By my nature I am a cheapskate. If I can save a few bucks by doing something myself, I usually will. I find the term DIY to be very empowering and will try my hand at just about anything. At least the first time. After that my wife will sometimes decide to hire a professional.
The first time I ordered a shipment from China, I did most of the work to get the goods cleared through customs. It was small enough in value that the customs agents let me do it. It was a long confusing process that involved me writing a lot more checks and sending documents via FedEx than I had expected. It was a confusing enough process, that if I were to do it again, I would probably still look like I don’t know what I am doing. I quickly learned that this is not a case where you want to be a DIY’er.
In my case, I placed the order through the factory in China, and they arranged the shipping to the port of entry. Most major US cities are ports of entry, even if they aren’t actually on a coast. From there I made lots of phone calls and sent documents and money around until I was told it was in Salt Lake City. I went to the customs office in the international airport where they looked at me like I was a moron.
Friendly CBP Agent: “Are you planning to clear this yourself.”
Me: “I don’t know what that means.”
Friendly Bothered CBP Agent: “You have to fill out bla bla bla bla and do this and that.”
Me: “Ok, do I do that here?”
Friendly Bothered Really Annoyed CBP Agent: “If you are going to be in business, you should have learned how this works.”
Me: “I agree. Do you know where I can learn about it?”
Friendly Bothered Really Annoyed Quiet CBP Agent: “Here.” <stamp> <stamp> “Now take this to the warehouse.”
I wasn’t trying to be snarky, I couldn’t find any info on the process, and by his silence he told me he didn’t know where to find it either. A customs broker is an expert, and well worth their fee.
Customs Brokers – A Better Way
The next time I went to place an order, I found a local company that handled all the customs work for me. Most of the major shippers like FedEx and UPS have customs agents, and there are also lots of smaller companies and individuals. You can find a list of brokers working in a Port of Entry near you here. Search for the port near you, then click on the Brokers link.
A customs broker helps to clear the goods through customs, and pay any duties and other fees. They also help you avoid customs agents entirely.
Getting Your Stuff Here
OK, so that takes care of clearing your goods for entry, but what about getting it here? Commonly referred to as a Freight Forwarder, there are lots of companies that will take charge of your goods from the factory, and place them on an ocean liner for transport. This could be contracted by the factory, or by you. But the best option is when your Customs Broker is also a Freight Forwarder.
One Stop Shop
The customs brokerage firm I use in Salt Lake City, is also a freight forwarder/freight combiner. Shipping on an ocean liner is based on the container. If you were dumb, you could put 10 boxes in a mostly empty 40′ container, and pay almost the same as someone with a fully loaded container. What a freight combiner does is take lots of smaller orders and combine them in one large container to be shipped to the same port. They have lower contracted shipping rates than a normal joe of the street, so there are big benefits.
In my case, it cost me more to ship the goods myself, and clear it through customs, than it does to work with my Broker/Shipper. In other words, using the broker saves me money, and it is less hassle. Why would I do it myself?
Finding a Customs Broker/Freight Forwarder
Take your time to find a good company to partner with you. The will likely require you give them power of attorney, so be sure to find a reputable company that has been around a while. Some companies will only want to deal with large companies that have several shipments per month. Others are OK with smaller guys starting out. Find a company that fits your business, and ask them for estimated fees for an order of your goods of a specific size.
A good company will be able to handle the shipping and brokerage, and also provide ancillary services such as transferring freight from one outbound port to another, provide insurance on shipments, and may even deliver the goods right to your door.
When you find a good company that saves you money and is easy to work with, it greatly simplifies the import process and allows you to focus on the more critical aspects of your business…. like, now that you have it here, how are you going to sell all this stuff?!
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