item does not fit in the flat rate envelope, it’s a tricky decision to decide if you want to take the chance of losing the entire amount of the transaction over a $10 difference in shipping cost.

Next, let’s look at the cost of shipping the same 2 pound package from the U.S. to Germany, which is about as far away and expensive as international shipping gets.

Here, the Express Mail International Flat Rate Envelope is actually cheaper than the Priority Mail International variable rate envelope/box and even the variable rate Express package is less than 6 dollars more expensive. There is no reason not to go Express here, as a $6 investment now makes you much less likely to lose the entire cost of the transaction to a Paypal dispute. Plus, you will likely receive high ratings from your buyers on your Detailed Seller Ratings as they won’t believe they got their package in three days across the globe. If you’re still reading you’ve probably picked up on this, but DON’T SHIP FIRST CLASS INTERNATIONAL OR FLAT RATE PRIORITY. Just trust me on this.

Moving right along, we can’t discuss international shipping without covering customs forms. Filling out customs forms is a contentious topic, so much so that eBay took a rare opportunity to make an announcement regarding sellers who receive negative feedback over customs charges. Read about it here Feedback Withdrawal and Removal and here ***A Message from Dinesh Lathi – Update to the Feedback Removal Policy In reality it’s a somewhat worthless policy as few buyers will leave feedback that fits into those specific guidelines, but at least eBay listens to its sellers right! All international packages must include a customs form indicating what is inside the package, how much it’s worth, and what category the item falls into. A great number of buyers will contact the seller after winning an item asking if it’s possible to mark the item as a “Gift” with a low value. They do this to minimize the chances that they will have to pay an additional amount in customs fees upon receiving the item. If you aren’t willing to do this, you might want to say so in your listing, so you won’t have to deal with it. It’s a federal crime to mark customs forms inaccurately so I really wouldn’t dare recommend doing it in this guide. The other downside of marking that Playstation 3 as a $5 pair of underpants is if the package is lost, and you have to try to collect insurance on it, you will only receive a refund in the amount that you declared the item. If this happens, and you lied on the customs form. I do not suggest telling the Postal agent that you “said the item was a gift so they wouldn’t have to pay customs fees but really the item was worth $500 not $10.” You don’t want to do 5 years hard time at Riker’s Island.

Last, as I touched on before, it is possible to choose which countries you ship to and block buyers who do not live in these countries. No matter where you choose to ship, I recommend blocking bidders who live in locations that you do not ship. It will decrease the amount of mail you get from the Chinese trying to sell you fake tennis rackets and you won’t have to file fee credits from bidders who aren’t clever enough to figure out you don’t ship to Mazatlan. To do this, go to Selecting Buyer Requirements and follow the instructions. I recommend only shipping to the United States, Europe, Asia, Canada, Australia, and Japan. You will run into potential problems if you ship to the many members of the Nigerian royal family or to South America as their postal systems are generally not good. You may want to limit your transactions in Asia and Eastern Europe as well until you get a feel for how potential scammers operate.

Ok, really last thing. You need this customs envelope when printing out labels yourself. Customs Form Envelope 2976E Rather than affixing the shipping label, you put the documents in this envelope and then attach it to the package. All international supplies available from USPS are listed here, and remember, they’re all delivered to your door for free: USPS Supplies For Mailing / Shipping – International

That about sums it up for now. I look forward to hearing from you so this guide can be as up to date and accurate as possible. If you have anything to add, please leave a comment or email me at josh@auctioncope.com. I really have nothing better to do, other than selling thousands of things on eBay, so I’ll get back to you soon.

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13 Responses to “The Perils of International Shipping With eBay and Paypal – A Guide to Successful Shipping Practices”

  1. Luigi 15. May, 2009 at 7:26 pm #

    Thanks! Excellent guide. You should copy this and put it into an ebay guide.

  2. Steve 17. May, 2009 at 7:39 am #

    Hi Josh,

    It is not “impossible to track First Class Mail International packages”. Just complete and attach form 2976 (the small green customs form) to your package. The form will be scanned and the customs number will appear on your receipt (or you can copy the number from the form). The customs number can be used at usps.com to track your package. These form can be used for packages that are 4 pounds or less. After that, you must use Priority Mail International (and a bigger customs form).

    I had a case with a buyer in France who only paid after several unpaid item reports. The post office made three attempts to deliver the package (according to the usps.com tracking info). The items were returned to me and the buyer was given a full refund including shipping. I was out the shipping charge (about $100). I would have been better off just canceling the transactions. The tracking info included the fact that the package was being shipped back to me.

    As with any package handled by USPS, tracking info may not always be complete, but it is not impossible to track international packages with First Class International Mail.

    Steve

  3. auctioncope 17. May, 2009 at 7:14 pm #

    Hi Steve,

    Yes, the Post Office can scan the customs form and it will show that the item was accepted domestically online. There is no further tracking information available and the number will never confirm delivery. On occasion the number will update when the package enters customs, but that’s usually only in Canada and several other countries with more advanced technology.

    If tracking was that easy internationally then there would be tracking available on Priority International Flat Rate Envelopes and Boxes. These packages use the same customs forms.

    Priority Mail International

    “Note: Tracking is not available for Priority Mail International Flat Rate Envelopes or Priority Mail International Small Flat Rate Boxes.”

    The customs form is used by customs to process the package. It will not be scanned upon delivery.

  4. Jeff 03. Oct, 2009 at 12:12 pm #

    Thanks Josh for a very well written and informative comprehensive article on the best practices and potential perils of international shipping. It confirmed a lot of what I already knew based on my own research but it’s great to see someone like yourself who obviously has had a lot of experience shipping internationally taking the time to lay it all out. That was interesting that Express mail is sometimes cheaper than priority and includes insurance, that’s something to keep in mind. Thanks again.

    Jeff

  5. Dan 20. Jan, 2010 at 1:06 pm #

    Thanks so much for an informative article. You may have just saved us 100′s of dollars in the event that we need a tracking number for an international shipment! Are there any restrictions on a USPS Express Mail Flat Rate Envelope? Can the envelope have a buldge or does it need to be ridig and flat?

    Thanks!

    Dan Lewkowicz
    CEO
    http://www.inventorysellers.com
    http://stores.ebay.com/InventorySellersLLC

  6. auctioncope 20. Jan, 2010 at 2:13 pm #

    The envelope can have a “bulge.” I’ve shipped some ridiculously stuffed Flat Rate Envelopes in the past. The problem is that you may run into a Postal employee who tries to deny the package for one reason or another. If that happens it’s best to try somewhere else – either schedule a pickup, drop it in the pickup box, or try at another time. The good news is that the required customs envelope is plenty large and sticky enough to seal the flap of the envelope, so no additional tape should be necessary. The full list of exclusions and restrictions on international mail is available at http://pe.usps.gov/text/imm/welcome.htm.

  7. Dirk 17. Feb, 2010 at 7:29 am #

    Hello and thanks for this blog. I desperately need advice. I plan on auctioning a set of expensive collectible books and want to offer them internationally (Europe) but haven’t been able to find definitive info for USPS services. The set will be shipped in 2 large boxes (my packaging), 30 lbs each, insured for $2500 – $3500 and of course requiring delivery/ signature confirmation. I cannot find any USPS international shipping method that fills all those requirements. Is there a solution other than going Fedex or UPS and paying a fortune for shipping?
    Thanks for any info.

    Dirk

  8. auctioncope 17. Feb, 2010 at 3:52 pm #

    Sounds gutsy. Are the books of particular interest to Europeans? Are Europeans likely to significantly increase the final bid? In other words, is it worth the risk and increased cost of shipping vs. domestic media mail?

  9. Dirk 18. Feb, 2010 at 8:00 am #

    Thanks for replying. Yes, this set is definitely of interest to Europeans. It’s a set of Jack Vance books – “Vance Integral Edition” that was conceived of and printed in Europe. The set has been sold out for years and is extremely rare to find one offered for sale anywhere. I’ve delayed putting it up auction trying to find a method of international shipping that would cover me in the event something does go wrong. I can’t seem to find that method though, without it costing an arm and a leg.

  10. Eric 29. Mar, 2010 at 10:17 am #

    How does the following read to you in response to international buyers (from an experienced seller’s perspective)? “International shipping (USPS) will be considered to certain countries for items that are purchased at the “Buy It Now” price–plus the additional shipping and handling costs. Please send a message with the appropriate postal code BEFORE attempting to purchase and I will research the additional shipping time/cost with USPS.” I have updated my preferences to restrict particular countries. Also, how do you typically receive payment of the additional shipping costs (updated shipping method, separate Paypal transaction, etc.)?

  11. vel 02. Jun, 2010 at 10:53 am #

    Hi there,
    thanks for all the details, i just need some info about shipping a flat rate envelope to Australia from USA i just need to send some baby bibs weighing around 15 ounces, do i need to attach a custom form for this package.

  12. Jeff T. 22. Jul, 2011 at 5:08 pm #

    Very helpful information.

    Some excellent general rules; however, there may be some important exceptions to consider.

    It can be beneficial to offer First Class International and Priority Flat Rate, if you know how to do it. Consider requests for these services, evaluate buyer feedback, and send to select countries.

    Just ship smartly and beat out your competition. I have never had a fraudulent claim and only lost one first class item in over 300 international shipments; the other lost item went Express. All funds recovered.

    I ask buyers to contact me to request such, stating the limitations and qualifications of the delivery in the listing, as well as their agreement to such, and that they have a well-established feedback rating, especially for buyers in Japan and other countries with good postal systems. I have many repeat customers because of this. Also, use a good third-party insurance (Endicia, etc.) and you will be covered even if First Class Mail International doesn’t arrive. The one first class international package that was lost was reimbursed in full (sales price plus shipping).

    Also, I’ve sent many items via priority flat rate legal envelopes (you can get a lot in there) to Japan, Australia, and Canada. Not one was lost. Just warn buyers during the holidays that this service can take 30 days or a bit longer.

  13. Jerry 19. Apr, 2012 at 10:42 pm #

    Hi Josh:
    My name is Jerry and I am an Ebay seller. I was thinking of doing international selling. I have read your complete article and I believe the best bet for me is to start small like you suggested shipping to Canada first. I was wondering has anything changed since you posted this article because I see it was written a few years ago. Also do I have to have adhesive posting labels. I only ask because I just bought a 55lb scale this week in hopes that I will start using it to start having a 1 day handling process and I will also be implementing a return policy. I see that Ebay is getting rid of the 7 day return policy in return making a new 14 day min policy I was thinking about doing a 30 day instead. Any pointers you can give me I would apprecate. Also no pressure but I want to start this by Sunday April 22ns, 2012. Please advise.
    Thank you so much in advance for sharing your knowledge with me.
    ~Jerry~

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