Importing Guide to the USA

Importing goods into the USA can be a daunting task, but with the right knowledge and preparation, it can be a smooth process. Understanding importing regulations, documentation requirements, tariffs, and duties are essential steps to navigate the complexities of importing.

Choosing the right importing method, whether it be air freight or sea freight, can impact the cost and speed of delivery. Navigating customs clearance is another crucial aspect, involving customs brokerage and handling customs inspections.

Ensuring compliance with import regulations, such as product standards and labeling requirements, is vital to avoid penalties and delays. Our team helps you stay ensure your success of importing to the USA.


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Understanding Importing Regulations in the USA

In this post, we review the following concepts:

  • Importer of Record
  • HS codes and Tariff Classification
  • Declaring a Value for Importing Goods
  • Country of Origin
  • Import Duty to the USA
  • USA Free Trade Agreements
  • Ensuring Your Commercial Invoice Has the Necessary Data
  • Types of Consumption Entries to the USA
  • Clearance via Partner Government Agencies
  • Learn how to navigate the complex world of importing goods into the USA

Importing Documentation

The paperwork necessary for import to the USA starts with the commercial invoice and bill of lading or waybill.Other documentation and approvals may be necessary as it relates to Food and Drug, Wildlife, and other partner government agency requirements.

The Bill of Lading / waybill and commercial invoice are the most fundamental to cross border shipping.

ImportTariffs and Duties

 Duty rates to the USA  most commonly express as a percentage of the value.  Sometimes it can calculate on the quantity, weight or volume. Duty free is accessible for many goods importing with a value under $800. Goods qualifying as originating via a free trade agreement - such as USMCA - can import duty free regardless of value. 

Choosing the Right Importing Method

The best way to transport your goods to the USA depends primarily on the nature of your goods, size and weight of the consignment and shipping volume.

Air Freight

The benefits of air freight is both speed of delivery. E-commerce importing via air can benefit from express consignment clearance processes.

Sea Freight

The cost advantages of sea freight works for larger/ container size imports. Less than container load can work as well but requires additional transit time.

Navigating Customs Clearance

Generally speaking, most goods with a value under US$2,500 can import without a customs bond. Most goods under US$800 can import duty free.

Customs Brokerage

Importers can assign a customs broker to clear the goods on their behalf. This authorization is via a Power of Attorney or POA. Authorization can be for a single shipment or for all an importers shipments.

Customs Inspections

Custom inspections by the very nature are unpredictable. They can target by area commodity, origin, carrier or port of entry. A specific shipper or importer may also be a target of a higher level of inspections.   Increasingly, US ports  use a CES (Central Exam Station) for any examinations. This adds additional costs.

Understanding Importing Costs

The main importing costs include import duty, brokerage charges, customs bond, and local facility charges.

Shipping Costs and methods

The shipping costs are usually lower from the exporting country. In general:

  • Local Post options are best for individuals shipping to the USA
  • FedEx, UPS and DHL are best for sending commercial packages
  • High volume parcel flows can benefit from zone jumping to the USA via section 321 processes
  • Air freight is best when faster transit is necessary and for smaller cargo
  • Ocean freight and Road (Canada/ Mexico) is best for shipping several pallets and container loads.

Import Taxes and Fees to the USA

The list of import fees can include:

  • Duty (read more about calculating duty)
  • Merchandise Processing Fee (for formal entries)
  • Customs brokerage fee (for cargo shipments and ground shipments from Canada)
  • Customs bond for formal entries
  • Carrier disbursement Fee (for parcel imports)
  • Importing port and pickup fees (cargo)

customs bonds

Ensuring Compliance with Import Regulations

Stay on top of import regulations to avoid penalties and delays. The concept of "inform compliance" makes it clear that not knowing of a regulation does not excuse an importer from compliance.

Product Compliance

Product standards, labeling requirements, and certifications relate mostly to Partner Government Agencies. Most common are standard put forth by the Food and Drug Administration.See links to Partner Government Agencies

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USHTS codes and Tariff Classification

The US tariff schedule is available online and built via the World Customs Organization principles. The US classifications are similar in structure to the HS classification of other countries.

The first 6 digits of a harmonized code generally are the same.The remaining digits are unique to each country.

Read more about HS Codes and Tariff classification

Understanding HS codes helpful video

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Declaring a Value for Importing Goods

In general, the most common method for importing goods is via the Transaction Method. View our video presentation on declaring a value.

The transaction value of importing merchandise is the price actually paid or payable for the merchandise when sold for exportation to the United States, plus amounts equal to:

  • The packing costs payable by the buyer
  • Any selling commission payable by the buyer
  • The value, apportioning as appropriate, of any assist
  • Any royalty or license fees as a condition of the sale
  • The proceeds of any subsequent resale, disposal, or use that accrue to the seller

Note that US customs does not consider transport costs as part of the transaction value.

Gain useful insights in our post on valuation for cross border shipping.

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Country of Origin for USA Imports

Just shipping goods from a specific country is not the same as their country of origin. The country of origin more commonly refers to the country of manufacture. Goods of a specific origin may qualify for duty import via a free trade agreement. However, from where goods ships can impact such things as quotas and target of enforcement.

Marking of Country of Origin on U.S. Imports

Every article of foreign origin entering the United States must be legibly marked with the English name of the country of origin unless an exception from marking is provided for in the law. 

country of origin marking graphic

Import Duty to the USA

The general rate of import duty to the USA are lower than to most countries. In most cases is ad valorem or a percentage of the value. In some cases, import duty can assess on a unit of weight, volume and quantity.

duty calculation example by percentage vs volume.

Discover Duty Free Import to the USA

The general rates of import duty to the USA are available in the US tariff. Duty free import is possible under the following conditions:

  • Goods are under $800 and qualify for Section 321 import
  • If the General rate of duty is 0%
  • If the import qualifies as originating via a USA trade agreement

Crossing Land Border

Over 80 percent of North American trade cross via land borders. The processes are unique regarding truck transport requirements. However, the fundamentals of customs clearance remain the same. Contact our team for Canada -USA cross border shipping. 

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How can I benefit from USA Free Trade Agreements

In addition the USMCA with Canada and Mexico, the USA has free Trade Agreements with 20 countries in total. The programs facilitate trade in merchandise by allowing originating goods to import duty free. Each agreement has "rules of origin" outlining how the goods can qualify. To benefit from these programs, qualifying goods much include a Certificate of Origin (or certification of origin).

  • Ensuring Your Commercial Invoice Has the Necessary Data
  • Types of Consumption Entries to the USA
  • Clearance via Partner Government Agencies
  • Learn how to navigate the complex world of importing goods into the USA

trade agreements USA tariff code graphic

Ensuring Your Commercial Invoice Has the Necessary Data

The Commercial Invoice is among the most important documents for importing to the USA. Data from the invoice is useful for customs entry information, certifications, value, and admissibility.

  • Shipper's details*, consignee details (including tax ID/ IRS number).
  • Specific description of the goods, the value of the goods, and the country of manufacture.
  • Complete /specific description of the merchandise
  • Quantities and unit values (specify currency)
  • Country of manufacture of the goods
  • The Harmonize Tariff Code of the United States
  • Shipping Terms

* The name and complete address of the foreign individual or firm who is responsible for invoicing the merchandise.Ordinarily the manufacturer/seller. If not, the party who sold the merchandise for export to the United States or made the merchandise available for sale.

Note: The manufacturers name and address is necessary for any wearing apparel entries. If the country of origin is China,  the full name and address of the manufacturer including the zip code is necessary for entry.

Useful Information regarding a commercial invoice for customs.

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Types of Consumption Entries to the USA

There are three basic entry types for importing goods to the USA.

  • Under US$800: Section 321 (Express, Cargo, Type 86)
  • Under US$2,500: Informal
  • Over US$2,500 (and otherwise with restrictions): Formal entry

A formal entry requires a customs bond and record keeping years following import.

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Clearance via Partner Government Agencies

Clearing US Customs often requires approval from another government agency. Most notably are cosmetics, food, drugs, wildlife goods etc.

PDF presentation of Partner Government Agencies


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