Understanding the Customs hold and Inspection Process

Wrote by Chris DiPasquale

US Customs Exams:

If you’re shipping cargo into the United States, one of the last things you want to hear is that your freight has been selected for a Customs Exam. It’s the supply chain’s version of a pop quiz, and no matter how ready you think you might be, you still get that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach when you get the news. Even if you’re sure that you, your freight forwarder and your supplier have done everything right, you know your freight is going to be delayed and there will certainly be extra fees involved.

How long your shipment is delayed depends entirely on the type of exam you’ve been selected for, and how long it takes your cargo to get into and out of a Centralized Examination Station (CES) for inspection.

In this article we are going to take a look at the process involved in cargo inspections, the types of exams your freight may be selected for, and what is involved with each of them.

Customs and Border Protection:

The important thing to keep in mind here is that while the unexpected selection of your cargo for examination may be a huge pain in the neck for you and your final customers, it is ultimately being done with everyone’s best interests in mind. After September 11, 2001 border security became a top priority.

Overnight, our focus shifted from illegal contraband being smuggled into the country to potential weapons of mass destruction sitting in our ports on the doorstep of the largest metropolitan areas in the country. On March 1, 2003 in order to streamline cooperation and communication between a number of government agencies dealing with border security, the Department of Homeland Security combined former stand-alone agencies such as Border Patrol, Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Department of Agriculture and U.S. Customs into the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency.

The Process:

CBP is entrusted to select the cargo for examination using various methods and selection criteria. Nobody knows the exact methodology used to determine who gets selected and who doesn’t, and only 3-5% of the cargo coming into the U.S. gets picked for examination. Because the containers that actually get checked represent a small percentage of the total goods coming into the U.S., the CBP tries to be more focused on the cargo that represents a higher risk or possibility of an issue.

Some of these factors could range from agricultural products from a certain part of the world, tips that come in on contraband or counterfeits, new importers without a track record, questionable points of origin that are lacking in good security procedures, or companies with less than stellar track records were involved with the shipment. Sometimes, it’s just a bad luck of the draw.

So, what does the process look like once you’ve been flagged? The simplest explanation of the process used to inspect cargo coming into the ports is this:

CBP selects the cargo > It goes to a CES facility > CBP performs an examination > It gets released, or it is held for further inspection, possibly seized, or exported back.

Customs inspection

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