Sending Biological Samples to Foreign Countries
Last updated: May 11, 2007
Please use the procedures below when shipping packages overseas.
Otherwise, the carrier might refuse to pick up your package, or
it might get stuck in customs or even confiscated.
Packing your shipment
Do not use dry ice as a packing material. Pack your items in such a way that they won't move or break when the dry ice evaporates. Otherwise, after a few days, most of the dry ice will be gone, and your samples will get slammed around inside the box. Wrap all slide boxes, sample boxes, etc. with duct tape to prevent them from opening. Use triangular-shaped cardboard tubes (made using duct tape and extra cardboard) to wedge the samples securely in the styrofoam box before adding any dry ice.
Put polyurethane foam inside sample boxes to prevent tubes from coming loose.
Add triangular cardboard tubes on top of samples so boxes are wedged in place when the lid is in place, even in the absence of dry ice. Remember that the box may be flipped upside down or dropped many times during shipment.
If your shipment is in a styrofoam box, the styrofoam box must be inside an outer cardboard box or FedEx will not pick it up.
Use padded envelopes for odd-shaped items such as Eppendorf tubes.
A Commercial Invoice is required for all overseas packages, regardless of content or destination.
Include 3 copies of a signed commercial invoice (1 original + 2 copies). The commercial invoice must have your company's or institution's letterhead on top. If you use a generic commercial invoice (with no letterhead), FedEx will not deliver your package. Commercial invoices for our institute can be found here.
Enter the value of the item on commercial invoice for customs. This number can't be $0. It must agree with the value on the Waybill.
Put exact description of items on commercial invoice.
For consignee, enter full name and address of recipient.
- 3 Copies of Commercial Invoice
- Commercial Invoice is Signed
Unregulated biological materials
This includes biological material that definitely cannot cause disease. Examples include purified enzymes, sterilized specimens, non-pathogenic bacteria as well as toxins, antitoxins, vaccines, blood and blood products that are used for transplantation or in a transfusion, but have no or very low probability of producing disease.
No special procedures are necessary for these materials.
If the shipment contains perishable biological materials, paste a purple
Biological Perishable Materials sticker on box. (Print the sticker below
so it is 4 inches wide and glue it onto the box.)
Purple Biological Perishable Materials sticker
- Purple Biological Perishable Materials sticker
- Absorbent material if shipping a liquid
- No loose ice (bricks only).
If the shipment contains hazardous materials such as toxins, infectious substances or genetically modified microorganisms, you must include a Shippers Declaration for Dangerous Goods form. This is a multi-copy form with a red dashed line on either side.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) regulates international shipments of hazardous materials. Consult their website for more details.
Use triple packaging:
- Primary receptacle - Do Not Ship Petri Dishes!
- Leak-proof secondary container - If it is a liquid, include enough absorbent material to absorb all of the liquid in case the primary receptacle breaks. A metal can or a screw-capped plastic bottle sealed with tape or a shrink seal would be an example of a secondary container.
- Durable outer container - Must be at least 4 inches on all sides to accommodate stickers.
- An itemized list must be included inside the outer container.
Do not hand-carry dangerous goods such as toxins or infectious materials in your luggage or on your person. This is a criminal offense and will result in fines and possible imprisonment. In the past few years, the rules have been tightened. Any liquid you try to carry onto a plane, even if you know it to be harmless, is liable to be confiscated and destroyed.
Human source material requires additional procedures because of the possibility of bloodborne pathogens and is outside the scope of this document. Flammable liquids (ethanol, formaldehyde, acetone, etc) require special procedures and are outside the scope of this document.
Diagnostic specimens are not considered hazardous materials unless the source patient or animal may have a serious communicable disease for which effective treatment is not usually available. Check the IATA Website for more details. If shipped by air, the package must contain a label saying:
Diagnostic Specimen Packed In Compliance With IATA Packing Instruction 650
Another category is "select agents." These substances are defined by the DHHS and USDA to have the potential to pose a severe threat to public health. Please do not try to ship select agents.
All packages containing Dangerous Substances require one of the
following labels on the outer box. These are diamond-shaped
stickers. These numbers also go on the Shippers Declaration of
Dangerous Goods form.
|Description||UN Number||IATA Class||IATA Packing Instruction|
|Infectious substance affecting humans||UN 2814||6.2||602|
|Infectious substance affecting animals||UN 2900||6.2||602|
|Genetically modified microorganisms||UN 3245||9||913|
|Dry ice||UN 1845||9||904|
Dry ice also must indicate Packing Group III (see below).
You also need to enter "Fiberboard box" on the Shipper's Declaration Form.
- Declaration for Dangerous Goods
- Triple packaging
- Dangerous materials diamond-shaped UN Sticker
- Other forms if infectious (below)
- No petri dishes
Infectious Materials are considered a category of Dangerous Materials with additional requirements.
The maximum quantity of infectious substance that can be shipped by air in one package is 4 liters or 4 kg. When shipping over 50 mL or 50 g of infectious substance, you must also put a Cargo Aircraft label on the outer container. This is a special orange and black sticker that says "DANGER DO NOT LOAD IN PASSENGER AIRCRAFT".
When shipping infectious substances by air, you must make advance arrangements with the consignee (recipient) and the operator to ensure that the shipment can be transported and delivered without delay. In the Additional Handling Information section of the Shipper's Declaration for Dangerous Goods, include the following statements:
Prior Arrangements as Required by the IATA Dangerous Goods Regulations 188.8.131.52 Have Been Made. Prepared according to ICAO/IATA. Emergency Contact: (add name and phone number of person to contact)
For European Union countries, use the following instead:
ADR European Transport Statement: Carriage in accordance with 184.108.40.206.1.
There are two categories of infectious substances:
- Infectious substance, affecting humans (UN2814)
- Infectious substance, affecting animals only (UN2900)
Put the appropriate UN number on the forms.
The name and phone number of a responsible person must be on the outside box.
- A Shipper's Declaration for Dangerous Goods form. This is a form with red dashes along the left and right edge. Declaration forms must be filled out in triplicate. Keep one copy and supply two to the carrier. Regulations require that you must retain your copy for 365 days.
- A diamond-shaped "Infectious materials" sticker. Two are required on opposite ends of the outer package.
- Two "This end up" stickers containing an arrow on opposite ends of the outer package.
- If the package is entering the United States, it must have a current U.S. Public Health Service import permit label on the outside (see below).
- Shipper's Declaration for Dangerous Goods
- UN Certified packaging
- DG (Dangerous Goods) declaration
- Leakproof primary receptacle or vial
- Vial cap sealed with tape
- Orange and black sticker "DANGER DO NOT LOAD IN PASSENGER AIRCRAFT" if over 50 ml
- Quantity less than 4 kg
- Additional Handling information filled out on Shipper's Declaration for Dangerous Goods
- Prior arrangements made with recipient
- UN Number on forms
- Name and phone number on box
- Two Infectious Materials stickers
- Two This End Up stickers
- Import permit label if necessary
- Triple packaging as described above
- OSHA Biohazard label inside package
- DOT/IATA Infectious label on box
- CDC Etiologic Agents / Biomedical Material label on box
Biological Substances Category B
Infectious biological materials that are not in a form that can cause permanent disability or life-threatening disease are called Biological Substance Category B (UN 3373).
If it contains liquids, include absorbent material between the inner and outer container.
Add a yellow UN3373 sticker.
Don't put it in a FedEx drop-box or use FedEx boxes.
- Shipper's Declaration for Dangerous Goods
- Absorbent material if shipping a liquid
- Yellow UN3373 sticker
- Sender's name and address on box
- Recipient's name and address on box
- "Infectious Substance, Category B" written on box
Genetically-Modified microorganisms are considered Dangerous Goods by the IATA and must be marked in the same way as Infectious Substances. If the modified microorganism is non-infectious, use packages compliant with Packing Instruction 650 and affix a Class 9 Miscellaneous Dangerous Goods label indicating "Genetically modified microorganisms". The maximum allowable quantity per vial is 100 mL or 100g. There is no maximum net quantity per package.
Genetically modified organisms that are known or suspected to be dangerous to humans, animal or the environment cannot be transported by air.
Genetically modified materials (such as DNA) that are not infectious and pose no risk to humans, animals or plants have no particular requirements.
If using regular ice, the packaging must be leakproof (e.g., bricks). Otherwise, the ice will melt and leak out, possibly causing a panic.
Paste two Dry Ice stickers on the box and fill out the blanks on the stickers. A Declaration for Dangerous Goods form is not required if dry ice is the only hazardous material in the package. The stickers must say "UN1845" and "Class 9".
Use blocks of dry ice if possible. Blocks sublimate at a lower rate than pellets. A 5-pound box of pellets, properly packaged in a styrofoam container, sublimates at a rate of about 2% per hour. Dry ice is hazardous because the gas is poisonous to humans. Dry ice has caused incidents in planes that could have resulted in death. One pound of dry ice creates 8.8 cubic feet of carbon dioxide gas. Toxic effects become detectable when the concentration in air exceeds 0.5%.
Packages containing more than 4.4 pounds (2 kg) of dry ice cannot be carried in the passenger cabin of most airlines. Therefore, if you want to hand-deliver the package, it must have less dry ice than this. Dry ice must be carried onboard in a hard plastic that allows ventilation. Please advise a ticket or gate agent if you plan to travel with dry ice.
Liquid nitrogen requires special procedures and containers.
- 2 Dry ice stickers
- Styrofoam box protected by outer cardboard box
If samples contain glass, write "Fragile" on container and attach a "glass" sticker.
Do not ship radioactive materials by yourself.
You must consult with the local Radiation Safety Officer (RSO), who is responsible for ensuring that the recipient is licensed to receive the radioisotope in the quantity you plan to ship. In most cases, the RSO will ship the package for you. Most institutions are only licensed to possess a specific total amount of each isotope, and they are required to know where it is located at all times. If you ship radioactive materials to someone, you will be in serious trouble for "losing" it, and the recipient will be in serious trouble for having it.
Attach plastic envelope to box and insert a completed Expanded Service International Waybill form. This is different from a regular International Waybill. There are two different International Waybills. For biological materials, you need the Expanded one, which is 11 inches high and has a box for "Shipment Information". Our secretary has these forms.
Software shipments require a value breakdown on the commercial invoice (value of media + value of software)
Enter the Waybill number on the Biological shipments form.
You must sign in two places: on Waybill and Commercial Invoice.
Harmonized codes can be found at
382200 Composite Diagnostic or Laboratory Reagents
392310 Boxes, Cases, Crates and Similar Articles, of Plastics
Ask Pauline to call FedEx for pickup, or schedule pickup yourself online.
Notify recipient of Waybill Number in case package gets stuck in customs.
For institute personnel: copies of all the required forms are on our server at engram:/temporary/fedex-forms. Extra Waybills and dry ice stickers are in file cabinet.
Shipping Live Animals
If your shipment contains live animals, the recipient may need an importation license (depending on country and species). If someone is shipping live animals (including invertebrates) to you, you may need an importation license from the U.S. Department of Agriculture depending on the species.
You will need one or more of the following licenses before shipping. Some of these licenses may take several months to obtain. If you try to ship without the license, your shipment will be confiscated and possibly destroyed. It is recommended to use a U.S. supplier if possible.
- An import permit from the CDC for any infectious agent known or suspected to cause human disease. This includes pathogenic microorganisms and viruses. A CDC permit is also needed for species that can potentially carry disease, such as insects and arthropods (such as fleas, flies, lice, mites, mosquitoes, or ticks) and species of snail that are capable of transmitting a human pathogen, regardless of their current developmental stage or infectious state.
- Amphibians, Fish, Reptiles, Shellfish and Aquatic Species, non-pathogenic microorganisms, and live laboratory mammals for research purposes do not require any permit from the USDA APHIS.
- Rabbits, livestock and poultry imported into some states (including Maryland) require a permit signed by a veterinarian.
- If your shipment contains plants, plant products, etc. you will need a license from the US Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA APHIS).
- If your shipment contains live bats, fish, wildlife, or endangered species, you will need a permit from the U.S. Department of Interior Fish and Wildlife Services.
- A federal export license is also required when exporting infectious agents of human, plant, and animal diseases, including genetic material, and products that might be used for culture of large amounts of agent.
- Additional licenses may be required by the recipient country. See here for individual countries.
How to tell when your shipment has thawed out
Despite your best efforts, your samples might get thawed out at some point during the voyage. If the shipper then adds more dry ice, you may never know that your samples have been ruined. You could spend months working on the samples before you figure out what happened. Hence a simple precaution is to include a thaw detector in each package.
Fill a glass vial 1/4 full with blue liquid. Then freeze it, and add an equal volume of a yellow liquid. Seal the vial and freeze it again. Make several of these thaw detector vials. Place them at different locations in the box. If any of the vials are thawed out, the liquid will turn green.