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5 Simple Steps to Importing into South Africa for Small Business Owners At TNT, we often come across concerned small business owners who need some guidance around the basics of importing. The first step is simple – get the paperwork right.

By Shane de Beer

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

You're reading Entrepreneur South Africa, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.


You have found the perfect product abroad, which will take South Africa by storm. In this exhilarating process you are excited yet overwhelmed because the importing process is complicated and daunting.

Given the various rules and regulations, which differ depending on the geographical spread of your product's origins, this is hardly surprising.

1. First things first: Get the basics right

The very first step will be for you to have a commercial invoice to import. Importantly this should not be a proforma invoice.

This commercial invoice will give the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer a thorough description of what you are importing. This includes a detailed description, precise quantity and the true financial value of your product.

2. Accuracy is key: Don't skimp on the small details

The description of the goods being imported needs to be clear, precise and non-generic. For example, instead of stating that you are importing a man's suit, indicate the exact materials it is made of, whether it is 100% cotton, polyester etc.

Related: 3 Types of Insurance You Need for Your Import/Export Business

Reason being, different materials are charged at different duty rates. An accurate description will prevent confusion and delay in the long run.

You will also need to specify whether the product is a sample of not, and SARS will check if this has been specified. Samples are mutilated goods, for example a left shoe with drilled holes, or a shirt with a cut out diamond in the back.

Stating the accurate commercial value of your products or samples needs to also be stated correctly, as anything found to be undervalued could lead to a hefty fine or trouble with the law.

3. Work hand-in-hand with SARS

Speaking of SARS, the next stage will be to become a registered importer through their straightforward website. When you register, you receive an importer's code. With this code you will be able to accurately import goods regularly.

SARS will then use the code to check your goods against the declared price and for that reason you must ensure that you are honest and accurate.

If you are an irregular importer, you may apply as such, whereby you will be allowed to import products three times a year.

4. Be knowledgeable around the country of origin

In China alone there are 55 states, each with their own unique rules and duty fees. There is therefore a high chance for suppliers to under-declare the goods for importation.

In this case, it is essential to work hand in hand with a clearing agent from the get-go to ensure that they are aware of the veritable value of the goods being imported. It will then be more likely that your commercial invoice will reflect the true value of your product.

If your products have been under-declared you could face penalties such as fines or delays that could take anything between 3 and 18 working days

5. Caution: Avoid these products

There are certain products that are not authorised to enter South Africa. A few examples include:

  • Second hand cars
  • Certain medications that have not been approved by the medical control council
  • Plant material without a license
  • Certain animal products – including animal skins
  • Certain liquids may not be airfreighted.

If you are importing any goods that might be considered Dangerous Goods (flammable items for example) you must declare these items as such and make sure you provide a Material Safety Data Sheet for their import.

Related: How Shippers Can Avoid Importing Delays

From an exportation perspective, there are military embargoes in certain countries. For example, South Africans cannot export equipment with GPS capabilities to countries such as Iran for the purpose of anti-terrorism support.

Another example is that alcohol may not be exported to certain countries such as Saudi Arabia. South African businesses need to be cognisant of these regulations and should seek consultation from export councils when exporting goods out of the country if uncertain.

Hopefully these simple steps can provide you with a sense of comfort when embarking on your new business venture. The TNT Express call centre can answer any further queries and you may contact them on 0860 122 441.

Related: 3 Types of Insurance You Need for Your Import/Export Business

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