As the ETA of your freight approaches, your palms start to sweat, you begin to pace your office, hit the refresh button on the tracking website, and start calling your professional Customs broker every hour on the hour.  The underlying fears…will your freight be snagged for examination?! Cue dramatic music.

Importers have come to know and dread the hold notifications, whether e-mailed or called in by their broker – but that doesn’t make the news any less painful to hear.  Under 19 USC 1467, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has the right to examine any shipments imported into the United States, and you, the importer, are required to bear the cost of those cargo exams.  Does it help if we tell you that it applies to personal shipments as well as commercial ones? No?  Ok, well, we tried.  Let’s take a different approach and break out the process as well as define some common examinations you may experience as an importer.

CBP Inspections: Whose Freight Gets Inspected and Why?

You first may ask yourself, ‘Why is my freight being flagged – and why me and not that guy over there?’  Well, to be honest, CBP does not disclose the examination information to the trade community due to national security risk and all that hoopla.  What we know is that elements such as shipper, importer, tariff number, and country of origin or export are all taken under analytical consideration.

Although some examinations are completely random, there is a track record that follows you and your supply chain.  If you are a first time importer, CBP will likely examine your first few shipments in order to establish credibility.  If you are a repeat offender of marking or labeling issues, for example, beware of the magnifying glass.

Now, let’s get to the dirty details.  If your shipment is flagged for exam, how do you know? If your shipment has been electronically transmitted to Customs via Automated Broker Interface (ABI), your Customs broker will receive an electronic system notification advising a “manifest hold.”  A notification is also sent out to the carrier, as well as anyone listed in the Notify Party field on your Bill of Lading.  If the field is blank, it will be sent to the Consignee listed.  Once on exam, companies that are Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT) certified receive preferential treatment if moved to a Centralized Examination Station (CES); in other words, your container moves to the front of the line.  You should also note that CBP as well as any Participating Government Agencies (PGA) that regulate your cargo have the right to recall your goods with a redelivery notice up to 180 days after release.

Common Import Exams You May Encounter

The following is a quick breakdown of common exams that importers may encounter.

Vehicle and Cargo Inspection Systems Exam (VACIS)/Non-Intrusive Inspection (NII)/X-Ray Exam

VACIS uses gamma ray technology to produce images of tankers, commercial trucks, sea and air containers, and other vehicles for contraband such as drugs, weapons, and currency.  This examination does not break the seal on your container, and is usually completed ship-side or within the port compound.  Depending on the size of the freight (number of pallets, container type), exam fees can range from $25 (per CBM, if LCL) to $350 (40’ container) plus any transportation/trucking to exam plus any PGA fees, if applicable.  Exam charges must be paid before the container can be released from the port, even if it is moving to another CBP or PGA mandated exam.

Tailgate/Backdoor Exam

In this exam, Customs or PGAs have the container moved to an exam area within the port and open the back of the container without handling the cargo.  The seal is removed and, pending any suspicious indicators, could at that time be flagged for a more intensive examination or released.  Costs for this exam range from $100 and up, depending on the port.

Contraband Enforcement Team (CET) Exam/Intensive Exam

This one is a doozie for sure. Not only is this an in-depth search of your container and products, this exam has hefty fees associated with it.  An Intensive Exam is usually initiated after a VACIS exam.  But wait, you may say…‘if they are already going to open my container, why do I have to pay for an X-ray?!’  Although there are a multitude of reasons (and plenty of speculation), we’ve been told that it is for the safety of the off-site workers who will be unloading and handling your cargo.  Intensive examinations require your freight to be moved off-port to a Customs Examination Station (CES) in order to be physically unloaded and inspected.  Because the freight is not Customs released, there are costs associated with using a bonded carrier in order to move the cargo to the CES.  Once the container arrives at the CES, it may wait up to a week in line depending on how many are in the queue.  This is when being C-TPAT certified gives you an advantage, which is essential if you want to avoid demurrage or detention charges from the steamship line for having their equipment in use and out of the port.  Keep in mind that all ports differ in their definition of whether demurrage is applicable to a container that has been moved for a required exam.  After the exam is completed, the importer must pay any charges associated with the exam as well as those due to the steamship line.  An Intensive Exam can range in cost from $500 to over $1000, depending on the port.

If you are sending your freight in a consolidated container, take note that in the event the container goes on a VACIS exam, then the cost of the VACIS is spread over the entire container. If there is an intensive exam, then Customs waits for the container to be stripped and just examines the cargo designated.

Do You Need a Customs Broker to Help You Navigate Customs Exams?

Now that fear has been instilled sufficiently into your life, breathe into a paper bag and just hear us out.  The complicated hoops and red tape routine are prime reasons you need someone who is able to juggle the responsibilities of guiding your freight through this complex process.

Also, patiently take note that the charges associated with examinations are not your broker’s fault.  Let’s just gang up and put the blame where it belongs: on CBP.  Just kidding; we’re thankful they are keeping us safe.  Keep in mind that although you know your freight is safe, or at least you think so, the determining safety factor is each and every hand in your supply chain.  It’s all risky business, not only on the terrorism side, but also for PGAs, like U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Though you may hear about a recall of salads from your favorite local chain restaurant, what you don’t hear about are all the cases of food poisoning, sickness, and sometimes deaths that were prevented by these exams.  Tile importers, wildly known throughout the industry for receiving VACIS and Intensive exams, happen to bring in a commodity that contains pests harmful to our agriculture (cue in fumigations on top of exams).  And you know how upset we would get if we didn’t get all that corn syrup in our food!

So bottom line is, although they won’t tell us how and why exams and importers are not created equal, as an importer, broker, or forwarder we are required to comply.

Have a fun exam story to share?  Leave me a comment below!

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*NOTE: Exam prices vary by port, exam type, commodity, and regulatory controls.  Pricing listed in this article is for estimation purposed only.