Did you know that the United States imports over seven billion dollars worth of liquor? Whiskeys are the primary favorite, followed by Vodka, and then Tequila. The world is a diverse place, and so is the alcohol we enjoy. You have Sake from Japan, Sangria from Spain, Scottish Whiskey, and so many more. That’s the great thing about global trade and communication. You get to try out things that you wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. Whenever you have some big event to celebrate, there’s often a call to “Break out the finest (insert drink here).”
If you’re trying to break into the high-end restaurant business, a big part of that is offering your guests with the finest drinks. Bringing in drinks that complement the unique atmosphere and flavors of your business. It’s important to remember that there’s a process to import your favorite international drinks to the USA. This is essentially crucial to know if you’re sourcing the products yourself. With that said, let’s dive into the process together.
*If you want to know about how to export alcohol, we have a blog on that too:
#1: Be a Legal Customer
This first step may seem extremely obvious, but it’s useful to remember since drinking laws look different in different places. The drinking age in all 50 US States is 21 years old. What’s more, you’ll need to make sure that the person signing for your package is also of that legal drinking age, because package carriers will refuse to deliver a package containing alcohol to a minor. Remembering this from the offset is essential, because it can keep you from going through all the other steps just to have your package get turned away just because of this simple error.
#2: Get the Right Paperwork
There are a lot of laws surrounding the shipping and handling of alcohol. This is all centered on the Federal Alcohol Administration Act (FAA Act). This law is what defines what an alcoholic beverage is. It also lays out the documents that you need.
There are two different situations that can apply:
#2a: For an Individual
If you’re an individual, it’s sometimes possible to import wine to yourself if you were traveling. This varies on a state by state basis, and even on a county level. It all depends on your local laws.
Here is a map on which states allow you to ship wine back to yourself in the United States:
But, if the stars align and you can import alcohol to yourself, here’s some good news, you don’t really need any paperwork as the exporter is taking care of the leg work on their end. Here everything else you need to know:
- You must be shipping to one of these states: Alaska (AK), Arizona (AZ), Colorado (CO), Connecticut (CT), Delaware (DE), District of Columbia (DC), Georgia (GA), Hawaii (HI), Florida (FL), Illinois (IL), Indiana (IN), Iowa (IA), Kansas (KS), Kentucky (KY), Louisiana (LA), Maine (ME), Missouri (MO), Nebraska (NE), Nevada (NV), New Hampshire (NH), New York (NY), North Carolina (NC), North Dakota (ND), Pennsylvania (PA), Rhode Island (RI) & South Carolina (SC), Tennessee (TN) & Wyoming (WY).
- You must be in a county that allows alcoholic importing as well.
- The shipment must be for personal use.
- You must be 21 or over.
- You don’t need an importers basic permit.
- You don’t need a Certificate of Label Approvals (COLA).
- Naturally, duties and taxes will need to be paid, which will likely fall on you as the importer.
#2b: For a Business
If you’re a business importing alcohol for commercial use, the situation will get more complicated. To be compliant with the Federal Alcohol Administration Act (FAA Act), here are the things that you’ll need. The following information is a summary of a more detailed list by Alex Cunningham from MyDrinkBeverages: What you need to know about importing alcohol into the United States (mydrinkbeverages.com)
The following is required for importing Alcohol to the US:
- The exporter is required to provide the U.S. FDA Prior Notice for shipments containing consumable commodities (see attachment)
- The waybill must include the U.S. FDA Prior Notice number along with this statement “Contains Alcohol – Signature of a Person Age 21 or Older Required for Delivery” in the description field.
- Attach a printed copy of the U.S. FDA Prior Notice that has a complete list of all commodities to the Commercial Invoice.
- For U.S. states requiring permits, include the Importer Permit number on the Commercial Invoice.
- States Not Requiring Permits - Connecticut, Georgia, Washington
- States Requiring Permits - Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho (Wine and Beer Only), Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana (Wine and Beer Only), Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin, U.S. Territory-Puerto Rico
- Importers must obtain a Certificate of Age or Certificate of Origin, from either the Shipper or the exporting country, for items with countries of origin that require these documents.
- Shipments containing alcoholic beverages can only be delivered to import customers that:
- Provide a Power of Attorney
- Have a Certificate of Label Approval (COLA) or a COLA waiver
- Possess and provide a copy of their Federal Basic Permit
- For states requiring permits, provide a copy of the applicable state issued alcohol permit
- And the Certificate of Age or Origin
Upon a shipment’s arrival in the United States, it is reviewed for U.S. FDA and Customs entry approval as well as required accompanying documents.
*COLAs make sure alcohol producers are following their regulations.
Here are some links to help you get started
- A Federal Basic Importer’s Permit. Here is a resource to help you do it online: TTBGov - Applications
- A business office (and a staff) based in the United States.
- A Letter of Intent from Foreign Supplier. More on that here: wholesaler_and_importer.pdf (ttb.gov)
- Obtain a COLA for each product
- Potentially a Certificate of Age and Origin Requirements for Imported Alcohol Beverages (Depends on the type of alcohol). More on that here: TTBGov - Certificate of Age and Origin Requirements for Imported Alcohol Beverages
- Some kind of prior notice given to the FDA. More on that here: Prior Notice of Imported Foods | FDA
- You’ll likely need an Importer/Customs Bond. OptimalShip builds that into our services as we partner with Customs Brokers.
- If you don’t have a headquarters in the US, it is possible to contract with an existing importer who already is based in the United States.
#3: Abide by Correct Preparation and Quantities
Starting with more of a side note: you cannot ship alcohol in bulk containers like barrels. It must be shipped in bottles. This more applies to an exporter, but it’s useful to know in case you’re working with a relatively new exporter. You wouldn’t want your shipment to run into trouble just because it wasn’t packaged correctly.
You may be wondering about quantities that are allowed. That’s entirely going to depend on your state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board (ABC Board). Like with many things, each state is going to have its own rules. This is something that you’ll want to keep in mind. Especially if you’re going to do any kind of repeating shipments where time will be a factor. If you’re in Florida, you’ll need to consult the rules of the Florida ABC Board, which would naturally differ from the rules that Utah has for instance. So if you’re running a large chain of bars for instance that spans across the U.S., you’ll need to abide by a different set of quantity rules in each location.
#4: Move Forward
After all of that setup, you can finally import alcohol for yourself or your business. In short, make sure that you and the person receiving the shipment are of legal age. Make sure that you get the right paperwork, especially if you’re a business. You’ll need an importer’s permit, a business office in the US (if you’re an international company), a letter of intent, a COLA for each product, a Certificate of Age and Origin Requirements for Imported Alcohol Beverages (if applicable) and some sort of importer/customs bonds.
If this all seems like too much, one of our dedicated customer service reps would be more than happy to help you review your situation and what you’ll specifically need to import alcohol. Don’t hesitate to contact us and subscribe if you want to unlock more secrets behind international shipping. Our phone number is (972) 383-9901.