A Guide to Cargo Examinations (and How to Avoid Customs Inspection)

A digital image in a minimalist style depicting a pair of CBP officers inspecting a tractor trailer. A semi truck is shown in the background.
What happens if your shipment is pulled for a customs exam? Understanding why these occur can be challenging, but it’s invaluable knowledge for any importer.
March 26, 2020
Last Modified: May 30, 2024
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The United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) occasionally holds shipments for examination. This is never good news for importers, and in some cases the exam could have been avoided. 

Key Takeaways

  • Importers can reduce the likelihood of their shipments being selected for cargo examinations by double-checking paperwork and working with reputable partners. 
  • There are three primary types of customs examinations—VACIS/NII (non-invasive/x-ray), Tail Gate (visual), and Intensive Exam (thorough physical inspection). Each type varies in cost, time, and invasiveness.
  • Customs brokers can help reduce the risk of exams by ensuring all documentation is correctly filled out and up to date, preventing fines, seizures, and other enforcement actions.

Importers of all experience levels can benefit from this review of customs inspections, why they occur, and how to reduce the likelihood that your shipments will come under scrutiny from CBP.

What is a Cargo Examination?

This is a procedure CBP uses to ascertain potential violations of U.S. customs laws. Violations can range from relatively mundane issues, like improper paperwork, to dangerous situations, such as suspicion of illegal goods. 

CBP uses this procedure in order to protect the country by monitoring what passes through the border. However, they cannot reasonably inspect every single shipment that comes through the border, so they look for certain risk factors to help determine which shipments to inspect more closely. 

If your shipment is selected for examination, it doesn’t necessarily mean there is anything wrong with it. That said, you will have to wait longer to pick up your goods since customs will hold it for several days at the port. 

Related: Customs Hold Types and Their Impact on Your Shipments

Which Shipments Are Chosen and Why?

CBP has an algorithm they use to rate incoming shipments by their level of risk, and select some to inspect. The public doesn’t know exactly which factors are included in this algorithm, and some shipments that have been correctly valued and documented still get selected for examination. 

There are a few circumstances that can drastically increase the likelihood of your shipment being inspected. Some of these include:

  • Being a first-time importer
  • Having a history of mislabeling shipments or improperly filling out import documents
  • Working with manufacturers who have a track record of producing goods that violate U.S. customs regulations 
  • Importing commodities that are prone to mislabeling or violation of U.S. regulations, regardless of manufacturer
  • Bringing in goods from a country or region with whom the United States does not have a favorable trade relationship 

If a shipment is selected for this procedure, it will be subject to one or more specific processes by CBP.

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Examination Procedures

The first thing that happens is the shipper is notified that their shipment has been selected for examination by CBP. This notification can come directly to you or be relayed by your customs broker. 

The shipment is either held at the port of entry or, for more intensive procedures, transported to a Centralized Examination Station (CES). There, it waits in a queue of other shipments, which can sometimes take days for customs workers to get through. 

When the customs officers conduct the exam, they might have to break the seal on the container or unload it entirely. If the shipment is found to be compliant with all applicable regulations, it is reloaded and cleared to pass through into the U.S. with no further action needed. 

However, if a shipment doesn’t pass, CBP can take a number of actions, including assessing a fine. This is a common measure, particularly on shipments of goods that violate intellectual property rights (IPR). In fact, this relatively benign violation costs importers millions of dollars a year, as you can see in the table below. 

An infographic displaying information about the five most expensive intellectual property right (IPR) violations by commodity for 2023. The information is presented as a bar graph descending from the most expensive to least-expensive violation, with two columns: commodity and fines assessed in 2023. It is titled "Top Five Most Expensive IPR Violations by Commodity in 2023". It reads as follows Commodity: Watches and Jewelry Fines assessed: $1.06 billion Commodity: Handbags and Wallets Fines assessed: $658 million Commodity: Apparel and Accessories Fines assessed: $451 million Commodity: Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Items Fines assessed: $185 million Commodity: Unclassified/Other Goods Fines assessed: $165 million

Source: cbp.gov

If that doesn’t sound bad enough, every aspect of the process has to be paid for by the shipper. This is just another reason to do everything you can to avoid attracting CBP’s scrutiny. It’s also worth noting that even if a shipment does initially pass customs, CBP reserves the right to request redelivery of the shipment for an exam up to 180 days after the fact.

Types of Customs Exams

I mentioned before that there are some inspections that require moving the shipment to a CES. There are three different kinds of examinations that your shipment could undergo, depending on how suspicious it appears to CBP. Each test varies in invasiveness, with the most invasive one also being the most expensive and time-consuming. 

If your cargo is randomly selected, and there isn’t really anything wrong with it, then it will likely be examined in the most non-invasive way. However, if one of the less invasive tests comes back with inconclusive or concerning results, it can be escalated to a more intensive process. 

From least to most invasive, the three types of inspections are:

1. Vehicle and Cargo Inspection System (VACIS) or Non-Intrusive Inspection (NII)

Your shipping container is X-rayed to determine if there is anything inside that doesn’t match the cargo manifest. It may also be tested for radiation or signs of pests, but the container itself won’t be opened if no problems are detected. 

Because of its non-invasive nature, this is usually less costly to the shipper than the other two types. Unless there is a large backlog of shipments that need to be examined, you can expect your freight to get through in about two to three days.

2. Tail Gate

The customs workers break the seal on the shipping container to physically examine the cargo. This doesn’t involve actually touching the cargo at all, but the process is still more intensive than the first type. 

Even though they sound simple, Tail Gate exams can end up costing you more than a VACIS/NII. It will also take your shipment longer to be processed, usually four to five days. This is often a precursor to an Intensive Exam. 

3. Intensive Exam

This involves completely unloading the entire shipment at a CES to examine everything up-close. After all the cargo has been thoroughly inspected, CBP officers reload the shipping container. 

As you can probably imagine, this process is expensive. If your shipment triggers this level of inspection, you’ll be stuck with the bill for transportation of your cargo to and from a CES, along with the labor involved in unloading and loading the shipment. Costs could be in the thousands of dollars, and you’ll have to wait at least a week before your shipment is released. 

How to Prepare for a Customs Inspection

Unfortunately, there isn’t much you can do if your shipment is selected for an exam. However, there are some preparations you can make for the possibility of such an occurrence before your shipment even leaves its country of origin. 

Since an intensive inspection can result in your freight getting damaged, it’s a good idea to invest in cargo insurance that can help you recoup some losses. 

You can also work with a customs broker to reduce the risk of your shipment getting selected for in the first place. They can help you communicate with customs and keep you updated on the progress of an examination, should one occur. 

How to Avoid Inspections 

No matter how careful you are, there is always a chance that your shipment will get selected for examination. However, if you take all the right steps, you can significantly reduce that chance. 

Here are some of the best ways to stay under CBP’s radar and get your shipments through customs quickly. 

  • Accurately Value Your Goods: Undervaluing your goods can not only get you in trouble with CBP, but it is also considered tax fraud, and thus comes with some serious consequences. 
  • Vet Your Trade Partners:  If any part of your supply chain has a nasty history with CBP, you might trigger an inspection even if you haven’t done anything wrong. 
  • Use the Correct HTS code. This is part of the documentation, but it is important enough to mention on its own. Harmonized Tariff Schedule (HTS) codes are used to identify your commodities, and using the wrong one could be enough to get your shipment examined. 
  • Become CTPAT certified. Becoming CTPAT certified comes with many benefits for importers. It reduces the chance of your shipment being inspected and expedites customs clearance for your goods. Even if your cargo does end up being sent to a CES, inspectors will push it to the head of the line, reducing lost time. 

Some exams are inevitable, but by showing CBP that you are a reliable importer, your risk will decrease naturally over time. 

Let USA Customs Clearance Help You Avoid Cargo Examinations 

Finding out your shipment is being examined by CBP is never good news, and working with experts in U.S. customs can minimize the chance of such an occurrence. That’s where we come in. 

The brokers at USA Customs Clearance have decades of experience helping importers avoid mistakes that can lead to cargo exams. We’re also CTPAT certified, giving you a leg up when it comes to building the trust necessary to clear customs smoothly.

Additionally, we offer services such as:

Set yourself up for a successful import transaction by contacting us online or giving us a call at (855) 912-0406. We have the know-how to help you avoid unnecessary customs exams.

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Frank Longenecker

had a container clear customs last week, the broker (Fed ex logistics) then had it picked up and deliver to our warehouse this past thursday. Broker recieved call today from CBP saying “they released it by mistake , container was not supposed to clear and now want to know if we have all the material to be returned – which we dont.

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