Last Updated: 12/13/21
Customs exams can be a significant source of frustration and confusion when you’re moving goods in and out of the United States. Additionally, when your shipment is put on a customs hold, it can completely derail its timeline—and cost you money.
To help reduce some of the mystery around these exams, we’ll walk you through the most common types of holds and customs exams, along with their timelines and fees. We’ll also help you understand why your shipment might get targeted for a customs exam, as well as what you can do to avoid the delays and costs that result.
“Why Did Our Shipment Get Chosen for a U.S. Customs Exam?!?”
When you receive notice that your shipment has been put on hold or selected for a U.S. customs exam, your first thought might be, “Why us?!”
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to tell for certain why your shipment was selected. As part of their mission to secure the border, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) uses unknown algorithms to evaluate the degrees of risk for each shipment entering and departing the United States.
Where does CBP get its information? The details around shipments crossing the U.S. border are entered into systems like CBP’s Automated Manifest System (AMS). For ocean freight shipments, the agent or broker for every shipment submits the mandatory Importer Security Filing and Additional Carrier Requirements (ISF), also known commonly as 10+2. Using that data, CBP’s algorithms evaluate each shipment and flag ones that it judges suspicious.
While no one (except CBP!) can say for certain exactly how those algorithms work, we do know there are certain factors that heighten the possibility of an exam. For example:
However, at the end of the day, many shippers who do everything “right” can still be one of the 3-5% of shipments chosen each year for a customs exam. Unfortunately, it’s simply part of the reality of shipping goods in and out of the U.S.
Once your shipment is selected for a hold or inspection, it goes through an established process. The whole thing can be both unclear and aggravating while you’re waiting for your shipment to clear. In addition to adding extra time, customs holds and exams can also add extra fees, which must be paid before the shipment is released. More on that in a moment.
So although we can’t help you avoid every customs exam or hold, we can help reduce some of the mystery by walking you through how these processes work.
First, we’ll take a look at holds, which are just what they sound like—when your shipment is put on “pause” for a variety of reasons.