By the time your internet surfing leads you to an article about importing your own bettas from overseas, I assume you have already "caught the bug". A lot of people will buy a betta and care for it for a while, and when it passes away, they don't get another. Then there are some of us who catch the bug, this compelling obsession with the genetic diversity and stunning beauty of the species Betta splendens.
This compulsion we share usually starts in a pet store. If you're like me you didn't pick the first one you saw, you looked at every one they had, watched how they swam, peered into their big, round eyes to see if they looked back at you. My first betta, Robert, was a pet store fish who had really undesirable confirmation, but the heart and personality of a puppy dog.
The Fish Who Started it All
The next phase for some of us is importing from overseas, but where to start? I do not recommend picking a breeder at random and asking him or her to explain the process for you. I'm just not that trusting of a person. Below I will explain the entire process for you as I have done it, including some of the precautions I've taken and some of the possible pitfalls along the way. Most importantly I stress patience throughout the entire process. Patiently research the breeders you are interested in and read any review you can find online. Patiently select your fish. You really won't be able to return them, so the more patience you exercise early on in the process, the less chance there is that you will have buyer's remorse later. Most of all have fun. You can literally buy any kind of fish in the world once you expand your horizons this far. Get the fish you want.
The scope of this article is importing betta fish from overseas to the USA. I have learned a lot about betta fish in general over the last six years or so, but for the purposes of this article I will assume you already know how to care for bettas. I really don't know all that much about other aquarium fish, or how they are imported. And while I have imported fish to the US a couple times, and I've read a lot on the subject, too, I would have no idea how to import fish to another country, so this article may or may not apply to your situation.
|"Sensei", one of my first imports.|
photo by Difa Betta
One major advantage a lot of the Pacific rim breeders have over US breeders is the ability to keep stock outdoors year round. This simple difference allows them to breed on a much larger scale and to have many unrelated projects going on at once. You could deal with a breeder who has all the lines you're looking for in the same place. Just as an example, halfmoons are still at the top of the list of popular fin types, and it's always good to have some strong plakats around to breed some strong rays into their fins as you go.
While I am no breeder by any means, I'm sure it's simple enough to see the advantage of buying your brood stock from someone who has a lot of space to work with and who has well-developed lines of various fin types and colors. Getting them all at the same place equals savings on shipping, and many breeders offer a bulk discount if you order a certain number of fish at one time, usually around ten. If you want to buy a lot more than 10 fish, inquire about a wholesale discount.
|Indoor and outdoor growouts. Photo by Difa Betta.|
The other reason to import isn't a reason why, it's the question "why not?" If you're not aware of the variety of colors, confirmations and fin types available all over the globe, I suggest you begin by crawling around the web a bit and doing research on just that. The sheer diversity is as breathtaking as it is is broad. Why not pick your favorite two origin countries and start your own line with that? Another idea I have toyed with is to pick about 10 high-quality fish from one breeder with the intention of reselling 7 when I am able. Many domestic buyers understand that imported fish can be expensive due to shipping costs, so they will pay a little more for them and they also appreciate the convenience, speed and relative security of being able to deal with a domestic seller. You wouldn't have to gouge prices on anyone to sort of share the cost of international shipping and importation.
How? Start to Research
What is this process of importing bettas? Well, my intention is to be rather detailed, so please do skip down a couple paragraphs to "Nuts and Bolts" if you are beyond the research phase and just want to get to know how the process works once you are ready to purchase. I will assume you already have a project in mind, like a breeding project you want to start or improve, or just a few tanks you want to populate with attractive pets.
Once you have a fairly clear goal in mind, it's time to begin your research. It's best if you don't plan to purchase fish or talk to your sellers for at least a couple months, assuming you are starting with no knowledge on what is available across the globe. You don't want to get directed or swayed by a seller at this point, you want to just purely follow the fish you like. As a side note, if you don't have your aquariums set up yet, you can use your research time to set up and cycle a habitat for your new pets before they arrive.
|"Sensei" resting on a betta hammock.|
Go on social media, look at fish you like, save images to look at later, and try to get a feel for the fish in a particular country, as well as for the breeders there. For example, generally speaking, what do the fish for purchase look like in Thailand? Then, who do you think the top breeders are in that country, considering what you can find online of the fish they breed, and how those fish fit with your plan, like if you're looking for a really nice crown tail, what do Thai crown tails look like, and who in Thailand sells the ones that look the best to your eyes?
If you start feeling serious about a breeder, start researching their reputation anywhere you can find them. Do they have pages or reviews on social media? Do they have any reviews on Aquabid? If you join groups of betta enthusiasts on social media, does your prospective breeder have a good reputation among the group members? Any breeder who causes you to feel uneasy when you read some of their online reviews should probably be removed entirely from your selection process; you will not have much, if any, legal recourse should they ship you dead or incorrect fish. You only want to deal with someone who takes their business seriously and treats their customers with respect.
Once you go through this process of elimination, go back and look at the stock for sale by the best breeders you found in each locale. Personally, I was pretty sure I wanted to purchase from Hendra at Difa Betta (click the link for more info) in Indonesia (who has not compensated me in any way for this endorsement, but you are welcome to tell him I sent you), but I still had to message him, discuss prices, select my fish, and work out a shipping schedule.
The point where you begin discussions with the breeder is the next place where you may have to give up and find another person with whom to do business. Beware of scammers, and beware of anyone who tries to rush you through your purchase in any way. If they are hard to deal with before you send them money, just think how bad communication could get after you send the money. Hendra at Difa Betta is the consummate professional, and nothing about the sale with him was rushed or pressured in any way, he just answered all my questions and sent any photos I requested. This went on for probably close to a week before I was absolutely sure which fish I wanted and was ready to send money. When I did finally press the "Send Money Now" button on PayPal, I had no doubts or regrets.
Nuts and Bolts:
|3 little fishies ready to ship |
photo by Difa Betta
The seller will charge a different price for each fish depending on whether it's a male or female, what the fin type is, and how old it is. Price is negotiable, of course, but I try not to haggle with them too much; if I don't haggle in the checkout line at a grocery store, why would I try to squeeze these guys for every penny I can? These are typically independently-run family businesses in developing countries, and I like to support that kind of development when possible. One easy way to get a discount is to buy in bulk, so if you're buying around 10 or more fish at once, ask if you can get a price break. The breeder will also charge a small, flat shipping fee per fish. Last year, the shipping fee was $7 per fish from Indonesia to the trans-shipper (TS). Fish are then air-mailed monthly to each of the US trans-shippers, and all those shipping fees go toward express shipping the entire crate of fish to your trans-shipper's airport. I imagine that from month to month, depending on how many fish are in the air mail crates, they could make or lose a decent amount of money.
The trans-shipper will be at the airport to meet your seller's airmail crate. Pick the TS closest to you geographically. Your seller will provide you a list of trans-shippers with whom they do business, but for the most part all the overseas breeders deal with the same set of state-side trans-shippers. Your TS will inspect the fish individually and fill out and file the appropriate customs forms to legalize the importation process. Your TS would also let you know if any of your fish have arrived DOA. Since they often receive hundreds of fish at once, it may take them 24 hours or more to notify you in that event. While the vast majority of bettas do arrive alive, and all reputable breeders to their best to ship only fish that are healthy enough to survive the trip, a small percentage die in transit. If one of your fish is DOA at the trans-shipper, then ask them to send pictures so you can begin the communication process with the breeder. They will work it out with you.
I don't know everything about the trans-shipping process, like whether the fish get fresh water and air, or if they are just visually inspected and then repackaged. I have always assumed that they get at least a little water and air before the second leg of the journey, but I just don't know that to be true. Either way, the trans-shippers are very good at what they do and suffer a very small percentage of lost fish. The TS charges a flat rate of $3 to $4 per fish for processing, repackaging and filing customs forms. You will typically have the option of 2-day Priority or overnight USPS Express shipping, and the trans-shipper's "Arrive Alive" guarantee is only valid if you pay for express shipping.
Now, at this point you probably have months in the research and decision-making process, and another month or more of waiting after you paid for your fish, and you will have paid a good bit of money to get exactly the bettas that you want, out of all the bettas in the world. Pay for the express shipping and any needed hot or cold packs ($2 per pack, some trans-shippers include at no additional cost). The TS should fit up to 5 bettas in an express box. The last time I made this decision, Express was $26 and Priority was $14, but it will also depend on your ZIP code in relation to the ZIP code of the trans-shipper. You do not want to spend all this time and money only to have something go awry at the last moment, so pay a little extra for Express and enjoy the peace of mind that comes with the Arrive Alive guarantee.
Trans-shipping tip: Make sure your shipping address on PayPal is current before you pay your TS, and make sure to pay him or her a few days before your fish arrive at the airport so there are no shipping delays when they arrive.
Make sure you can be home the day your fish arrive, you don't want to trust this to someone else. I suggest you take your tracking number to the USPS website and subscribe to the notifications by text so you receive an immediate text message when the package arrives. I live in an apartment, so I do not want my fish sitting in a big tin mailbox down by the leasing office. Open the box carefully and verify the live arrival of each fish before you open its bag. If you have a DOA fish, you must not open the bag. Take photos and send them to the TS immediately or your arrive alive guarantee will be invalid. Don't worry, I know this can be a sad experience, but as far as the money goes, your TS will take care of you. I know worrying about these beautiful little creatures is in our nature, but try not to worry, the sellers and trans-shippers are really good at what they do and have incredibly high live-arrival rates.
|"Delilah", one of my first imports. What a stunning female.|
photo by Difa Betta
Once you have your fish bags all open for fresh air, take extra time and care when acclimating them, remembering always that they just came from around the world in a few short days. You will float them a lot longer than you would for a fish you just picked up at the local fish store (LFS). Your pH, especially, could be wildly different than that of your new pet's origin tank back home. If you ask nicely, a good breeder will tell you what the pH was in your new pet's last aquarium, which will give you some idea of how slowly you need to switch the fish over to your water.
I usually add about a teaspoon of my aquarium's water to the new fish's bag every 5 minutes or so for about an hour to an hour and a half. Slow acclimation is a good precaution. I usually let them settle in anywhere from several hours to overnight before offering food, this way you help avoid upset stomachs.
If your fish made it this far unharmed, the last thing he or she needs is pH shock, that can be fatal on a fish's best day. After all this time and effort, I hope you and your fish are happy together for a very long time.
Conclusions and Parting Shots:
The entire process of importing from an overseas breeder is not quick, but it can be relatively easy if you know what to expect, which is why I wrote this guide. The process is also somewhat expensive when compared to buying a $6 betta from your LFS. I have only ordered smaller quantities of 3 or 4 fish at a time, and my per-fish cost has been around $40. Your per-fish cost could be potentially reduced if you buy in larger quantities. An express shipping box holds 5 bettas and costs about $25 whether you fill it or not. Many breeders will also give you a small bulk discount if you order 10 or more fish at the same time. You may not need that many bettas at once, but I've considered placing an order for 10 and reselling 7 of them to recoup my costs.
|Separated for taking photographs.|
Photo by Difa Betta
1) Be mindful of outdoor temperatures; avoid summer and winter shipping as much as possible.
2) Some sellers will show you a pic and then sell you "a fish from the same spawn as that one in the picture, it looks just like him." Where I'm from I call that a bait and switch. Make sure your seller understands that you want "this exact fish in the photo", or you could suffer some disappointment. Fortunately Difa Betta is one of the breeders who sells you "this exact fish in the photo" so you will not have any surprises there.
3) I encourage you to contact your breeder and/or TS with any questions or concerns that arise during the process. Don't sit with anxiety and let the worry build up, if there's something you're worried about, sit right down and write somebody an email. The sooner you address your concerns, the better you will feel overall, and the alternative is potentially letting things build until you have a freak out and send a bunch of strange messages to people. By my experience, these are professionals who love what they do and love the fish they work with, so they answer your questions without hesitation, they totally get why you are worried about your little fishies in transit.
If you have any questions about the subject of this article, please leave a comment below and I will answer as soon as I am able. Alternatively, you may email your question to me at HelpHalHelpYou@gmx.com.
As always, thank you for reading.