Guide to clearing goods through US customs

Guide to clearing goods through US customs


Shipping a package internationally can be difficult. Whether it’s the issues with the cost, the time it can take or the size of the package, there always feels like there’s another hurdle to have to make. This can be made even worse when a shipment is held up in customs, where delays and additional costs can seemingly appear out of nowhere.

Clearing US customs is key for a customer, as well as a sender. If an item is held up by Customs & Border Protection (CBP) it can cause both cost and dissatisfaction. We’ve put together our guide to clearing US customs, to make sure that you know exactly what you need to do to make it as smooth as possible.


What is U.S. customs? 

US customs, as in other countries, is the official department that the government uses to enforce duties and levies on goods being imported into the country. All goods coming into the country must go through customs and be cleared. Goods need to be cleared so that imports can be controlled. This control is done with the country’s economy, people and environment in mind. It gives the government a chance to control the flow of potentially harmful items but also helps them stop cheaper items that could undercut the US market from being shipped en masse. 

The protection of the local economy in particular is a big reason for the imposing of custom duties, which may cause you to have to pay additional fees to have your shipment clear customs. Relevant forms will need to be filled in by the sender that will either highlight an exemption or declare what  may cause additional costs.


Do I need to pay U.S. customs duty? 

It’s worth working out before placing an order, or making a shipment, whether you may potentially need to pay customs duty, or whether the goods you’re shipping will even clear customs at all. As soon as you’ve placed an international order, you become the importer, whether it’s on one small item like a t-shirt or on a crate-load of tech.

As the importer it’s on you to work out whether you need to pay any customs duty. Even if you are using a package forwarding service like forward2me, this will be the case. While they will fill out the paperwork in as detailed a fashion as possible, it’s on the receiver to make sure they cover any fees. The more detailed the description of an item on the forms the quicker it may pass through customs.

Custom duty fees will apply when:

  • The items are being imported for commercial purposes - gifts or ‘personal use’ are usually exempt, but this can be a judgement call.
  • Gifts over the value of $200 when sent to a residential address (any sent to a business address may require other taxes)

Anything under $2,500 will generally be classed as an ‘informal’ entry which will generally make it much faster to get through customs. Some items, such as textiles, may have a lower value limit however, of $0-$250 and this may be down to the item having an import quota.

Also note that any shipments over $2,500 will have to go through formal clearance and will undergo delays as the paperwork will be much more extensive.

If your items are held at customs you will be notified and asked to confirm some details before you are charged.


When and how do I pay U.S. customs duty? 

Once you have been notified of your items being held in US customs you’ll need to pay the duties owed. You’ll have to do this before the CBP process can be completed. If your items are with the US postal service you’ll be notified and will have to go to your local post office and pay them on collection. If you have used a courier they may bill you separately. You can pay for US custom duties using the following methods:

  • In U.S currency - other currencies are not accepted
  • Personal checks will be accepted as long as personal ID is supplied, like a passport or driving license. 
  • Government check or travelers checks can be used as long as they don’t exceed the amount by over $50, as can money orders
  • Debit or credit cards can only be used in limited circumstances and this is unlikely to be the case with customs duty for shipments


How is U.S. customs duty calculated? 

The CBP calculates custom duty rate using a percentage. This percentage is of the overall total value of the items in the package. This is the total value that was paid for at the country they are being imported from and it does not take into account the overall quality, size or weight of the items.

The CBP will then use the Harmonized Tariff System (HTS) to find the applicable duty rates for those articles. This is a documentation and reference manual that provides data on practically every item imaginable. It can be viewed online, and is used as the point of reference when calculating duty rates for important items. This will then set the level that the item will be charged at, as the percentage is not the same for all items.

Other fees may also be included, such as the cost of a broker used by a courier.


What items are prohibited and restricted by US customs? 

As mentioned previously, customs aren’t just there to check that duties are being paid. They are also checking to make sure that the items being imported are allowed in the first place. While forward2me have our own prohibited list, the US has an even more extensive list. A lot of the list can be filed under ‘common sense’ as much of the items are deemed as illegal, but it’s worth double checking. You can read the full list on their site, but a few notable exceptions are as follows:


  • Alcohol may be restricted and this is on a state-by-state basis.
  • Drug paraphernalia
  • Soil
  • Items with military application
  • Game and hunting trophies
  • Haitian animal hide drums
  • Firearms
  • Dog & cat fur


Many items have a restriction rather than an out and out ban, but you should check before ordering. Just because an item may seem innocuous there’s a chance that it could fit into a category that is restricted.

Other items may also have a quota, this means that once a limit is hit you may not be able to import an item. Most quotas only hit commercial use, so for personal use you may not be affected, but do keep this in mind.


Ship your items with confidence with forward2me

At forward2me we specialise in forwarding packages all around the world and, while you need to cover any duties owed, we take care of all the other aspects on any package being shipped. This includes all of the shipping consignment paperwork, so you haven’t got to worry about the formalities and intricate details until the package reaches you.

You can shop online with the confidence of having a UK, EU, Turkish or Japanese forwarding address, to let you order from Amazon and a host of other international brands that may offer something you can’t get hold of at home. Sign up today to get your free forwarding address, and if you’re not sure how package forwarding works, we’re here to help.

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