When we do an event in the States, we put everything into a big box on wheels, put in the keyboards and mice, lock it up, and the truck picks it up," says Rick Jorgensen, with perhaps a hint of hyperbole. But Jorgensen, acting group manager for Excell Data Corp., Bellevue, Wash., is absolutely sincere when he says, "When we send internationally, we inventory every mouse and every keyboard by serial number, country of manufacture, and price. And we have to do the same for a CD-ROM drive if it's not manufactured by the same people who make the computer." For one show in Toronto, Jorgensen, whose company provides technical support for Microsoft's corporate events, had to hire 11 temps to inventory the 2,000 computers, mice, and keyboards that he was shipping in from the U.S.

And that's just the beginning. So many variables are involved in moving hardware and software across borders that each company's experience is different. Your products and destination determine which regulations apply. Here's a rundown of the documents you may need, the agencies to speak with, and some insights to help get your technology across international borders and--with any luck--back again.

Crate Paper One hard-and-fast rule of the international shipping process: You'll always need a commercial invoice. This is your own list of every item you're shipping--not only hardware and software but also the exhibit booth, giveaways, display materials--everything. Most of the items on the commercial invoice are pretty much rote: a description, serial number, dimensions, and weight. Another item is value, and that can be a tough one. But here's the easy answer: Anything that's leaving the country temporarily--products being taken to a meeting, for example--should have its value pegged at the cost of manufacture, not the sale price. "We value our software at material value, the cost of a blank CD," says Marlena Warren, manager, billing and order processing, International Division, for software company Information Builders Inc., New York City. "What's on the CD belongs to us. So we value the CD at what it would cost us to replace it."

You might also need a packing list, which specifies which items are in which crate or package. You can, however, include this information on the commercial invoice. There's no official form for either a commercial invoice or a packing list, and companies may develop their own or follow a sample provided by freight forwarders--the suppliers that manage the physical movement of your goods and, typically, clear them through customs. If you use an ATA Carnet, described below, the document includes a General List which replaces the need for a packing list.

That's it: That's the end of what's standard. From here on, you're dealing with product, destination, and document variables.

Product: Your License Please lHardware. Many computers, especially laptops, can be shipped without difficulty. But some require a special export license from the U.S. Department of Commerce because of their speed. "If a machine is fast enough and has a big enough memory that it could compute ballistic missile trajectories, or if it can be used in nuclear or defense fields, it might need a license," says Stephen Barry Jr., president of TWI Global Exhibition Logistics, Las Vegas. It's up to the planner to find out which computers require a license, cautions Jacqueline Russo, assistant vice president of freight forwarder Panalpina, Inc., Chi-cago. "Don't rely on your freight forwarder to tell you," she says. "If you make a mistake, your goods are subject to confiscation." For specific licensing questions, consult the U.S. Department of Commerce, Office of Export Licensing at (202) 482-4811, and the U.S. Department of State, at (703) 875-6644.

l Software. "If you have government contracts, you must check with the Department of Commerce or Department of State before shipping anything," says David Graham, station manager, Los Angeles, for TWI. Again, special licenses might be required. "We tell clients that in the shipping instructions. But some of these software companies are cowboys--they're independent." Graham notes that any company whose software or hardware has military applications should refer to the Department of State's International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) book to determine requirements.

If your software involves 128K encryption technology, expect difficulties. Companies that write encrypted software, of course, want to demonstrate it at overseas events. "But the government is using it and doesn't want companies to sell it overseas," Graham says. "The question before Congress now is whether companies will be able to export this technology."

Documents: The Paper Trail lATA Carnet. "We did something unusual this year," says Warren at Information Builders. "We bought 30 laptops to take to Europe to conduct classes on our Web FOCUS software. But customs duties and VAT were incredibly high. Then we found out we could get a passport, and the laptops could move all over Europe."

What Warren had discovered was the ATA Carnet, which is, in effect, a merchandise passport, created in 1961 by a United Nations committee. The initials "ATA" are an acronym of the French and English words "Admission Temporaire/Temporary Admission." There are now 54 countries that accept the carnet as proof that materials are temporary imports. Carnet costs (see sidebar) are far less than the duties, fees, and taxes that would otherwise be required. No Latin American countries--not even Mexico--accept the ATA Carnet.

Carnet caveats: List only the items that you are shipping temporarily and bringing back, not items you might leave behind. "If you ship 500 key chains, you can't list them as temporary importation and then bring back only some of them," says Russo. "And always pack temporary goods separate from permanent goods." Also, Warren cautions, be sure that on each leg of the trip, the serial numbers of the pieces in a crate match the serial numbers for that crate as listed on the carnet.

* Certificate of Registration. If you don't use a carnet, and you're shipping a high-value product that's not made in the United States--for example, a computer made in Japan--you must file a Certificate of Registration with U.S. Customs.

* Temporary Import Bond. If you're shipping to a country that doesn't accept the ATA Carnet, or you choose not to use it, you'll have to post a bond to ensure that your temporary imports leave that country. The TIB includes duties, fees, and taxes, which vary by country but always add up to a substantial sum. The TIB must be posted on arrival in each country, unlike a carnet, which is purchased in advance.

* Shippers Export Declaration. For shipments valued at $2,500.01 or more, the U.S. Department of Commerce requires an SED, which includes a description of the goods being shipped, date of export, state of origin, and destination. The freight forwarder completes the SED, but the shipper should be aware of it.

Destination: Latino Bottlenecks Getting through customs in Europe and the Asia-Pacific regions is relatively easy, assuming you've prepared the paperwork accurately. Officials in those countries understand what is meant by temporary importation for meetings and trade shows. One possible exception is China, where censorship boards review incoming materials. If a company has an affiliate in Taiwan, there could be a problem, cautions Wolfgang Mathes, president of International Exhibits Transport Inc. (IET) in New York City.

Canada should also be "fairly simple as long as you follow the rules," says Russo. "Anybody having a bad time with Canada doesn't realize they're going to another country." The real bottlenecks occur in Latin America. "They haven't seen much exhibit traffic," explains Barry at TWI. "But now the number of shows is increasing dramatically, and there's a suspicion on the part of customs officers. It's a learning curve--it's not deliberately obstructionist."

But try telling that to Pegotty Cooper, trade show manager for TechData Corp., Clearwater, Fla., who organized a resellers show in Brazil in June, and as of early September still had not had her materials returned from customs. "Brazil is a very challenging country because of rapidly changing, stringent rules and import regulations," says Cooper. "You really have to stay up-to-date."

TechData does many shows in South America, and the shows often are within a month of each other. "We must communicate to the exhibitors that they can't rely on a shipment from Brazil getting to a show in Colombia in time," she says. "There's too much bureaucracy. It's much easier to ship from Miami to each country than between countries." And in Argentina, she continues, "All equipment going in must be new. If it's used, the fees are much higher. Whenever we do shows in Argentina, we ask customers to give us product catalogues." The descriptions support the exhibitor's statement that the items being shipped are new.

Foreign Aid Who can guide you through the minefields? "Your freight forwarder is your first place for information," says Warren. "They answer your questions on how to declare or what's prohibited." And when they don't have the answer, they can point you in the right direction. To find one, tap your network, of course, as well as associations such as the International Association for Exposition Management and the Trade Show Exhibitors Association.

It's critical to select a forwarder who understands trade shows and events. "We've talked to forwarders that aren't in the business of handling events, and we've sometimes been sent astray," says Cooper at TechData. "They don't understand the importance of deadlines. Shipping for events is very different from shipping for distribution." If you're an exhibitor, your best bet is to stick with the show's official freight forwarder, even if the rates seem a bit high.

And heed the words of Jackie Russo: Shipping internationally "will be a pain in the neck," she says. "Anyone who promises you less isn't telling you the truth. Going to abroad requires diligence and a competent partner."