Importing electronics from China – I have recently been asked a few times to write about regulations for electronics and why I chose electronics. I choose electronics for myself because I’ve been in this category for nearly 17 years so I feel confident importing/exporting them.
I wanted to give you a basic overview what you need to pay attention to. First off I wanted to let you know that I’ve created an in-depth course with over 7 hours of material on the topic titled ImportDojo Certifications. You can get it on Udemy for $10.99 here: ImportDojo Certifications.
Many “gurus’ will tell you to shy away from electronics because of the regulations, high returns and what to do with defective items. While I do agree that a beginner should stay away from electronics I do encourage you to import electronics at one point because the margins are higher than your standard household product.
Especially if you have it OEM manufactured products (your own design/software/application). However manufacturing an electronic OEM item requires profound technical knowledge (or at least a knowledgable factory and engineers) and financial pre-investment in most cases.
Most suppliers won’t offer free services to help develop the product unless you commit with a certain order quantity, have yearly agreements or previous (mostly large) business with the factory.
Why is it so difficult to find manufacturers who comply with regulations already?
Most suppliers that develop a new product do not invest in the certifications in the beginning because they don’t know yet if the product actually sells so why invest in certifications that can run into thousands of dollars?
Try to work and find suppliers who mainly work with larger European and US customers or retailers that did the work for you already. Because when retailers look for electronics they will absolutely make sure that they comply with the law.
You will want to buy from factories that are either compliant already or are willing to work together with you to get the product compliant.
Dismiss suppliers who aren’t interested in making the product compliant if the response is something like: “all the other buyers also don’t need it”. Ideally you can convince the supplier to invest his money into certifications and making the product compliant for different markets and regulations because it also benefits him. The more clients he can sell his products to (because they are certified) the better for him too.
Lets take a look at general regulations first.
Europe is generally stricter than the US and has a couple more regulations that are to be met if you wish to import legally to Europe.
The CE marking is a mandatory conformity marking if you want to import into Europe. It basically confirms that your product is manufactured according to certain European standards. It covers most standards and this is the absolute minimum you need to have when importing to Europe, no matter which product actually. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CE_marking
Required by law: YES
GS or “Gepruefte Sicherheit” is a quality seal issued by a third party laboratory and mostly recommended if sold as a retailer or to retailers. It is voluntary and NOT required by law but it has been an established trust and quality seal commonly known by consumers, especially in Germany. The requirements to get a GS certificate is higher than the one for CE. GS is not available or doesn’t make sense on several products such as battery operated items. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gepr%C3%BCfte_Sicherheit
Required by law: NO, voluntary and used as a seal of quality for consumers.
This directive covers any radio-transmitting device and is usually already covered within a GS or CE certification.
Required by law: YES, any of the following products need to comply: WiFi, Bluetooth products and Radio-Emitting devices (Smartphones, tablets, smart devices)
The Low Voltage Directive does not supply any specific technical standards that must be met, instead relying on IEC technical standards to guide designers to produce safe products. Products that conform to the general principles of the Low Voltage Directive and the relevant particular safety standards are marked with the CE marking to indicate compliance and acceptance throughout the EU.
Required by law: YES applicable to products or electrical equipment with a voltage at input or output terminals between 50 and 1000 volts for alternating current (AC) or between 75 and 1500 volts for direct current(DC)
EMC or “Electro Magnetic Compatibility” regulates that the products may not interfere with other electronics products. Meaning that components of a product need to be manufactured according to several CE or GS standards to comply. If your product has a GS certificate EMC will usually be tested. Some CE certification and test reports include EMC testing. Make sure to check this in the report. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electromagnetic_compatibility
Required by law: YES but different nations can require compliance with different standards. In European law, manufacturers of electronic devices are advised to run EMC tests in order to comply with compulsory CE-labeling. EU directive 2004/108/EC (previously 89/336/EEC) on EMC defines the rules for the distribution of electric devices within the European Union.
RoHS or the “Restriction of Hazardous Substances” regulates the allowed content of 6 substances within the product. These are: Lead, Mercury, Cadmium, Chromium, PBB & PBDE. It is closely linked with the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE) 2002/96/EC which sets collection, recycling and recovery targets for electrical goods and is part of a legislative initiative to solve the problem of huge amounts of toxic e-waste. Most suppliers have at least a report for the incoming raw-materials that they later use for the final product. So while they do not have a RoHS certificate for the entire product they may have the material tested which is generally accepted by authorities.
Required by law: YES, however raw material report as opposed to full report is widely accepted. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Restriction_of_Hazardous_Substances_Directive
Most suppliers have never heard of REACH altough it has been around since 2007. It is essentially the upgrade to RoHS but regulates more chemicals and substances. It has different phases that regulate the chemicals used in manufacturing and once in full force all importers need to comply (within the European Union). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Registration,_Evaluation,_Authorisation_and_Restriction_of_Chemicals
Required by law: YES
The Waste Electrical and Electronics Equipment Directive is mandatory to be fullfilled by the manufacturer. The marking needs to be on the sales packaging or product.
Required by law: YES but different nations can require compliance with different standards.
Sub – Regulations & Directives:
Each of the above have several sub-regulations that have to be met. But generally if you buy a certian product from a supplier and it is say for example CE or FCC certified it should have automatically been certified by the sub-regulation.
The US generally has “loose” regulations compared to the authorities in Europe. Having said that I do recommend that you comply to all regulations as you don’t want to import a product that can cause fire or other hazards. “Loose regulations” also doesn’t mean that they are actually loose because you still are required to comply but again, Europe is stricter when it comes to enforcing and checking at customs or at retailers. A FCC certification is usually obtainable for a couple hundred $ while a GS certificate can go into the thousands. Of course there are products that are highly technical and or pose a risk or hazard and are difficult to certify by FCC for example.
The FCC basically regulates anything that is electronic including WiFi, Bluetooth, Radio transmission etc. You will want any device that you import that is electrical and remitting radio waves (in any way) certified by the FCC.
There are two regulations within FCC for both Intentional & Un-Intentional radiators. Intentional radiators for example are: Bluetooth speakers, WiFi devices, radios or smartphones. Unintentional radiators are: Headphones, Earphones, power packs, PCB’s etc.
Required by law: YES
UL is a certification company that certifies your product according to several different standards. Say if you have a FCC certification you may still need to certify by UL, especially if you are a retailer. It’s a seal of quality that consumers appreciate on certain products https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/UL_(safety_organization)
Required by law: NO/Voluntary and used as a seal of quality for consumers.
RoHS is also recognised in the US and widley available at suppliers. RoHS self declarations are generally accepted by authorities.
Required by law: NO
Further information you should be aware of
Having a full certification on a product is the best and safest way to go. What does that actually mean? Lets look at an example: You want to import a hair trimmer/clipper. The hair clipper itself runs on a integrated rechargeable battery. The battery is charged via a universal external charger/adpater with a plug. In 90% of the cases the supplier will only have a FCC/GS/CE certificate for the charger/adapter. Why?
Because the adapter can be certified with GS/FCC/CE easily and can be used on hundreds of different products that need a universal charger. So it makes sense for the manufacturer to certify the charger because he can sell it with different products and only needs to certify the adapter once. He can also sell his charger to other suppliers who are in need of universal chargers only for their products. While the hair trimmer is a sperate unit in itself and may not sell well. So why would the factory pay a lot of money to certify an entire product if they may not sell it.
If possible find a manufacturer who has a fully certified product. Those are likely suppliers who work with large western retailers. Having said that if say the charger has a full certification like GS/CE or FCC and the hair trimmer itself only has CE it is also acceptable to authorities. If you want to make sure that you comply or satisfy authorities you may ask the supplier to issue a Letter of Guarantee that the entire product has been manufacturerd according to standard or regulation “X”. But satisfying authorities should not be your eventual goal. Your evenutal goal should be to import a safe and reliable product that lasts and delivers good reviews or sales.
A full certification is quite expensive and therfore not often found. Yet some markets like Germay demand full certification especially from retailers. If you are an online seller and your exposure to the authorities is minimal you could start by meeting only minimum requirements (CE, FCC for example).
Labelling & Marking
The following markings must be on the final packaging or box in which the product is sold to the customer where applicable:
WEEE, FCC, CE, GS, Made in China, Recycle symbol
I say applicable because as mentioned not every product needs to comply with above regulations.
You will also want to put all labels and markings of the product on the Instruction Manual. Electronic products usually have instruction manuals so you’ll want to show in there what your product complies with.
You are actually required by law to mark all regulations met, either on the box of the product or inside the instruction manual (if there is no space on the sales packaging).
Returns and damaged products
Unfortunately returns of electrical products can be as high as 20% in some cases. That could be due to poor manufacturing, faulty components that didn’t get checked properly, the client mishandling (or misunderstanding) the product and several other reasons. It comes with the territory when selling electronics and the only thing you can do as a seller is to take care of the manufacturing side and handle returns from customers with proper manner. Don’t try to argue with customers and simply refund or exchange the product for a new one.
However you should collect all data collected from returns and defects and claim the lost profit/money from your supplier when or if you re-order. Make sure to communicate the issues to the factory and have them deduct the total amount lost from the next invoice. Send all material that you can gather from your customers to the supplier to have a strong case against the supplier. If you aren’t going to re-order (maybe because of the issues) try to get the defect/returned units replaced by him or even better a cash payment in the amount of your loss. The latter may be more difficult as suppliers will want to have you re-order before they give out any money for returns.
In some cases it doesn’t make sense to certify a product because your quantities are low or the product is so cheap that the certification cost don’t justify certifying it. In that case you may ask the supplier to issue a self-declaration which is in some cases accepted by authorities. Please note that you cannot issue a self-declaration, it has to be done by the manufacturer.
You would at least need to be compliant with basic requirements like raw material being certified or tested and according to regulations. However most countries in Europe only allow CE or RohS self-declarations for several items, mainly low voltage or battery powered products. Check with your supplier what he can offer you.
Lets take a look at a few examples
Please note that the following are recommendations and there may be additional requirements for each country depending on your sales channel.
I know for a fact that many importers ignore these regulations, hoping not to get caught.
I am not telling you what you should or shouldn’t do but many countries have lax enforcements so importers simply ignore it. I personally like to have everything in order and proper certification to avoid any problems in the future.
It’s best to check with a third-party inspection company but this should get you started when sourcing for electronics:
Bluetooth Speaker (Low Voltage product)
EU: CE, REACH, ROHS, LVD, R&TTE & GS on the adpater recommended if product comes with a external charger (they usually come with USB charging cables)
US: FCC, UL recommended if you are a retailer
Not to forget that you need to pay BIG (Bluetooth Interest Group) a fee of 8000US$ (4000$ if you are a member) if you are planning on private labelling your product. Prior to February 2014 private labelers were able to register their private label under the manufacturers Bluetooth chip license but BIG changed that and made it not possible anymore. I know that there are many small time buyers who don’t care and risk it because its still a grey area but basically they are illegally branding Bluetooth products.
Solar powered garden lamp (Low Voltage product)
This is a very simple product but highly competitive. The good news is that they are battery operated and low voltage powered.
EU: CE self declaration, RoHs self-declaration
US: FCC self declaration
Vaccuum cleaner (High Voltage product)
EU: CE, GS recommended, RoHS, REACH, EMC
US: FCC, UL recommended
Wired-Headset (Non-Bluetooth, no direct Voltage)
EU: CE, RoHS self declaration
US: FCC self declaration
Many small importers in Europe or the US illegally import products hoping not to get caught (or not knowing there are regulations to be met). Basically playing with fire just to save a couple hundred dollars on certifications and compliant products.
Also paying for a certification report doesn’t mean your supplier can comply with the regulation. Before you place an order with the factory make sure to ask him that the material and components will actually pass a FCC or CE testing for example, otherwise you waste money on a certification and the product may not even pass the requirements.
One thing that I recommend beginners with electronics is to have the certifications from the supplier verified by a third-party. If you work with a third party inspection company like Asiainspection, TUV, SGS or others they are usually open to check certificates for you. That is if you already do business with them otherwise they charge a small fee. You can simply ask your contact at the third-party inspection company to look over the documents that the supplier sent you.
Do not engage with a supplier or product that cannot comply to regulations otherwise your products might be seized by customs or even have to be withdrawn from the market if an authority finds out you do not comply with regulations.
If a supplier tells you he doesn’t have the necessary certification and “its ok his other customers also don’t need it” stay away or be prepared to invest a couple hundred US$ for a certification (FCC or CE usually goes from 400-600US$).
Yes, it is sometimes a grey area, especially in the US if you ship things by Air directly to Amazon for example that you do not get caught, but I do not recommend going this way.
If a supplier doesn’t have a certificate or is unwilling to invest in it move on to the next supplier. However if you are willing to invest yourself in the certification (make sure to ask the supplier if the product can pass first) I would recommend to do so. Furthermore if you invest into a certificate you will be the holder of the certificate and the supplier is not allowed to sell the product with certification to anyone else but you. This applies to all certifications.
I can’t stress enough how important inspections are, especially with electronics. You will want your goods to be inspected to avoid a high rate of returns,defects or not compliant manufactured products. Pre-Shipment inspections can save you a lot of troubles and are well worth the investment. The inspectors will not only test the product but they will also make sure that all is compliant with laws and regulations.
Product Liability Insurance
I also recommend once you import electronics in larger quantities that you contact your local insurance company and have a product liability insurance on your products. This is to protect yourself from any unforseeable issues.
Even you may have manufactured a product to the best of your knowledge something can go wrong or someone mishandled the product but you may not proof it. For example a few years ago I worked for this large German retailer and we had a fan heater manufactured to all possible standards and regulations.
One day a customer hired a lawyer and sent a letter to the retailer explaining his house has burnt down because of the fan heater he bought from them and he is looking for compensation and a full law suit. Since the fan heater was manufactured in China and sourced trough the buying office I worked for I was put in charge of the situation. When I heard of the problem the first step was obviously to speak to the supplier, check the certificates and look at the Inspection. All was in order, the said unit was manufactured at the highest standards and we suspected that the customer covered the fan heater with a towel and thats why the unit started burning.
However we couldn’t proof that and the client won the lawsuit. The retailer had coverage from his product liability insurance and at least the financial damage was settled. The bigger damage was obviously the public problem they had but at least the financial issue was off the table.
So what do you actually need for sure? Thats difficult to say as it depends on the product and ideally you will want the supplier to provide you all of the above. But realistically that never happens. In most cases suppliers do not even have CE certification which is actually easily obtainable. I can only recommend to have a supplier who has the minimum requirements such as FCC and CE certification.
RoHS is also easily obtainable these days and if a supplier doesn’t even have a self-declaration or certification for incoming raw materials look elsewhere. Unfortunately each product has different regulations however above general guidelines give you an idea what to look for. Also there is no website that tells you exactly what you need for which market (Business Idea??? 🙂 ) and all is done trough research or ideally you speak with your third-party inspection company. In most cases they will charge you for giving out this information but if you work with them for a while already they might do you a favour and give you the information for free.
If you are interested in learning more about certification and other product categories head on over to my Certification course for $10.99 here: IMPORTDOJO CERTIFICATIONS
All the best and happy sourcing,