• UL Certification When Importing from China: A Complete Guide

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    Asia Import Platform: Electronics

    UL (Underwriter Laboratories) develops electronics safety standards for the United States, and provide related testing, certification and auditing services.

    Unlike the EU, where importers must comply with a set of harmonized electronics safety standards – American electronics importers are free to choose which standards to comply with.

    UL standards are developed for specific electronic products, or components, such as cords, batteries and plugs.

    Below follows a few examples:

    • UL 1642 – Standard for Lithium Batteries
    • UL 20 – General-Use Snap Switches
    • UL 2595 – General Requirements for Battery-Powered Appliances
    • UL 2089 – Standard for Vehicle Battery Adapters
    • UL 1740 – Standard for Robots and Robotic Equipment
    • UL 879A – Standard for LED Sign and Sign Retrofit Kits

    You can buy UL standard catalogs directly from standardscatalog.ul.com. Each standard (more than one may apply to your product) costs from US$400 to 1000.

    Assuming you, or your supplier, lack the technical skills to implement a standard in a real life product, you may also need to budget for consulting fees.

    That, and much more, is covered in this comprehensive guide for complying with UL standards, when importing electronic products from China.

    1. Are there different types of UL certification?

    Yes, UL can apply to either a product, or a manufacturer:

    UL Listing: Verifies that a manufacturer can produce a product according to UL standards. UL follows up with the supplier from time to time, but don’t test each SKU or batch. However, sourcing a UL listed supplier is the best option for startups and small scale importers.

    UL Recognition: Applies to machines, and other more complex products – or components. A UL Recognized supplier can put the UL mark on their parts.

    UL Classification: Certifies that a certain product is compliant with UL standards.

    2. Is UL listing or certification mandatory when importing from Asia?

    No, compliance with UL standards is not mandatory, in the sense that you are not required by law to follow them. When it comes to importing electronics to the United States, it’s up to the importer to ensure that the product is safe.

    One way to achieve that, is by following a certain standard, be it one developed by UL, or another organisation.

    That being said, UL is the ‘de facto’ set of mandatory electronics safety standards, in the United States.

    For example, Amazon.com required all sellers of Hoverboards to submit UL compliance documents for lithium batteries – or face permanent suspension.

    It’s the same thing when it comes to retailers. They will not even consider your product, unless it’s UL certified (or, at least listed).

    And, at the end of the day, you need to be sure that your product is safe. So why not just go with an UL listed supplier?

    Even though there may not be mandatory safety standards for many consumer electronics products in the United States, you must always ensure that your product is safe.

    Say that something would go wrong with your product. It could be an exploding charger, or someone being electrocuted. Well, it’s your responsibility.

    That’s the long answer to this simple question.

    3. How do I know if a supplier can produce UL certified products?

    The good thing is that many manufacturers in China are relatively familiar with UL standards, and quite a few in Shenzhen are UL listed.

    In fact, they tend to either refer to European Union directives (i.e., Low Voltage Directive or RoHS), or UL standards.

    While many electronics manufacturers can technically comply with UL standards, given that they receive PCB drawings, writing diagrams and a Bill of Materials (BoM) – you should only consider suppliers that have manufactured UL compliant products before.

    The best way to do that, is by asking them to provide a UL certificate or test report, that you later verify directly with UL.

    This is easy, as these documents are only issued by UL.

    Just keep in mind that a UL classification is only valid for the specific product SKU that was submitted for testing. Even UL listed suppliers cannot provide test reports or certificates for every single SKU or product. That is, however, not required by UL.

    4. How long does it take to get a UL product certified or listed?

    Normally around 6 months, counting from the day you have a functional prototype. That said, it can take months (or even years) before you have a prototype that is technically compliant with all applicable UL standards.

    Not any product can be submitted, and magically pass all UL testing procedures.

    Unless the product is specifically designed according to the technical requirements set out in the applicable UL standard – then the product will not pass compliance testing.

    5. How much does it cost to get a product UL certified?

    The fee, paid to UL, is often in the range between US$5,000 to 15,000. Then again, this is for he services provided by UL, and not including product development costs.

    If you develop an OEM product, you must likely hire a UL consultant to support the development phase, for the sake of ensuring that your product is designed according to all applicable standards.

    They often charge around US$150, or more, per hour.

    Given the time and cost, should I even bother with UL certification?

    If the alternative is to import an unsafe product, then yes. That said, obtaining UL certification for an OEM electronics product is time consuming and costly.

    Frankly, it’s out of reach for most startups and small businesses.

    You can consider applying an ETL or SGS electronics safety standard instead, but it’ll be marginally less time consuming, and costly. At best.

    If you are just starting out, your best option is to only source suppliers that are already UL listed.

    While that will limit the products you can import, and maybe even rule out any design or function customization (at least beyond branding), you can at least place a safe product on the market.