The Ultimate First-time Importers Starter Guide: Shipping, Documentation & Hidden Costs

First-time importer? So, you’ve decided to enter the business of importing? Congratulations!

The business of international imports can be very rewarding but without doubt, provides plenty of challenges. There’s a lot you need to think about – who your suppliers will be, how expensive shipping will be, what documentation is required, what costs you’ll have to pay, who the major stakeholders are, and so on.

Below, we’ll talk about international shipping, how imports are costed, the required documentation, key regulations and the infamous ‘stink bug season’ that importers should be aware of yearly.

>>> BONUS: Free Summary fact sheets at the end of the article! <<<

Air freight or sea freight?

Airfreight vs sea freight

There are two main options available when shipping internationally – shipping by air or shipping by sea.

Air freight is excellent for fast service but comes at a premium price. Ever since aircraft capacity was reduced following the outbreak of COVID-19, the price of air freight has skyrocketed. There are also some restrictions on the size of cargo, which is limited by different types of aircraft which you will need to be aware of.

Sea freight offers longer transit times (i.e. it takes a lot longer for a ship to cross the ocean) but it is more cost-effective for most importers. It’s also great for out of gauge of breakbulk cargo (think transporting large structures or objects that don’t fit in an ordinary container).

For more information, please read our article on the differences between air and ocean freight.

How imports are costed: volumetric ratios

pallets and cargo in warehouse

When importing goods from overseas, it’s vital to understand how each import is costed – this means understanding how much it will cost to import your cargo into Australia from end to end. This is because the size and weight of your shipment directly affects your billing.

When shipping, you are charged not on your cargo’s actual weight or volume, but on its chargeable weight or volume. In the industry, this is also referred to as cargo’s ‘volumetric ratio’.

You may, for instance, be shipping a product that is quite heavy, but not actually taking up that much space in a container – you may think in this instance you will be charged a reduced amount because you are not using much of the container’s volume. However, when it comes to shipping, the container has both a total volume and a total weight limit. In the instance above, you are using a high amount of the weight limit and therefore you may be charged for more volume than you are actually shipping.

The chargeable weight of your cargo (not to mention the equipment required) will also be different depending on if you are sending your goods as a dedicated Full Container Load (FCL) shipment or a Less than Container Load (LCL) shipment (click the links to find out more about these different types of shipping)

We’ve put together a handy guide to help you calculate the volumetric ratio of your cargo for both air freight and sea freight and understand more about how this impacts your billing.

Documentation: the most important part of your shipment

Unfortunately, the paperwork is the most important part of shipping. Whilst it may sound dry, correct documentation will determine how easy your shipment is processed from the offset.

Goods must be cleared into Australia by customs, and supporting documentation is mandatory for this. If your documentation isn’t right, it may lead to delays at customs and extra costs in your supply chain.

The most important documents you’ll need include:

  • Commercial invoice – a detailed invoice which outlines the price and the amount of the purchased goods.

  • Packing List your supplier will give you this. It contains information about how your goods will be packed, including the weight and dimensions.

  • Packing Declaration required if you’re shipping your goods via ocean freight. Customs will need this to see the packing material of your goods.

  • Certificate of OriginIf you’re importing from a country with a free trade agreement with Australia, this document may help you avoid duty charges. Make sure your supplier supplies you this document.

For more information, make sure you read our guide on the 5 shipping documents you’ll need for importing.

Key Regulations for common imports

Below, we’ve outlined a brief overview of the key regulations you’ll need to be aware of for the most common imports.


When importing food into Australia, you’ll need to follow the regulations specific to the type of food you are purchasing. You can find these specific regulations by looking at the Biosecurity Import Conditions (BICON) tool, administered by the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment.

The BICON tool will show you if your food requires an import permit, if it’s subject to any particular restriction or if it requires any particular type of documentation. Depending on the food, it may require health certificates, phytosanitary certificates or a Manufacturer’s Declaration. 

Please read our detailed article on importing food for further information.


Furniture can present a biosecurity risk to Australia, so you’ll also need to check BICON to see if the particular items you are importing attract any special requirements. Furniture can be made from many different materials, such as solid timber, plywood, feathers or plant materials. It’s important to know what your furniture is made of before importing it into the country.

Many pieces of furniture made of timber will require treatment and a fumigation certificate, confirming that the goods have been properly fumigated by an approved treatment provider. Also, note that you will need to ensure your wood is ISPM 15 compliant.

For more information, please read our guide on importing furniture.

Dangerous Goods

Importing dangerous goods is subject to stringent regulations in Australia. These goods are divided into nine different classes, including explosives, gases, flammable liquids, flammable solids, oxidising substances, toxic and infectious substances, radioactive material, corrosives and miscellaneous.

Each type of class has its own packaging requirements which must be complied with. Dangerous Goods must also be accompanied by a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) which contains detailed information about the hazardous content of a product. You’ll also need to make sure you have a completed Dangerous Goods Declaration.

We’ve put together a concise guide of 5 things you need to know when shipping dangerous goods.

dangerous goods fact sheet banner covers

General Cargo

Your cargo doesn’t fit in any of the categories above? Read below our fact sheet on how to import general cargo.

general cargo fact sheet banner covers

What is Stink Bug Season?

The Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (BMSB) is an infamous pest that ‘hitchhikes’ on cargo as it travels across the ocean, threatening serious damage to local Australian crops. Every year, the Department imposes regulations to prevent the presence of BMSB in Australia. The 2020-2021 Stink Bug Season is ongoing and is due to end on 31 May 2021.

Failure to comply with the BMSB regulations could result in delay, with your goods being turned back, or your cargo being destroyed.

It’s important that your goods are treated for BMSB and have a BSMB Treatment Certificate when arriving into Australia from a target high risk country. There are three different approved BMSB treatments: Sulfuryl Fluoride Fumigation, Methyl Bromide Fumigation and Heat treatment. The Department encourages goods to be treated at the country of origin (i.e. the country you are importing from), but this can present risks if your treatment provider becomes suspended. Note, China is not on the list of impacted countries for Stink Bug season and therefore cargo from China does not need to be treated.

You can read more information on our Ultimate Stink Bug Season Guide.


If you are a first-time importer or are trying to get your head around shipping, our expert sales team offers free consultations.

Our experts at ICE will take the time to understand your product and shipping requirements to ensure the best solution is available to you.

Request a Free Quote or call us on 1300 227 461

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What Others Are Saying About International Cargo Express

Managed goods end to end

Due to critical stock levels we needed a fast solution to urgently meet growing client demand. Presented with this challenge, ICE quickly identified appropriate freighter services and proactively managed the movement of goods end to end.

Eddie Liaw – Supply Chain Director

ICE offered flexibility

ICE offered flexibility, high levels of communication and attention to detail during our pick, pack and delivery project. With their professional support we were able to meet the demands of our supply chain knowing our freight was in safe hands.

Tony Kealy – National Distribution Manager

Without exception and on time

Since having International Cargo Express handle my ocean freight , I have had my bookings and equipment available without exception and on time. Communication between ICE and my supplier is very good and I receive information via my shipper before my supplier.

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