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Customs Clearance: A Guide from Licensed Customs Brokers

A container is unloaded from an ocean freighter after clearing customs
Our step-by-step guide for customs clearance in the U.S. will tell you everything you need to know in order to successfully import your goods.
Josh Kimble
July 3, 2019
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Last Modified: October 20, 2023

Customs clearance means getting approval from a country’s Customs authorities in order to import or export goods. In the U.S., Customs and Border Protection (CBP) regulates every piece of cargo that comes into the country. As such, it’s extremely important to ensure compliance with all aspects of the customs clearance process to ensure the seamless entry of your goods.

To clear U.S. Customs, importers must ensure that all paperwork associated with a shipment is accurate and submitted in a timely manner. Next, all duties, taxes, and other fees must be paid. A CBP official will review your shipment, and if approved, your container will be released. A Licensed Customs Broker is not required to clear customs, but hiring one is highly recommended.

Whether you plan on importing by sea, land, or air, we’ll go over every aspect of the customs clearance process to help you quickly and successfully import your goods.

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What is Customs Clearance?

Customs clearance is the necessary process of attaining approval from the Customs agency of the country you intend to import into, for the purpose of entering your goods. In the case of the United States, that would be U.S. Customs by way of the CBP.

The most important aspects to be aware of when clearing customs are:

  • Compliance with all rules and regulations
  • Timely and accurate submission of all necessary paperwork
  • Payment of all duties, taxes, and fees

Knowing how to clear U.S. Customs with cargo is one of the most important responsibilities of the importer, and as such, many opt to work with a Licensed Customs Broker. Customs brokers are well versed in all aspects of the customs clearance process and can assist in clearing your cargo seamlessly.

“The import process can be a complex process with many moving parts. As a new importer, I would highly recommend that you work with a Customs Broker that is willing to hold your hand through your first import,” said Sarah J., a Licensed Customs Broker at USA Customs Clearance. “You will avoid many headaches and potential costly delays if done ahead of time.” 

Who is Responsible for Customs Clearance?

The importer of record is the party responsible for ensuring that an international shipment is cleared through customs. That includes making sure all fees are paid, all paperwork is submitted, and all goods are in compliance with the CBP and related government agencies.

However, the importer of record doesn’t always have to be the purchaser of the goods. If you’re working with a customs broker, they can assume the role of importer of record and handle these services for you.

A customs officer reviews a stack of containers at the port

The Customs Clearance Process Explained: 4 Simple Steps

While the customs clearance process can, seemingly, be broken down into four basic steps, there is A LOT of work that needs to be done by the importer of record before a shipment reaches CBP to ensure the process remains simple. 

We’ll briefly explain how the customs clearance process works and then dive deeper into everything you’ll need to know ahead of time.

1. CBP Inspects Paperwork

The first step of the customs clearance process is to have all the documentation associated with your cargo inspected by a CBP officer to ensure that it is both present and accurate.

There is a lot of paperwork needed to import a commercial shipment into the U.S., including, but not limited to:

  1. Commercial Invoice
  2. Packing List
  3. Bill of Lading
  4. Customs Bond
  5. CBP Form 3461
  6. CBP Form 7501
  7. Arrival Notice
  8. Commodity Specific Documentation
  9. Importer Security Filing

2. Assessment of Duties and Taxes

After inspecting your paperwork, import costs such as duties, taxes, and any other applicable fees, will be assessed on your cargo.

The duties and taxes owed on your shipment can vary depending on:

  • The value of your goods
  • The number of products being imported
  • The makeup of the goods
  • The country of origin
  • Free trade agreements

Any commercial freight will also require payment of a Merchandise Processing Fee, which is 0.3464% of the value listed on the commercial invoice. If imported by way of ocean freighter, you’ll also owe a Harbor Maintenance Fee of 0.125% of the shipment’s value.

3. Payment of Import Fees

If there are any outstanding duties or taxes owed, this is where they will need to be paid so that your goods can clear customs. There are two payment options when your container arrives:

  • Delivered Duty Unpaid (DDU)
  • Delivered Duty Paid (DDP)

DDU means that the duties and taxes owed on the shipment have not been paid. You’ll need to arrange payment with the Customs authorities to grant your cargo release.

As you might infer, DDP means that duties owed on your shipment have already been paid for. This should be reflected on your shipping label, and it means that any fees associated with your freight would have been paid beforehand. This method ensures the quickest and easiest clearance process.

Both of these methods are international trade terms, also known as Incoterms. The buyer and seller can agree upon these terms when the transaction is made. It will determine how certain import costs and responsibilities are handled at each stage of the import’s journey.

4. Shipment Granted Release

Once all duties, taxes, and fees have been paid, paperwork is complete, and CBP (and any other relevant Partner Government Agencies) grant your shipment release, your goods will officially clear U.S. Customs and the receiver can take possession of the goods.

Your container will then continue on its journey to its final destination. That could involve drayage to a nearby distribution facility, transloading to a new mode of transport, or transportation to the end user.

It’s worth noting that while these steps generally hold true for most international shipments, every import is unique.

“The Customs Clearance process is not the same for everyone. There are many different steps to importing depending on the product you are looking to import,” said Denise P., a Customs Compliance Specialist at USA Customs Clearance.

If you have any doubt about how wide-ranging imports into the U.S. can be, check out the amount of shipments CBP sees every day. Here are some of the average statistics for shipments that came through U.S. Customs in 2022.

CBP StatisticDaily Average2022 Total (est.)
Truck, Rail, and Sea Containers Processed91.6 Thousand33.4 Million
Value of Imported Goods$9.2 Billion$3.36 Trillion
Entries of Merchandise107 Thousand39 Million
Duties, Taxes, and Fees Collected$306 Million$111.7 Billion


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Customs Clearance Process for Air and Ground Freight

While ocean transport remains the most popular method of shipping for commercial imports into the U.S., containers can also enter by way of land or air. The customs clearance procedures for air and ground cargo are similar to that of port customs clearance, with some minor differences.

Air Customs Clearance

Air cargo customs clearance works similarly to shipments imported by sea or land. Obviously, transit times will be shorter due to the higher speed of air travel, so that will need to be kept in mind when submitting timely paperwork and arranging for pickup once your shipment clears.

As opposed to ocean freight, air freight does not require an ISF Filing in order to clear customs. Otherwise, many of the same aspects of the customs clearance process remain the same, with minor changes to some of the documentation (i.e. airway bill instead of bill of lading, or air pre-alert instead of an arrival notice).

Additionally, participating carriers must submit required pre-arrival cargo data as part of the Air Cargo Advance Screening Program.

Ground Customs Clearance

As with air freight customs clearance, ground shipments do not require the importer to submit an ISF to clear U.S. Customs.

When a truck reaches the U.S. border, customs officers will inspect the cargo just as if the shipment had arrived at a port, ensuring compliance with rules and regulations, and payment of any duties and taxes. Once a Customs official provides approval, your ground shipment will be allowed entry.

Dozens of containers sit at port awaiting customs clearance

Documents Required for Import Customs Clearance in USA

Getting your cargo through customs can be a long, confusing process. There are so many things to keep track of, specific regulations, and dozens of documents to fill out—and on top of that, mistakes could cost you thousands! How can you prepare to clear us customs with cargo, and avoid running into trouble with the CBP? 

Well, there are a number of different documents that you’re going to need to know about to get your shipment through customs safely. We detail the most important ones below.

If you're working with a Customs Broker, you'll also need to complete a Power of Attorney (POA) for them. Many importers are surprised by this requirement. To learn more about this, check out our article Is a Power of Attorney Required For International Shipping?

1. Commercial Invoice

A commercial invoice is a document given to the importer from the supplier as a means to receive payment for the product. It lists each item included in the shipment, and what the individual and total costs of the transaction were. It serves as evidence of the transaction, and it is one of the primary documents that the CBP uses to determine the value of the goods. 

The commercial invoice also contains other important information that is valuable to the CBP, like the size and weight of the cargo, the country of origin, and the contact information of the shipper and consignee.

2. Packing List

Like the commercial invoice, the packing list is also a list of the items being shipped, but it does not disclose the cost of each item. It is also created by the importer instead of the supplier, and informs anyone that needs to know about what the shipment contains.

Many copies of the packing list should be printed out to distribute to your bank, your broker, your transportation agents, and any other individuals that may need a record of your cargo. A packing list will also need to be attached to each individual shipping container to inform the customs agents about the contents of the container, the weight of the products, and any other important information. 

A packing list is required in order to get issued a Bill of Lading, which is another important customs document.

3. Bill of Lading

A Bill of Lading, often abbreviated as BOL, is a document that serves many purposes in the customs clearance process. It serves as proof of the contract established between the shipper and consignee, evidence of responsible parties, and a receipt of the shipment. In addition to that, it is a record of all the most important information, all in one place.

This document contains:

  • The consignee’s phone number and address
  • The shipper’s phone number and address
  • Third party billing information
  • Delivery instructions
  • Any special instructions
  • A list of the products and their descriptions
  • A record of any hazardous materials in the shipment
  • COD amount due

4. Customs Bond 

A customs bond is essentially an insurance policy that guarantees to CBP that all duties and taxes will be paid. If the importer suddenly does not pay all or some of the duties, then the third party surety company that issued the bond would step in to pay on their behalf. Customs bonds protect the CBP and ensure that they get paid no matter what.

Some imports can get away with not having a customs bond, but only if they are worth less than $2,500 USD. Anything more expensive than that must have a customs bond to cover it. In addition to that, if your particular import falls under the jurisdiction of another government agency, like food, medicine, or electronics, then you will need a customs bond regardless of what the shipment is worth.

There are two main types of customs bonds that you can get.

  1. A single entry bond covers only a single shipment at only one port of entry, designated by the importer. The value of the coverage must be at least equal in value to the cost of the cargo, but if the product is regulated by another agency, then the coverage will need to be worth three times the value of the shipment. 
  2. A continuous bond covers multiple shipments over the course of a year, at any of the U.S. ports of entry. The coverage of a continuous bond is always $50,000, so if you plan to import more than a few times, it ends up being a much better deal than the single entry bonds. 

5. CBP Forms

When your container arrives at the port of entry, you should have a completed customs release form, CBP Form 3461, to electronically submit to the CBP. This document contains a lot of information like the HTS codes for your products, your BOL number, and much more. It is intended to give the customs agents inspecting your cargo as much information as possible about your particular shipment. This allows them to decide whether to release your cargo or designate it for further inspection.

Once the customs agents decide to release your shipment, you will have only ten days to submit the next document: the customs entry form. This form, CBP Form 7501, is a much longer form that must be included with the payment to cover the duties and taxes on the import.

6. Arrival Notice

An arrival notice is a document that is issued by the shipper, to notify the consignee that their cargo has arrived at the port of entry. It may contain information about additional fees or any special pick-up instructions, to ensure that the consignee is prepared for everything upon arrival.  

This document also helps to speed up the customs clearance process, by informing the consignee of exactly when their shipment can be picked up. It ensures that unclaimed cargo is not taking up space in the port of entry, and the whole operation can continue to move smoothly and quickly. 

7. Additional Documentation

Depending on the product you intend to import, you may have a multitude of additional permits and documents to apply for. For example, if you want to import food products, you will need to file a prior notice form with the FDA, and provide documentation to prove that the food facilities utilized in manufacture and storage are registered. Electronics will require product testing and approval from the FDA, and certifications from the FCC. 

8. Importer Security Filing ISF

If your cargo is coming in on an ocean vessel, you’re going to need to submit information about your cargo to the CBP 24 hours before the shipment departs from its country of origin. This does not apply to other carrier modes. This is known as the Importer Security Filing (ISF), or “10+2.” 

The 10+2 comes from the full name of the process, which is “Importer Security Filing and Additional Carrier Requirements.” There are 10 importer security filing requirements, and 2 additional carrier requirements.

The things that need to be recorded in the ISF are:

  • Seller
  • Buyer
  • Importer of Record Number
  • Consignee Number
  • Manufacturer or Supplier
  • Ship to Party
  • Country of Origin
  • HTSUS Number
  • Container Stuffing Location
  • Consolidator

The additional carrier requirements are:

  1. Vessel Stow Plan
  2. Container Status Messages

Failure to comply or submit an accurate ISF will result in serious delays, monetary penalties of $5,000 per violation, and increased inspections on your shipment.

An ocean vessel sits at port waiting for its cargo to be unloaded and clear U.S. customs

How Do I File ISF with U.S. Customs?

When submitting an ISF, most importers choose to utilize the assistance of a customs broker. The broker can access either the Automated Broker Interface (ABI) or the Vessel Automated Manifest System (AMS) to input the information and make any necessary modifications to the documents. 

You can, however, submit your ISF yourself, without the assistance of a customs broker. In order to do this, you must first make sure you have an Automated Commercial Environment (ACE) Secure Data Portal Account, which you can apply for on the CBP Website. Once you have an ACE account, you must register your Importer ID number with the CBP, by filling out the CBP Form 5106, or going in person to a U.S. port of entry. 

When everything is in order, and you are deemed eligible for the ISF portal, you will be able to manually input your information into the ACE portal. However, importers can submit no more than 12 ISF forms in a single year this way. If you need to import more than that, a professional customs broker may be your only option. 

What Happens if Cargo is Not Cleared by the Importer?

Once the cargo has arrived at the port of entry, the importer must clear it for release within 30 days. If the cargo is not cleared by the importer within that time frame, it will be considered unclaimed or abandoned cargo by the CBP. 

There are many reasons why cargo may go uncleared by the importer. There could be a disagreement between the shipper, importer, and consignee, or there might not be enough funds to complete the clearance process. If the cargo was damaged, there would also be little incentive to try to get it cleared and picked up. Regardless, customs has to get rid of the abandoned cargo as a means to save space, money, and time. 

Once the 30 days are up and the importer or consignee has not come forward to claim the import, they lose the rights to the cargo. Customs then has the right to auction the cargo off, and use the sales to cover the costs incurred by storing and inspecting the abandoned cargo. 

If the cargo is unsellable because of some violation, the cargo could be re-exported back to its country of origin instead. If the cargo is damaged, customs will most likely destroy it completely or dispose of it in a landfill.

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What is Considered Commercial Merchandise for U.S. Customs?

There are many ways of determining if a shipment is going to be considered commercial merchandise for U.S. customs. Even if your cargo isn’t technically for commercial use, customs may require you to import it under the commercial merchandise regulations, depending on several factors:

  • Quantity: If you are importing a large number of the same kind of item, it’s going to look like commercial goods.
  • Type: Depending on what your item is, customs may require that it be classified as commercial. For example, industrial machinery will always be classified this way.
  • Cost: If the item is valued at over $2,500, it will need to be treated as commercial goods.
  • End Use: Even if the product is going straight into the hands of its final customer, if it is used in a business, it has to be imported as commercial goods. 
  • Intent to be Sold or Distributed: This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but if you import something with the intent to resell it, then it clearly must be considered commercial merchandise.

In the end, the CBP is the only party that gets to decide what is personal or commercial. They get the final say, and even if you claim your freight should not be considered commercial, the CBP may require a formal entry anyway.

Customs and Border Protection Cargo Examinations

The CBP is responsible for regularly inspecting cargo to ensure that all importers are compliant with all applicable regulations. They prevent unsafe, unlawful, defective, and fraudulent goods from entering the U.S., and protect the American people from foreign diseases. 

Customs Holds

If your shipment is randomly selected for inspection or examination, it is moved to a different location, called a Centralized Examination Station (CES), where the shipping containers will be unloaded for the product to be examined. 

Depending on the type of customs examination being performed, each item in the container may be inspected to make sure it is not defective, it is what the invoice says it is, and that there are no illegal substances concealed within it. The shipment is reloaded again after the examination is complete, and it is returned to the port to be picked up by the importer or consignee. 

It can be a surprise when your container is selected for inspection. Not only are importers expected to pay for these random inspections and the transportation fees themselves, but they also must deal with the consequences of their shipment being delayed.

Container Security Initiative

As a result of the attacks on September 11, 2001, the CBP began what’s known as the Container Security Initiative (CSI) as part of their anti-terrorism efforts. The purpose of the program is to prevent terrorists from utilizing maritime containers to ship weapons into the United States. 

CBP officers get stationed at foreign locations around the world for the purpose of prescreening freight before it even departs for the U.S. In order to ensure that the trade process is not significantly slowed or interrupted, they utilize non-intrusive inspection and radiation detection technology, which allows them to detect if a shipment is dangerous without ever opening it.

As part of the CSI, now 80% of all incoming maritime shipments are prescreened by the CBP before reaching the U.S. port of entry.

Two CBP officials discuss a container about to be pulled for inspection

U.S. Customs Inspection for Containers

A study in 1985 revealed that a shocking 25% of intermodal shipping containers were in violation of hazardous materials regulations. 

As a result, intermodal shipping containers coming into waterfront ports are now subject to inspection under the standard Container Inspection Program, to ensure that hazardous materials are handled safely and correctly. The U.S. Coast Guard and the CBP collaborate to ensure compliance for all intermodal shipping containers.

The inspection procedures include:

  • Comparing the contents of the container to what the shipping papers say
  • Ensuring the weight of the shipment does not exceed the maximum weight tested for on the Safety Approval Plate
  • Inspecting the outside of the container for major or structural defects
  • Ensuring the container is properly labeled with the appropriate hazardous materials placards
  • Inspecting the interior of the container for major or structural defects
  • Ensuring that there are no additional hazardous materials that are unaccounted for
  • Ensuring all packages and products are labeled appropriately
  • Ensuring all packages and products are securely stowed in the container so as not to shift around in transport
  • Ensuring all incompatible materials are kept away from each other
  • Ensuring the hazardous materials are contained appropriately according to their specific requirements

Unless there is an obvious violation, like a leaking or damaged shipping container, containers are selected at random for investigation.

How to Clear Customs in USA: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

How Long Does Customs Clearance Take?

Typically, customs clearance will occur in less than 24 hours. However, there are circumstances in which it can take up to a week, or even be held indefinitely.

If your cargo requires a customs examination, or if necessary paperwork is found to be missing or inaccurate, your shipment could be stuck in Customs for much longer. Additionally, certain goods, such as pharmaceuticals or firearms, may have stricter regulations that necessitate a more thorough inspection process.

The best way to ensure smooth and quick customs clearance is to work with a Licensed Customs Broker. A customs broker can ensure that all duties, taxes, and other fees are paid, paperwork is submitted accurately and in a timely manner, and if your shipment is held for inspection, a customs broker can work with CBP to get it cleared quickly.

How Much Does Customs Clearance Cost? 

The amount you’ll need to pay for customs clearance depends on a variety of factors, including what you’re importing and how much, the value of the goods, and the country of origin.

That being said, there are several costs that you’ll always need to pay to clear customs.

  1. Merchandise Processing Fee (MPF): The MPF will always be 0.3464% of the value of your imported goods (as listed in the commercial invoice). This cost will range from a minimum of $31.67 to a maximum of $614.35.
  2. Harbor Maintenance Fee (HMF): If your cargo is imported via ocean transportation, you’ll need to pay a HMF of 0.125% of the value of your freight. 
  3. Customs Bond: The price of a customs bond varies depending on where you purchase it and what type of bond you get. At USA Customs Clearance, you can get a continuous customs bond for as low as $235 plus processing fees.

So, how much does it cost to clear customs? Here’s a breakdown.

Customs Clearance FeesValue
Import Duties and TaxesVaries
Merchandise Processing Fee0.3464% of Shipment ($31.67 to $614.35)
Harbor Maintenance Fee0.125% of Shipment
Continuous Customs Bond$235 + Fees
Transportation and StorageVaries

How To Clear Customs Without A Broker?

Clearing customs by yourself is possible, but highly discouraged. The customs clearance process can be extremely complicated and confusing, and even the smallest mistake could be costly. 

Something as simple as missing a paperwork deadline can result in a $5,000 fine. If an important regulation is missed, that could result in more serious delays, or even the seizure of your shipment.

All of that being said, if you want to clear customs without a broker, you need to become well versed in the rules and regulations required to import into the U.S. All duties and taxes must be paid in a timely manner and all paperwork and documentation must be submitted accurately and on time.

Transportation will need to be arranged ahead of time to determine who will receive the container once it clears, and where it will be delivered to. 

If you’re up to the challenge, clearing customs by yourself may save you money on a broker in the short term, but it will likely cost you much more in the time and effort required to do it successfully. And in the worst case scenarios, it could cost you much more due to potential fines and delays.

“The biggest mistake that new importers make when importing to the U.S. would be not doing their due diligence on the specific products they are looking to import,” said Sarah J. “There are many surprise duties and regulatory requirements out there. If they are not reviewed prior to importing, you could be looking at costly delays when the goods arrive in the U.S.” 

What Happens After Customs Clearance?

Once your cargo is cleared by all official parties, including CBP and any other PGAs with oversight of your goods, your shipment will be released and received by the importer of record. 

Once this occurs, your goods can begin the next leg of their journey, whether that be to a nearby distribution center, or directly to the end user.

Get Help Clearing Customs with USA Customs Clearance

Customs clearance is truly one of the most important aspects of the journey for an importer. Get the assistance you need to make your mission a success.

“Find a Customs broker who prides themselves on their service. The right Customs Broker can simplify and streamline the complex import process into terms that the first time importer can understand,” said Sarah J.

No matter what step of the import journey you’re at, USA Customs Clearance is here to help. Fill out our brokerage request form to help us determine how best to serve you. Already know what you need? Choose from our products and services to start your import journey:

Still have questions? Give our team a call at (855) 912-0406 and get the help you need to get started today.

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16 comments on “Customs Clearance: A Guide from Licensed Customs Brokers”

  1. I want to import a 20ft container of home furniture from china for personal use. I would like to clear it myself. Is there someone that can help describe process please

  2. What document proofs that the US customs has been cleared . What document is received after confirmation of customs clearance . Need the name of the document .
    Is it custom clearance certificate or custom release certificate or is it CBP 7501 form endorsed by customs .

  3. I have purchased a piece of equipment from China, weight is 750lbs item cost $1700.00 the shipping and charges were paid for from merchant to Oakland , CA port. What will I need to do to clear customs and pick up this item? It’s arriving via Ocean Frieght.
    Thank you,

  4. Does this outline also apply to household goods being shipped from Australia to Seattle?

  5. If I wanted to buy a fish tank from China which is shipped to the USA via container LCL by sea, can I do custom clearance myself? Thanks

    1. Hi Viet,

      One of our customs experts will reach out to you shortly in regards to your inquiry. We look forward to helping you!

  6. hi ,
    If i want to import a container of construction accessories and I dont have a company only myself , can I import it and clear it and use to sell locally like online selling ?

    1. Hi Saleh,

      The scenario that you described will require you to register as an Importer of Record with CBP. Since you'll be reselling the products you're importing, this qualifies as a commerical import. Our Licensed Customs Brokers can help you register as an Importer of Record. One of our brokers will be reacing out to you shortly. We look forward to helping you!

    1. Hi Patrick,

      If the moped is for personal use, I would highly recommend following the instructions provided in our Importing Motorcycle Guide. If the import is for commercial use, reach out to us at (855)912-0406 and we'll be happy to provide further assistance.

  7. Hello my name is Jonathan Heiland, I am one of the Customs Specialists with USA Customs Clearance. We will gladly assist you with your import but we will need more information about your shipment. For immediate attention please reach out to We look forward to working with you!

  8. Very concise and understandable. Knowing Airline and Maritime processes to release the cargo would be ideal as well.

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