Want to ship to the US but don’t know which documents you need to get through customs clearance? Don’t worry, you’re not alone! Many shippers face the same problem. In this article, we explain the key documents you need to ship smoothly to and from the United States.

Being prepared with strong customs processes gives you peace of mind, but more importantly, it ensures you don't encounter delays, detention, or additional charges and penalties against your cargo.

Which export customs documents do you need for the United States?

These are the documents you'll need to be aware of when exporting goods out of the United States:

1. Pro forma invoice or commercial invoice

You will need either a pro forma invoice or a commercial invoice if you export goods from the US.

The pro forma invoice is a document sent to buyers in advance of any shipment or delivery of cargo. Because it is an early-stage document, it is often used as a negotiation tool between buyer and seller – giving estimate quotes for the shipment of goods. The proforma invoice is generally used if there is no sale of an item between the shipper and importer. In other words, a value for customs purposes only.

The pro forma invoice will eventually be used to create the commercial invoice, as it contains similar information as a commercial invoice. You do not need both a pro forma invoice and a commercial invoice. One is sufficient.

The commercial invoice is an anchor document throughout foreign trade. It contains detailed information about the goods you're shipping, their manufacturer, origin, destination, and HTS code.

The primary purpose of a commercial invoice is to advise customs on the commodity you are importing along with the cost for statistical purposes. The value of the goods is used to calculate duties and must be within a specific parameter for statistical purposes, or it could cause a census warning. It's important to complete the commercial invoice in English, as US customs requires.

Details you can expect in a pro forma and commercial invoice

  • Details of buyer and seller
  • Detailed description of goods (itemized in English)
  • Any appropriate Harmonised Tariff Schedule (HTS) code
  • Itemized purchase price cost of goods in currency of purchase
  • Terms of payment
  • Details of delivery
  • Currency used for quote
  • Quantities and weights
  • Country of origin
  • Any assists, rebates, drawbacks, etc.

Some additional information you might need is:

  • Type of packaging used
  • Description of goods
  • Shipping information
  • Date and terms of sale

2. Export packing list

The packing list is a detailed overview confirming the cargo mentioned on the commercial invoice. It also includes information on how the shipment has been packed and which marks and numbers are noted outside the boxes.

Customs officers in the US and the destination country use the packing list to check goods for inspection, and it can be used to help prepare the bill of lading (BoL).

3. Bill of lading (BoL)

The bill of lading is another essential document in international trade. It is the transportation contract that includes important details on the shipment.

If you ship with Maersk, you'll receive this detailed document from us. It acts as the legal document of title, which allows the person holding it to claim ownership of the cargo. This means that filling out your bill of lading accurately and completely is vital.

The bill of lading also acts as a contract of carriage, detailing the carrier's responsibilities to the parties involved in transporting the cargo. It is often informed by the Incoterms® you've agreed to.

Which import customs documents do you need for the United States?

Some documents used for exporting are also used for importing — for example, the bill of lading and commercial invoice. Here, we detail the additional documents you'll need to be aware of when importing goods into the US from another destination.

1. Importer Security Filing (ISF)

An Importer Security Filing (ISF, or "10+2") is a filing required by the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) that document importing information and details. The ISF is required for shipments arriving in the US by the ocean and must be filed at least 24 hours before the vessel sailing from the last foreign port of departure to the US.

Importers who do not file the ISF are penalized with up to USD 5,000 for late filing.

2. Import license

The US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is the administrative agency for importing and exporting to and from the US. It does not require you to have a license to import, but other agencies within the US government might require licenses for goods they regulate.

Equally, some countries around the world have restricted goods that can't be imported freely. These goods may also require a license to import.

What to do before setting up your import shipment to the US?

  1. Make sure you have a US customs broker to handle your customs processing.
  2. Set up a Customs Power of Attorney with that customs broker.
  3. Discuss setting up a yearly continuous customs bond or setting up a single transaction bond. It is a good idea to speak with a customs broker to see which way works best for you, as a single transaction customs bond can be expensive and often costs more for one shipment than purchasing a continuous bond valid for 12 months.
  4. Complete your ISF document and make sure it is 48 to 72 hours before vessel departure from the last foreign port to the US port.

Need more help with your customs documents and processes?

Many documents are standard across international trade, so if you've shipped before, some of them will be familiar.

New to shipping? When you sign up to Maersk and book a shipment, you can easily add customs services and get support from our network of customs experts around the world. They make shipping simple for businesses like yours.

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