Overview of US Import and Export Laws and Procedures


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In order to avoid potential problems in the clearance of your merchandise, understanding US customs laws is very important. In fact, this knowledge is key before you begin trying to import/export products, or they may be subject to delays or even seizure.

Do you have to have a license for import/export?

Yes and no. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) does not require an importer to have a license or permit. But CBP is not the only government agency involved in import/export laws. Different agencies may regulate different types of products coming across the border, and each is capable of creating its own regulations that may affect whether your particular product will require a license. Your best bets will be both familiarity with your product, researching any regulatory agencies that have jurisdiction over your products, and contacting an attorney to answer your questions. You can find links to various government agencies and departments at USA.gov.

One potential point of confusion regarding import/export licenses: CBP entry forms do ask for your importer number. This is either your IRS business registration number, or if your business is not registered with the IRS or you do not have a business, your social security number. As an alternative, you may request a CBP assigned number.

Prior to importing, contact the CBP in the port of entry.

A complete directory of the various ports of entry can be found on the CBP Web site. Remember, ports can include land, air, or sea. At many ports, entry specialists handle questions regarding entry filing. Entry specialists work closely with import specialists and provide the technical processing expertise required to file the necessary paperwork. When calling the port, try to provide as much detail regarding the transaction as possible, such as 1) the country of origin of the merchandise and manufacturer; 2) the composition of the merchandise; 3) the intended use of the item; and 4) pricing/payment information. Even though multiple other agencies are often the ones who regulate import/export for a particular product, the CBP acts in an administrative capacity for those entities and will usually be able to help you determine what information must be provided.

Written Rulings.

If you experience a problem with the import/export of your particular product, you can ask for a ruling letter. Before requesting a binding ruling, research the results of previous ruling requests by using the Customs Rulings Online Search System (CROSS). CBP may have already issued rulings on products similar to yours, and you can use this for guidance. Although CBP enforces many export regulations for various other government agencies, specific questions pertaining to licensing requirements for a particular commodity should be directed to that lead agency.

Customs Brokers.

Those importing merchandise for their own use often hire a customs broker. This is an excellent option, particularly if you find the importing procedures complicated. Customs brokers are licensed by CBP, but are not CBP employees, and act as your agent in negotiating the entire import/export process. Many service port web pages have a list of customs brokers, so you can locate one in your locality. Remember, even when using a broker, you, the importer of record, are ultimately responsible for the correctness of the entry documentation presented, as well as all applicable duties, taxes and fees, so it is imperative that you remain involved.

Mandatory security filings for ocean vessel shipments.

Import cargo arriving to the United States by vessel must be reported via a security filing with the CBP. Failure to report could result in monetary penalties, increased inspections, and delay of cargo. Before merchandise arriving by vessel can be imported into the United States, the “Importer Security Filing (ISF) Importer,” or their agent (e.g., licensed customs broker), must electronically submit certain advance cargo information to CBP in the form of an Importer Security Filing. This requirement only applies to cargo arriving in the United States by ocean vessel, not those arriving by other modes of transportation. Remember, even if you use a broker, you, as the the importer of record, will ultimately be responsible for the correctness of the entry documentation.

You should research general quota information and quota requirements for certain commodities prior to importing into the United States.

Import quotas control the amount or volume of various commodities and products that can be imported into the United States during a specified period of time. US import quotas may be divided into two main types: absolute and tariff-rate. Absolute quotas usually apply to textiles and strictly limit the quantity of goods that may enter the commerce of the United States during a specific period. Currently there are no commodities subject to absolute quota restrictions, but that may change so if planning an import research the issue, consult a customs broker, or contact your attorney. Tariff-rate quotas permit a specified quantity of imported merchandise to be entered at a reduced rate of duty during the quota period, but once a quota has been reached a higher rate of duty applies. Quota information is available on the CBP Web site.

You may receive a bill if your shipment is examined by CBP.

CBP has a right to examine any shipment imported into the United States and it is important to know that you, the importer, must bear the cost of such cargo examinations. Per the CBP regulations, it is the responsibility of the importer to make the goods available for examination. No distinction is made between commercial and personal shipments. In the course of normal operations, CBP does not charge for cargo examinations, but there may still be costs involved for the importer, such as fees charged for transporting and housing the merchandise during inspection.

Legal Assistance.

As you can see, import/export laws are very complicated and intertwined between multiple different government agencies and policies. As a result, it would be unwise to navigate the waters of import/export alone if you have no familiarity with the industry. An attorney should be seen as a necessity in this industry and possibly the use of a customs broker.

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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.

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