Ultimate Guide on How to Import into the United States
If you plan to import goods into the United States, it is important to know what you need before getting started. Importing is a complex process. There are many requirements, restrictions and regulations involved. And as an importer, you are responsible for making sure that all of the correct documentation is filed and that everything complies with the specific rules and regulations of the U.S. government.
This guide will provide an overview of what you need to know and do before importing goods into the United States. We will also walk you through the importation process and documentation required to minimize complexities and time at the border.
U.S. Import Requirements: What you Need and What you Don’t
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has defined requirements that must be met as a condition of entry into the U.S., while best practices are recommended activities that will help expedite the import process but aren’t mandatory.
- You will need an Importer Number, which you can get through the IRS if your imported goods are valued at USD 2,500 or more. This number will be required on all your import paperwork.
- You will not need an import license in general, but some imported items may require special permits from other government agencies (plants, animals, dairy products, medications, etc.)
The majority of goods do not require approval or certification by the U.S. government to be imported into the United States. However, there are some exceptions:
- Restricted goods. Goods restricted and controlled by multiple federal agencies (such as food, animal products, medical devices, and firearms) may require an import license or permit from the agency that regulates that product
- Government licenses and permits. Imported goods may also require an import license or permit from a specific government agency to enter the United States (for example, imports of agricultural products may require a USDA permit)
- Compliant imports. Certain goods imported into the United States must meet compliance standards enforced by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and other federal agencies such as FDA for food, drugs, and cosmetics; DOT for motor vehicles; EPA for pesticides; and CPSC for consumer products. Compliance has nothing to do with collecting duties; it’s about ensuring that the imported items into the country are safe and legal while meeting various trade laws and agreements.
Expect to face two types of requirements: administrative and operational. Administrative requirements include how and where to file entry documents, how to pay duties, taxes, and fees, how to obtain duty refunds, who can act as your agent, etc. Operational requirements involve the actual goods themselves — their value, classification, country of origin, etc.
While CBP has clearly defined administrative requirements for importers, there is no comprehensive list for operational requirements. Rather than create one yourself (which would be nearly impossible), consult with CBP or your customs broker.
There are 7 Steps to Importing into the United States
Step 1: Obtain an Importer Number
To import your products, you will need an Importer Number, also known as a Business Tax Number or Customs-Assigned Number, which you can get through the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). This number will be required on all your import paperwork and will be on the commercial invoice or bill of lading. You cannot clear your imported goods without an Importer Number.
For importers based in the United States, you will need an Employer Identification Number (EIN) if you are importing as a company and an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) or Social Security Number (SSN) if you are importing as an individual.
For foreign Importers of Records (IOR) who are not based in the United States, a Customs Assigned Importer Number (CAIN) is required. At Breeze Customs, we can help you obtain a CAIN and apply for it on your behalf.
Step 2: Speak to a Customs Broker
Once you have an Importer Number, the next step is to get a customs broker. This person or company will work with you through the entire import process, including preparing the paperwork and filing taxes. If something is wrong with your shipment, customs will contact your customs broker first instead of you.
While you can file your imports yourself, this is not recommended unless you are very familiar with the process. Your customs broker will charge a fee for their services, but this will save you money in the long run by helping you avoid fines and penalties due to incorrect filings.
Step 3: Determine your goods’ Tariff Classification and Valuation
Next, you will need to determine the value of your goods and classify them. All goods imported into the United States are subject to duty, or duty-free entry, depending on their classification in the Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States (HTSUS). CBP uses the Harmonized Tariff System (HTS) to classify goods based on their product type and composition to assess appropriate duties on all imported goods.
If you are importing products that qualify for preferential duty treatment, you will need to present documentation to CBP. This documentation demonstrates that your goods are eligible for favorable duty rates. If your product qualifies for preferential duty treatment under a free trade agreement — and if you can meet the rules of origin — you will need to submit a certification of origin to claim that benefit. You or your supplier must complete this document. If it’s not completed accurately and submitted with commercial invoices describing all products covered by the agreement at the time of entry summary (importation), CBP may deny preferential tariff treatment on your shipments.
Step 4: Prepare your Commercial Invoice
The Commercial Invoice is a document that lists what you are importing. You should have one commercial invoice for each type of product you are importing and multiple copies of each invoice. Your customs broker can help you create these invoices if needed.
Completing a commercial invoice requires information about the shipper, receiver, and carrier; an itemized list of goods being imported; and the cost of those goods. Although it doesn’t need to be certified or notarized, it should contain a statement attesting its accuracy. A commercial invoice is used by the government to determine the true value of goods when assessing customs duties and must include:
- The number, type, weight, quantity, and description of your goods
- Your goods’ country of origin
- The name and address of the shipper, carrier, and consignee
- The value of goods in U.S. dollars, including charges such as freight, insurance, commission and packing costs, and the price paid or payable (the price paid or payable if not shown elsewhere)
Depending on your product category and/or country of origin, U.S. Customs may require additional information when your imported goods arrive in the United States.
Step 5: Complete your Importer Security Filing (only for ocean shipments)
An Importer Security Filing (ISF) is required for imports arriving at or passing through the United States via seaports. It informs U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) that your goods will be passing through their ports and provides them with information about your shipment.
The ISF is commonly known as the “10+2” filing. It requires importers to submit 10 data elements to CBP at least 24 hours before the goods are loaded onto a ship destined for the United States, plus two more elements once the cargo is loaded. This requirement applies only to sea freight shipments, not air freight shipments or shipments coming across land borders. Failing to file the Importer Security Filing or provide the required information could lead to the delay of your cargo, in addition to fines and monetary penalties.
Step 6: Determine if you will need a Customs Bond
If your imported goods are intended for commercial use and are valued at over USD 2,500, you will need to obtain an import bond. A customs bond may be purchased from an insurance or surety company that CBP has licensed. This bond aims to ensure that all duties owed to CBP will be paid.
There are two different types of customs bonds, and each one of them covers a specific purpose:
- Single-entry bonds are used for shipments valued at less than USD 50,000. You will only be able to use this type of bond once.
- Continuous bonds cover multiple entries into the U.S., but they expire every year unless renewed.
A continuous bond is required for all importers who file more than 50 customs entries per year or if the total value of all entries exceeds USD 200,000. Importers with an annual customs value between USD 50,000 and USD 200,000 may choose to obtain either a single-entry bond covering all their shipments throughout the year or a continuous bond.
Step 7: File your Entry Documentation and Pay Duties and Taxes
Now that you have prepared all your import documentation, it is time to file them with CBP and pay the required duties and taxes. The U.S. customs process for filing import documentation includes two parts:
- Filing documents for the release of your imported goods
- Filing documents for a duty assessment of your imports
When your shipment arrives at the port, you will need to file entry documents and pay duties and taxes. This step will be easier if you work with us at Breeze Customs, as we can help you figure out which forms you need and what duty-free exemptions may apply in addition to filing the entry documents on your behalf.
Next, you will need to pay duties and taxes before customs can release your imported goods to you. The cost is based on several factors, including:
- The value of the goods (not including shipping costs)
- The value of other items in a single shipment (if multiple shipments have been consolidated)
- Whether any duty-free exemptions apply
If you intend to file your own entries, you should be aware of the Entry Summary and Entry Documentation. The entry summary is a record of merchandise imported into the United States and includes information such as country of origin, value, and duty rate. The entry summary contains all information needed by CBP to assess duties, collect accurate statistics, and determine whether other requirements, if applicable, such as antidumping or countervailing duties or quotas, have been met. In most cases, an entry summary must be filed electronically through the Automated Commercial System (ACS). You must also present documentation supporting the transaction to CBP upon request and provide a copy of this documentation to CBP electronically through ACS or manually at the time of filing.
It is important to note that CBP may decide that it’s necessary to examine the shipment after submitting all documentation.
The Role of CBP and Other Government Agencies
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is the governmental agency any person or entity must deal with when importing goods into the United States. CBP requires that importers maintain knowledge of all relevant laws, regulations, and procedures relating to importing goods into the United States. Importing into the United States is governed by an extensive body of law that includes treaties and agreements with other countries, U.S. statutes, executive orders by various presidents, administrative rulings, and court decisions.
CBP are also responsible for enforcing hundreds of laws for 40 other government agencies, such as the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Environmental Protection Agency and even the Centers for Disease Control. These agencies have their own unique rules about what can be brought into the country.
If any of the other government agencies regulate your imported goods, then there may be additional requirements that must be met before importing your goods.
Importing under Free Trade Agreements
If you are a U.S. importer, you might be able to reduce or eliminate duty on your imports under a trade agreement. Benefits typically include lower duties and reduced paperwork, and duty-free treatment for eligible products
The United States has signed Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with many countries worldwide. The most well-known agreements are NAFTA with Canada and Mexico, CAFTA with Central America, and the U.S.-Australia FTA. These agreements allow for significant preferential treatment to imports from certain countries by reducing or eliminating tariffs. When importing under an FTA, you can pay reduced or no duty on products that meet the eligibility requirements. Some of these provisions are:
- Elimination of duties on originating products (e.g., the Harmonized Tariff Schedule number begins with one of the FTA country’s codes)
- Reduction or elimination of duties over a set period of time
- Suspension of duties for a set quantity each year
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), now known as USMCA/CUSMA/T-MEC, eliminated most tariffs between the United States, Canada, and Mexico. They cover goods imported into the U.S. and products manufactured in the U.S. using foreign components or foreign products manufactured using U.S. components.
Confidently Import into the United States
Importing into the U.S. can seem overwhelming, and filing an import is a complex process. Moreover, understanding all the rules and regulations of importing can be a time-consuming endeavor and failing to do so can be costly. By taking the time to prepare, following these 7-easy steps, and partnering with the right U.S. customs broker like Breeze Customs, you can be confident that your goods will arrive without unexpected costs or delays.
Schedule a meeting with our team to discuss how we can help you!