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Customs documents to ship to or from the US – Everything you need to know

Want to ship to the US, but don’t know what customs documents you need to get through customs clearance? Don’t worry, you’re not alone! Many shippers face the same problem. In this article we explain the key documents you need to ship smoothly to the United States.

Curtis Doyle, Anna-Sophia Metzel, 17 November 2022

Customs clearance is one of the final big hurdles in the shipping process. Your cargo might have travelled across countries by road and rail and across vast seas by ocean freight – but all of it will be for nothing if you aren't prepared with the right customs documents for declaration when your cargo arrives at its destination.

Being prepared with strong customs processes gives you peace of mind – but more importantly, ensures you don't encounter delays, detention or additional charges and penalties against your cargo.

Here, we break down the import and export documentation you need for shipping to and from the United States.

Which Export Customs Documents do you need for the United States?

These are the documents you'll need to be aware of when exporting goods out of the United States to another destination:

1. Pro Forma Invoice or Commercial Invoice

You will need either a Proforma Invoice or a Commercial Invoice if you are exporting goods out of the US.

The Pro Forma Invoice is a document sent to buyers in advance of any shipment or delivery of cargo. Because it is an early-stage document, it is often used as a negotiation tool between buyer and seller – giving estimate quotes for the shipment of goods. The proforma invoice is normally used if there is no sale of an item between the shipper and importer. In other words a value for customs purposes only.

The Pro Forma Invoice will eventually be used to create the commercial invoice, as it contains a lot of the same information. You do not need both a Proforma Invoice and a Commercial Invoice. One is sufficient. However, the Commercial Invoice is an anchor document throughout foreign trade. It contains detailed information about the goods you're shipping, their manufacturer, origin, destination, and HTS code.

The main purpose of a Commercial Invoice is to advise customs on the commodity you are importing along with the cost for statistical purposes. The value of the goods is used to calculate duties and must be within a certain parameter for statistical purposes, or it could cause a census warning. It's important to complete the commercial invoice in English, as US customs requires.

Details you can expect in a Pro Forma & Commercial Invoice include:

  • Details of buyer and seller involved

  • Detailed Description of goods in English Itemized

  • Any appropriate Harmonised Tariff Scheduled (HTS) code

  • Itemized Purchase Price Cost of goods in Currency of Purchase

  • Terms of payment

  • Details of delivery

  • Currency used for quote

  • Quantities & weights

  • Country of Origin

  • Any assists, rebates, drawbacks, etc.

Some of the additional information you might need is:

  • Type of packaging used

  • Description of goods

  • Shipping info

  • Date and terms of sale

2. Export Packing List

The Packing List is a detailed overview, confirming the cargo mentioned on the Commercial Invoice. It also includes information on how the shipment has been packed and which marks and numbers are noted outside the boxes.

Customs officers use the Packing List in the US and in the country you're shipping to, to check goods for inspection, and it can be used to help prepare the Bill of Lading.

3. Bill of Lading

The Bill of Lading is another essential document in international trade. It is the transportation contract, and important details on the shipment are included in it.

If you ship with Twill, you'll receive this detailed document from us. It acts as the legal document of title, which allows the person holding it to claim ownership of the cargo. This means that filling out your bill of lading accurately and completely is very important.

The Bill of Lading also acts as a contract of carriage, detailing the carrier's responsibilities to the parties involved in the transportation of the cargo. It is often informed by the Incoterms® you've agreed.

Which Import Customs Documents do you need for the United States?

Some of the documents used for exporting are also used for importing – for example, the Bill of Lading and commercial invoice. Here we detail the additional documents you'll need to be aware of when importing goods into the United States from another destination:

1. Importer Security Filing (ISF)

An Importer Security Filing (ISF, or "10+2") is a filing required by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) that documents importing information and details. The ISF is required for shipments arriving in the US by the ocean and must be filed at least 24 hours before the vessel sailing from the last foreign port of departure to the US.

Importers who do not file the ISF timely will be penalized with up to $5000.00 for late filing.

2. Import License

The US Customs and Border Protection (often referred to as CBP) is the administrative agency for importing and exporting to and from the US. The CBP does not require you to have a license to import, but other agencies within the US government might require licenses for goods they regulate.

Equally, some countries around the world have restricted goods that can't be imported freely. These goods may also require a license to import.

What you must do prior to setting up your import shipment to the United States

  1. Make sure you have a US Customs Broker to handle your customs processing

  2. Set up a Customs Power of Attorney with that Customs Broker

  3. Check schedules and rates on our platform – here, you can also easily add Customs Clearance Services. Before booking, please be sure you have already been onboarded for Customs Brokerage Service. Reach out to a Twiller and set up an appointment date for Customs Brokerage Onboarding before booking your shipment.

  4. Discuss setting up a yearly continuous Customs Bond or setting up a Single Transaction bond. It is a good idea to speak with a Customs Broker to see which way works best for you, as a Single Transaction Bond can be very expensive and often cost more for one shipment then purchasing a continuous bond that is valid for 12 full months.

  5. Complete your ISF document and make sure it is 48 to 72 hours before vessel departure from the last foreign port to the US port.

Need more help with your customs documents and processes?

There's a lot to take in here. Many of these documents are common across international trade, so if you've shipped before, some of them will be familiar.

We've prepared lots of content on customs clearance and shipping documents to support you in making shipping simple. Please take a look and explore the rest of our knowledge hub for more news, trends and insights on container logistics and shipping.

If you're new to shipping and need some help explaining all these means for your cargo, we offer support from our network of customs experts around the world. They make shipping simple for businesses like yours. Explore our customs services to find out more.

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