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Home  >  Gardening Techniques  >  Soil  >  Plant Culture  >  Can I import seeds to the US from a foreign country?

Can I import seeds to the US from a foreign country?

Provided the seeds are not on a U.S. prohibited or endangered list, small lots of seed can be legally imported into the U.S. provided the necessary steps are followed and the proper permit is obtained. At present there is not a fee for the import permit but there are a number of steps and the status of a particular seed species may be hard for a home gardener to determine.

In the U.S. the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is responsible for protecting animal health, animal welfare, and plant health. It is the lead agency for collaboration with other agencies to protect U.S. agriculture from invasive pests and diseases. It governs the import of plants and seeds into the U.S. to help limit the chances of any pests, diseases or weed plants entering the U.S.

Rules for importing seeds by home gardeners usually falls under the APHIS’s “Small Lots of Seed Program”. The "Small Lots of Seed Program" allows home gardeners to import small quantities of  seed without obtaining a Phytosanitary Certificate, which can be costly. Importing under the “Small Lots of Seed Program” still requires a permit and a number of steps but it is free.

The APHIS website “Plant Import: Small lots of Seed”  page lists import requirements. It provides links to the required permit form and lists resources to determining if the seed you want to import is on a prohibited list. This website from the U.K., however, is easier to read and answers most of the basic questions you may have about U.S. APHIS requirements and the process. (You will still need to apply through APHIS.)

Here is a link to the manual of U.S. prohibited plants (this link is also on the APHIS Small Lots of Seed webpage). Another useful list of prohibited seeds can be found here.

To avoid paying for seeds that may not be allowed into the U.S. determining their import status ahead of time is necessary but this may not always be easy. If in doubt, contact APHIS directly with the genus, species and cultivar (if there is one) of the seeds you want to import or wait and see if they make it through inspection or not. (All imported seeds must be clearly marked as to genus, species and cultivar [if there is one] by the foreign exporting company when they ship the seeds to the U.S. Inspection Office.)

In brief:

   1.  You check the APHIS resources and see if the seeds you want to import are allowed in the U.S., contact APHIS to see if the seeds you want to order are allowed, or just wait and have the Inspection Office determine this when the seeds arrive in the U.S. (If you opt for the last option, you won't get a refund on your seed purchase, however!)

   2.  You apply for and secure the import permit and inspection office mailing labels.

   3.  You send a copy of the permit along with a mailing label (already addressed to a U.S. Inspection Office) to the seed source (company) outside the U.S. along with your order.

   4.  The foreign company sends the seeds (clearly marked as to genus, species and cultivar) to the Inspection Office in the U.S.

   5.  The US inspection office inspects the seeds and your import permit and then sends the seeds on to you. (Any prohibited seeds, if found in the order, would be destroyed.)

The important point to remember is to secure the U.S. import permit and inspection office mailing label from APHIS before you place your foreign order. These must accompany your order. (For online ordering, email a copy of your permit and the inspection office mailing address to the foreign company and instruct them to send your order to the U.S. Inspection Office. Make sure the foreign company includes a copy of your permit so the inspection office can forward your seed order to you after inspection.)

Seeds coming into the U.S. from a foreign country without an import permit are subject to confiscation and destruction even if they would have been allowed if you had obtained the free import permit and followed the correct procedure.