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What Is International Commerce? A Complete Guide (2023)


Critical to the global economy, international commerce allows countries to specialize in efficient production of goods and services, and it provides consumers with access to a wide range of products at competitive prices.

As an ecommerce business owner, the pressure to adapt and innovate is greater than ever. If you can’t expand past your local market, you’re limiting the potential growth of your business. 

By tapping into global markets, you can reach a new audience, diversify revenue streams, and reach your full potential.

Ahead, you’ll learn the basics of international commerce, so you can get a better idea if it’s a good fit for your brand.

What is international commerce?

International commerce is the buying and selling of goods and services across national borders by individuals, businesses, and governments. Trade agreements, tariffs, and regulations all facilitate international commerce. 

A competitive advantage could be an extra-long coastline, like Chile has; proximity to certain natural resources, like lumber (Canada) or fish (Portugal); or a highly educated, technically trained workforce (South Korea, Sweden, Israel).

With all of these different countries participating in the international commercial system, each with its own set of sovereign laws, it’s important that global regulatory agencies exist to create some legal cohesion.

The two main organizations overseeing international commerce are the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). The WTO does have a hand in regulating international commerce, despite there being a difference between commerce and trade. 

International commerce vs. international trade

There is a technical distinction between international commerce and global trade. Trade refers to the basic economic activity of buying, selling, and/or exchanging goods and services between two or more parties in a marketplace. 

Commerce encompasses all activities that promote the exchange of goods and services—from the point of manufacture to the moment a customer purchases a product in a store. Activities considered commercial include:

  • Banking
  • Freight
  • Advertising and marketing
  • Warehousing
  • Insurance
A shipping label that is ready to go anywhere in the world.
A shipping label that is ready to go anywhere in the world.

Laws and regulations

Businesses engaging in international commerce will not only be subject to the ecommerce laws of the country in which they are based, but also likely to the laws in the countries in which they conduct business—whether buying or selling. 

If you run a US company that sells products in Canada, for example, and your product causes a Canadian citizen some injury, there’s a chance you could be sued in a Canadian court. Likewise, your products will have to adhere to the product safety laws and regulations in place in the countries where you wish to sell.

Finally, your international business will be subject to any treaties governing international commerce in the countries in which you transact. These might include the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), or various treaties of the eurozone. If a government is on a sanctions list put in place by your own government, you may also be forbidden from buying or selling products there (at least temporarily).

Complexities surrounding international commerce

Because the global business environment is so wide reaching, there are a number of variables that any small business owner should be aware of if considering engaging in it.

Intellectual property

Intellectual property (IP) law is generally contained on a national level. Any international enforcement of IP laws relies on a patchwork of cooperating national laws and bilateral agreements (agreements between two countries at a time). 

A small business owner will want to consider the IP protections available in any country in which they plan to market and sell a product. Robust laws, such as those in Singapore, Japan, Switzerland, and the United States, will adequately protect your IP. Other countries may not have adequately developed IP laws or enforcement abilities to protect your ideas.

Cultural differences in business practices

Developing intercultural competency is an absolute necessity for any business person looking to engage in international commerce. This goes beyond learning a few polite phrases in the local language—it entails understanding how everything from dress to body language to tone of voice can affect how a business deal transpires.

Supply chains and logistics

Supply chains and logistics are among the most complicated aspects of international commerce. The speed and ease with which goods flow through various ports will depend entirely on the infrastructure available in the port’s country. 

Shipping container moving through ocean waters on its way to port.
Shipping container moving through ocean waters on its way to port.

Additionally, major international events can have a huge impact on the movement of cargo. It is crucial for any small business owner engaging in international commerce to stay up to speed on how global economic and political developments may impact their ability to source and deliver materials.

Taxes, duties, and tariffs

The products and services you buy and sell in various countries will likely be subject to certain taxes, duties, and tariffs. 

For example, products your US-based small business sells in the United Kingdom will be subject to a 20% tax charged on most goods sold in the country. 

  • Duties are indirect taxes that are imposed on the consumer of imported goods—so if you are selling a product in a country with high duties, you will want to consider that when pricing the product for that market. 
  • Tariffs are taxes applied by a country on specific goods imported from a specific country. Tariffs are meant to protect domestic production by raising the price of certain goods imported into a country. 

Dispute resolution

It can be difficult to resolve legal disputes in the context of international commerce, because all countries maintain their own sovereign sets of laws and have their own court systems for enforcing them. 

In countries that enjoy significant legal interplay with each other, like the United States and Canada, it is relatively easy to call citizens of one country into court to answer for damages inflicted in the other. When damages are of a criminal nature, there are also extradition treaties in place between some countries that further facilitate this process.

Two business people solving a dispute
Two business people solving a dispute.

Elsewhere, it can be exceedingly difficult to sue a citizen of another country in your home country of operation. For example, it is quite difficult for US companies to sue Chinese nationals for copyright and trademark infringement. Chinese nationals are not obligated to answer lawsuits in US courts, and it can be difficult to locate and serve them with a complaint in country.

Expand as a global business to earn more

International commerce is an area full of promise for small businesses around the world. But it is also an area full of complexity, varying and sometimes conflicting rules, and a host of unpredictable geopolitical realities. 

If you are interested in international ecommerce, it is crucial that you do the necessary research to understand the markets you wish to enter, and perhaps consult an attorney specializing in international commercial and trade law.

International commerce FAQ

What is an example of international commerce?

One example of international commerce is when a company in the United States exports goods to a company in China. This would involve the exchange of goods or services between two or more countries.

What is international business trade and commerce?

International business trade and commerce is the buying and selling of goods and services between two or more countries. It involves the transfer of resources, such as capital, labor, technology, and goods and services, across international borders. International business trade and commerce also involves the movement of people, such as immigrants, tourists, and business travelers.

Is international trade a commerce?

Yes, international trade is a type of commerce. It is the exchange of goods and services between countries and is an important part of the global economy.

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