Importing Cargo into the U.S.: What You Need to Know

Whether you need custom container solutions, or you can export your products using any standard shipping method, clearing U.S. Customs requires a lot of planning.

The laws, paperwork, and bureaucratic hurdles can appear insurmountable if you don’t have the experience and training. The complexity of the federal tariffs, taxes, regulations, combined with possible individual state requirements, can be overwhelming.

Ultimately, most companies hire a good freight forwarding company that can manage all the paperwork and logistical requirements of exporting products.

Companies need a basic understanding of what importing cargo into the United States entails, especially the costs, to plan accordingly.

Technically, the exporter is only required to provide two documents for any cargo entering the United States: the commercial invoice (bill of sale) and, in most cases the PGA (Participating Government Agency) form.

The bill of sale lists the items for import. The PGA shows what government agency regulates the particular item. This helps customs evaluate the duty, taxes, and import legality of the cargo.

The freight forwarder provides the rest of the documentation.

Requirements for the Commercial Invoice
A commercial invoice must include certain specific information about the goods coming into the United States.

The invoice must indicate:

  • U.S. Port of Entry.
  • Cost per Item (including the currency used in the cost listing).
  • Contact information for the vendor, purchaser, and shipper.
  • Detailed description of the products, with the country of manufacture listed.
  • Quantities and Measurements of Each Item

The invoice, or a copy of it, must be in English.

Any item imported to the United States must be bonded.

The U.S. Government requires a bond to ensure payment of taxes, duties, or any other official costs associated with the import.

A company can supply one of two types of custom bonds:

  • Single-Entry Bond

This type of bond is cost-effective for importers that get less than ten shipments per year. The importer pays about 5% of the value for this bond.

  • Annual Bond

An annual bond is the most common type of bond, as it is the most cost-effective. This sort of bond is valid for one year and covers up to $50,000 worth of imported goods per shipment.

A company can also purchase larger bonds or extensions of the existing bond.

Bonds for Formal and Informal Entries

An informal entry refers to imports with a total value of less than $2,500.00. However, almost always, the goods are for personal use or consumption.

There are many exceptions also to this rule, depending on the type of goods. The minimum values for specific products brought in under informal entry may be more or less than $2,500.00 also.

Formal entries are subject to standard bond requirements.

Customs Examination

The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol has the right to exam any import shipments.

First-time importers have a higher likelihood of having their cargo checked. Any company, no matter how often they have goods clearing customs, are subject to random inspections.

As long as the examining officer finds no violation, your shipment will be released.

You can also incur charges for the examination. This could happen, for example, if the shipper packs the goods in such a way that the customs officer cannot view the contents. Any unpacking or repacking costs are the importer’s responsibility.

If this happens, U.S. Customs will bill the company or the contracted customs broker.


Sometimes a company may want to warehouse shipments before paying the duty. Doing so requires placing the cargo in a bonded warehouse. The importer may access the goods only under U.S. Customs supervision.

Certain items, such as perishables or explosives, cannot be left in a bonded warehouse.

An importer can keep items in a bonded warehouse for up to five years.

Unclaimed Goods or Lack of Paperwork

Companies must present the proper paperwork to U.S. Customs within 15 days of arrival at the port.

After fifteen days, the government can warehouse the goods at the owner’s expense for up to six months.

After six months, U.S. Customs can sell the items at public auction. Customs can also elect to destroy the cargo.

Final Thoughts

This discussion only covers a small portion of the legal and regulatory procedures of importing goods into the United States.

Most companies, even large ones, find that the best solution when exporting or importing goods into the U.S. is to hire a seasoned and experience freight handler who has the resources available to navigate through all the bureaucratic requirements.

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