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Importing Alcohol Into the U.S.

If you are importing alcoholic beverages into the United States, you should be aware of the rules and regulations that apply, and the special permits that are required.

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Alcoholic beverages fall under the rulings of three agencies: the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, the Federal Food and Drug Administration, and the Customs and Border Protection agency.

Now, that’s not too bad for a product that was virtually outlawed in the prohibition era of the 1920s and 30s. Today, there is no need for you to sell alcohol in the black market. Just make sure you get all your paperwork in order and you will be ready to go.

The Need for Special TTB Permits

If you want to import alcoholic beverages, you’ll need to fill out a few forms and get special permits from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) first. Good news though – you can apply for the importer’s and wholesaler’s permit online.

Visit the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau website. Once there you need to:

  1. Select the “Permits Online” option.
  2. Click the “Register for a Permits Online Account” button.
  3. Click "New Users: Register for an Account."
  4. Read through the warnings and click “Continue Registration.”
  5. Fill out the form and submit it for processing.

If you prefer, you can also print out the form and fill it out manually in blue or black ink, then send it in to the department. You should expect to wait about 6 weeks for your registration to process.

While at the “Permits Online” website, register for a standard wholesaler’s permit. You can expect about the same amount of processing time.

You will be notified as soon as you are either approved or denied, and then you will be able to start the final importing process.

Labels

As a business planning to sell alcohol, you are also required to comply with federal labeling regulations and obtain a certificate of origin that states: 1) the country where the alcohol is produced, and 2) the age of the alcohol as well as the percent of alcohol in the beverage.

Certificate of Origin

The CBP uses the Certificate of Origin to determine various factors, including:

  • Duty rates
  • Duty preferences
  • Violation of U.S. trade quotas, and
  • Sanctions against a specific country or product

Usually, getting a Certificate of Origin for the alcohol beverage is simple. However, if the alcohol is produced from products grown in more than one country, obtaining the certificate could involve more forms, tests, and reviews from any of the three agencies that govern the importing of this product.

Among other things, the Certificate of Origin will also influence the import duty you pay. So if saving money is important, you should try to import from a NAFTA country (Canada or Mexico), where preferential trade agreements, and hence preferential duty rates, will come into play.

Label Requirements

Labels used on alcoholic beverages must be pre-approved by the Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) to obtain a Certificate of Label Approval (COLA).

You can apply for the COLA online on the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau website. Depending on the alcohol beverage you may need to submit the formula for review, testing, and approval. Without this label approval, however, Customs will reject the entry. The label must:

  • Read “Imported by,” followed by the name of your company.
  • Be approved by the TTB for each product you plan on importing.

Wine Regulations Set By the TTB

Wine importing has special requirements particularly if the wine is produced after December 31, 2004. These products have certain certification requirements to ensure that the producer used adequate winemaking procedures.

For some countries, the TTB will accept a statement of competent wine-making procedures from the importer. This is known as a “Self-Certification.”

However, for other countries, the certification requires a statement of adequate production from the alcohol-producing country’s government. This ensures that the producer uses controlled enological practices. In this case, you will also need to present proof of proper practice in the form of a laboratory analysis of the wine.

FDA Requirements

The FDA requires that the foreign alcohol manufacturer register according to the FDA Food Facility Registration Regulation. Many foreign alcohol producers are unfamiliar with these U.S. FDA regulations and are not registered. In this case, you will need to apply for registration yourself.

Many alcohol manufacturers already export to the U.S. It may save you time to find a producer who is already registered with the FDA, and then you would only need to advise the FDA when you are ready to import.

Taxes

All alcoholic beverages pay a Federal excise tax. This amount differs because excise taxes are not uniform throughout the country and depend on the product, as well as on Federal, state, and city regulations.

Now you are ready to take on U.S. Customs.

Customs Regulations

U.S. Customs requires you have all the above TTB permits in addition to meeting all labeling and certificate of origin documentation requirements.

When you are finally ready to make your first import, you can file entry for the goods under the Remote Location Filing (RLF) Prototypes and Electronic Invoice Program (EIP) managed by U.S. Customs. These programs require you to fill out an entry form, write an entry summary, pay the excise tax and import fees, and submit the paperwork you received from the TTB and FDA.

You must accompany every entry with an invoice, which must have the name of the importer, exporter, and the port of entry. It needs to contain the number, price, and weight of the product you are importing and a detailed description. Without this invoice, Customs may reject the entry.

Upon entry, you will also need to submit the codes given to you when you made the EIP and RLF remote entry to the CBP customs officer. Take all documentation with you as the officer may request to see it.

Of course, if you don’t happen to have the information with you, you can fax or mail the documentation to the port of entry office.

Restrictions

When it comes to alcohol imports there are some minimum restrictions:

  • The importer must be 21 years old.
  • If making a faster informal entry, the overall cost of the product needs to be under $2,500, providing there is not an imposed quota on the specific type of alcohol beverage.
  • Imports with a value over $2,500 require a customs bond
  • Mixed caffeinated alcohol beverages are currently not allowed in the U.S.

The End is Easy

Once you’ve made your first shipment, the following ones are easier. After all, you will have all the permits and paperwork ready, and going forward, you will be set for all of your other alcoholic beverage shipments.

*Note that Flexport does not ship alcohol at this time. *

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