Importing for SMEs: How to import merchandise from abroad

A crane moves containers in a port

Importing SMEs are required to declare all goods crossing the Swiss border to the Swiss Customs Administration (FCA).

In commercial trade, the main import formalities are completed before, after and while the goods pass through customs.

The Import online platform

The Import online platform sets out the technical rules applicable to importing products into Switzerland. The website enables users to identify the technical rules applicable when marketing a product in Switzerland and to find out where these rules may be found. The Import platform also provides explanations about simplified marketing for many products, made possible in particular thanks to certain bilateral agreements, primarily with the European Union.

Before customs

All goods originating from overseas must be accompanied by accompanying documents showing, in particular, the value, weight, origin and tariff number of the goods, so that their level of taxation may be determined.

These documents can take the form of a delivery note (not mandatory for Swiss customs but very useful) or an invoice, for example. It is up to the exporter of the goods to issue the accompanying documents. The exporter can also accompany the goods with a certificate of origin proving their origin.

Companies usually use forwarding agents (specialist carriers or companies) to proceed, upstream, with the mandatory digital customs declaration. Forwarding agents collect the goods and accompanying documents (delivery notes, certificates of origin, invoices). They may also carry out an inspection of the goods.

Using the FCA’s e-dec computer system, forwarding agents then enter the data about the goods. They declare the goods according to their customs destination (permanent or temporary importation, storage in a customs bonded warehouse, transit). Based on this data, the computer system automatically carries out a preliminary plausibility test and a calculation of duties, then sends the forwarding agent a PDF (including the import list and the delivery note) (More about e-decEinfuhrzollanmeldung e-dec web (only in German)).

At customs

On arrival at the Swiss border, forwarding agents present the goods to the customs office. They give the customs officers a copy of the PDF received when filing the online declaration (or the import list number) and hand over the accompanying documents.

Using the customs declaration that comes up on the computer system, the customs officers carry out a brief check. If the data looks correct, they enter a positive result in the e-dec platform (by clicking on the “Accept customs declaration” button). They can then either order a physical check or release the goods.

After customs

In principle, shipments from overseas are liable to two kinds of duty: customs duties and VAT, to which are added various taxes and duties (monopoly duties on alcohol, tax on tobacco, tax on mineral oils, etc.). When filing the declaration, the customs office makes the decisions on customs duties and VAT for the attention of the importing company.

There are two different modes of payment:

  • Companies can open an account with the FCA so that their duties are invoiced to them directly. The forwarding agent indicates in the import declaration whether the taxes should be levied on its own account or on the account of the importer.
  • The forwarding agent or exporting company can advance customs fees and then be reimbursed by the importing company. This usually proves more costly.

In all cases, the forwarding agent invoices the importing company for transportation of the goods and the work done with customs.

It should be noted that the importer no longer receives proof of taxation in paper format by mail (customs receipt, yellow document), but simply an electronic taxation decision (DTe) regarding imports, which it downloads from the FCA’s servers. To find out more:

Free trade agreements

As Switzerland has entered into free trade agreements with a certain number of countries, some goods benefit from exemption from customs duties, or a reduction in said duties. However, the preferential treatment provided for by these agreements only applies to goods conforming to the provisions governing origin and for which a valid certificate of origin is presented. Other duties and taxes remain due, along with VAT.

It is up to the exporting company to verify whether the goods are covered by a free trade agreement and, where applicable, to draw up the necessary certificate of origin. In general, forwarding agents are responsible for verifying whether imported goods are covered by this certificate of origin. However, companies are advised to ensure that the correct tariffs have been applied once the goods and corresponding invoices have been received.


Last modification 25.11.2021

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