At first glance, port customs clearance can seem a bit overwhelming, with so many things to consider like port filing documents, compliance, and brokers. Fear not! Read on to get an overview of port filing for customs in the US. We’ll cover:

  • Customs clearance process for imports and exports
  • Documents required for port clearance
  • Various customs duties and taxes you have to pay
  • How customs brokers can help in port filing

Importing to the US

The U.S. Customs Border & Protection (CBP) is in charge of handling all US port clearance procedures.

US import customs clearance process

Here’s an overview of port clearance for imports:

  1. Entry: The process begins when you or your agent uploads the shipment packing list and other related documents (port filing) to CBP’s online system. Then, you file entry documents to notify about your shipment’s arrival at the port of entry.
  2. Clearance: Based on the documents you file, CBP decides whether to clear your shipment or hold it for inspection. This is also the stage where CBP determines whether you owe any duties on imported goods. If so, you need to pay the dues within 15 days for clearance to avoid additional costs.
  3. Inspection: If your shipment goes for inspection, it may be a random check. Or it may require additional compliance from Partner Government Agencies (PGA) as listed by the CBP. After you present the required documents, CBP releases your shipment, and it’s free to move from the port to your destination.

What is port filing for imports?

As an importer, you need to file several documents related to your shipment to CBP before it arrives at any US port.

CBP also requires an Import Security Filing (ISF), specifically for ocean freight, at least 24 hours before the vessel leaves the port of origin. ISF filings help CBP decide which shipments to clear faster and which to hold for inspection.

The complete process of filing relevant entry documents for shipping (import or export) is known as port filing. For imports, port filing is usually the earliest step in the port customs clearance process.

What documents are needed to import into the US?

You need these major documents to import your goods:

  • Arrival notice (with details related to shipper like location, consignee, arrival time)
  • Entry form (with details like country of origin, description, HS Code)
  • Import license
  • Packing list
  • Commercial invoice
  • Bill of lading
  • Certificate of origin
  • Purchase order or Letter of credit
  • Insurance certificate
  • Partner Government Agency (PGA) licenses (if required)
  • Customs Power of Attorney (if you’re hiring an agent)

US customs duties and charges for import

The duties and port clearance charges levied on your shipment depend on several factors, like types of goods, shipment value, country of origin, and more.

How are US import customs duties calculated?

CBP calculates and collects all duties and taxes applicable on goods imported to the US.

The rate of duties varies depending on the category of goods you import as per the HS Code. Harmonized Tariff Schedule Code (HTS or HS Code) is used by customs authorities to categorize and identify products for assessing customs duties.

As a shipper, file your goods under a particular category and mention its correct HS code on shipping documents — for accurate estimation and evaluation of duties on imported goods.

What are the types of duties and charges for US imports?

While there are numerous charges involved, here are some common duties:

  1. Custom duty: Paid to CBP at a fixed rate, depending on the HS code and country of origin.
  2. Customs clearance fee: Paid to broker or agent as a service charge for filing and clearing customs.
  3. ISF filing charge: Only specific to ocean imports and sometimes covered in customs clearance fee.
  4. Inspection charges: Only applies if your shipment undergoes an inspection.
  5. Penalties: CBP collects fines if you breach any customs regulations.
  6. Demurrage and detention: Paid to the carrier if the shipment stays at the port for more than an agreed time period.
  7. Merchandise processing fee (MPF): Paid to CBP as a service charge for processing the shipments at the port.
  8. Harbor maintenance fee (HMF): Paid to CBP for the use of US harbors and ports.
  9. Customs bond: Paid to CBP in advance as insurance against a shipper’s failure to pay duties or penalties. All imports require a customs bond for formal entries and containerized imports via ocean.

And that sums up the most relevant information about port filing and importing to the US.

Now that we know about imports, let's talk about exporting from the US and related customs filing.

Exporting from the US

The Customs Border & Protection (CBP) also handles export procedures from the US.

US export customs clearance process

Here’s an overview of port clearance for exports:

  1. Document filing: After your goods are packed, file the packing list and other export documents with CBP via the Electronic Export Information (EEI) portal.
  2. Clearance: CBP will inspect the goods and clear them to move through the port. Once goods are cleared for export, you must inform the importing country’s customs.
  3. Export: The goods load onto the vessel and move towards the destination port.

What is port filing for exports?

Usually, the port filing process for exports is similar to the one for imports.

However, when moving goods out of the US, the port filing process happens after customs clearance. As a shipper, you need to file documents to the importing country's customs before your departure as part of the port filing process.

What documents are needed to export from the US?

Some of the major documents to export your goods include:

  • Proforma invoice
  • Commercial invoice
  • Packing list
  • Certificate of origin
  • Bill of lading
  • Export license
  • Customs declaration certificate
  • Insurance certificate
  • Customs Power of Attorney (if you’re hiring an agent)

You also need to file in the Automated Export System (AES) through CBP’s Automated Commercial Environment (ACE) system or any other platform connected to ACE for trade processing in the US ports.

US customs duties and charges for export

CBP doesn’t levy customs duties on goods exported from the US. However, you might have to pay charges to agents or CBP (in case of any inspections).

Customs broker for port filing

Customs brokers are agents licensed by CBP to facilitate the shipment of goods on your behalf. They help traders meet federal requirements and ensure smooth customs clearance.

What are the roles of customs brokers in the US?

A customs broker should:

  • Manage paperwork related to customs clearance (entry filing, invoices, packing lists)
  • Guide you with the correct HS code category and declare your goods appropriately
  • Interact with the customs authority and track your shipment
  • Acquire an insurance certificate and claim it (if required)
  • Arrange for a customs bond certificate

Depending on your service contract, your broker can help you with other responsibilities.

Do I need a customs broker in the US?

When exporting from the US, a customs broker is not needed – but you must file your own AES.

When importing to the US, working with a broker is not mandatory, but most shippers hire one for convenience. However, if your goods are valued over USD 2,500 you need a customs broker to handle the customs processes — unless you have a filer code with customs.

When hiring a customs broker, you also need to sign a Customs Power of Attorney, which authorizes your broker as a legal authority to process customs clearance on your behalf.

Now, if you decide to go for a broker, make sure your broker has:

  • Experience working in the industry and locations where you are shipping
  • Good reviews from previous shippers and partners
  • Network of agencies and partners at their disposal
  • Valid license from CBP, if they’re based in the US

And that’s a wrap

Whether importing or exporting to the US, navigating customs can be complex. But knowing the basics of the customs clearance process always comes in handy.

Here’s a summary:

  • The process of filing entry documents for shipping (import or export) is called port filing.
  • While importing, file an Import Security Filing (ISF) for ocean freight at least 24 hours before the vessel leaves the port of origin.
  • Categorize your freight under the correct HS code for accurate customs duties estimates.
  • If your freight is valued at over USD 2,500 you are required to hire a customs broker and do a formal customs entry.
  • For exporting to the US, you must file AES for trade processing.

Plan ahead, have the paperwork ready, find reliable shipping partners, and you can cruise the customs process like a pro. At Maersk, we provide import and export customs clearance solutions to facilitate your trade requirements. Start shipping with Maersk!

Port Customs Clearance: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

  1. How long does customs clearance take in the US?
    Usually, it takes 24-48 hours to clear all customs formalities (excluding the time taken for paperwork). But, if your goods are held for inspection, it may stretch to several days or weeks.
  2. What documents do you need to process customs clearance?
    Depending on your shipment and country of origin, document requirements differ. Some common documents you need include an import/export license, packing list, commercial invoice, bill of lading, certificate of origin, purchase order or letter of credit, and insurance certificate.
  3. What does US customs check?
    US customs checks for basics, including but not limited to proper documentation, accurate HS classification of goods, country of origin, special permit requirements, and whether any contrabands are shipped.

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