Customs Shipment Holds and Exams: Part II

Customs Shipment Holds and Exams: Part II

Customs generally employ three types of exam to properly address the type of hold and satisfy their curiosity. The exams are listed below in order of how long they take and how much they cost:

The X-Ray

This exam is also known as a Non-Intrusive Inspection (NII) or a VACIS exam.  CBP simply orders the container to be driven through the X-ray machine at the ocean terminal and reviews the pictures. If all is well, they will release the container.  Otherwise, this exam could be escalated to either of the next two exams.

Fees range from $150 – $350 per container, depending on the size of the container and the port at which the shipment is held.  Fees per shipment, then, would be at minimum $25 and range up to $100.

The Tail Gate

This is the “driveby” of Customs exams. In this case, the container is inspected at the pier. The Customs officer breaks the seal of the container, swings the doors open, and takes a peek inside. If everything is found in order, they release the container; if not, the container is escalated to the final level of exams.

Fees range from $150 – $350 per container, depending on the size of the container and the port at which the shipment is held.  Fees per shipment, then, would be at minimum $25 and range up to $100.

The Intensive

This exam is affectionately call the “full monty”: the entire container is trucked over to a Customs Exam Site (CES) where the container is stripped. A CES is a private corporation authorized by Customs to devan / offload the container, segregate each set of parcels, open designated boxes, and ready the cargo for a Customs officer to visually inspect the cargo and possibly take samples.

Fees for an intensive exam can run well over $1,000 – $2,500 and beyond, all dependent on the labor involved, size of container, and the port at which it’s held.  This means each shipment could rack up costs ranging from $250 and above.

Note: The costs per container are typically divided proportionally between the importers with shipments in the container. Fees are typically calculated and collected by the freight forwarder (arrival agent) that is coordinating the movement of the container from the origin country.

But why am I paying for it?

You’d think that if Customs orders work to be performed they should pay it, and not you, but unfortunately the regulations state otherwise.

Customs examined my cargo, but there’s still a hold on it – why?

As stated above, CBP is the gateway agency for a myriad of other governmental agencies regulating imports, including the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), U.S. Dept of Agriculture USDA), and Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Each of these agencies may come in behind CBP and sample products for further review before your cargo is released.  Read more about Customs holds here.

How long does it take?

This is probably the most frustrating part of the process, because not only do you have to pay for it, but you’re also subject to delay. Delays can take weeks. Ports and exam sites can get terribly backed up depending on congestion, and even though congestion is out of your hands, you could end up getting charged storage costs.

Typically, though, for ocean shipments, X-ray exams take anywhere from 2- 3 days and intensive exams take around 5 – 7 days.

On the other hand, air shipment examinations generally take only a couple of days, given that air freight is handled loose rather than in containers, on pallets, etc.

What can I do?

Get your ducks in a row before you import.  Here are some suggestions:

  1. Clear your shipments under a continuous bond
  2. Work with your broker and forwarder to properly classify your product
  3. Declare your shipments’ values and descriptions accurately.  Customs officers are experienced and know when numbers match the cargo.
  4. Check if your freight forwarder uses C-TPAT (Customs Trade Partnership Agreement against Terrorism) certified warehouses.
  5. Ship full containers if you can!  Less than container load (LCL) shipments tend to get examined more frequently because any one rogue importer in the container can delay every shipment in that container.