Import duties

By Philip Wagenaar
This item appears on page 55 of the January 2015 issue.

 (Second of three parts)

Last month, I presented the first installment of my report on import duties charged on purchased items that travelers bring into the US. This month, I continue by covering the subject of import duties on items that do not accompany you to the US.


You can send unaccompanied baggage back home three different ways: by US mail, as express shipments and as freight.

A. US mail shipments

The US Postal Service sends all foreign mail shipments to Customs & Border Protection (CBP) for examination. If an item being mailed is valued at less than $2,000 and is not subject to a quota or is not a restricted or prohibited item, a CBP official will usually prepare the paperwork for importing it, assess the proper duty and release it for delivery. This procedure is generally referred to as a mail entry.

With packages that do not require duty (e.g., whose declared value is under $200), CBP officers return them to the US Postal Service, which sends them to a local post office for delivery. The local post office delivers them without charging any additional postage. If any duty is owed, there is a processing fee.

Packages whose declared value is under $200 ($100 if being sent as a gift to someone other than the purchaser) will generally be cleared without any additional paperwork.

To speed a package through CBP examination at a port’s International Mail Branch, the seller should affix a completed US Customs & Border Protection Declaration form (FORMS # CN 22 or CN 23) to the outside of the package. This form may be obtained at post offices worldwide.

If the item’s value is more than $2,000, it may be held at the mail facility until you can arrange for a formal entry. This may require hiring a Customs broker (described later in this article) to clear your goods or you may file the paperwork, yourself.

Missing package

Lost packages are hard to find unless they are insured.

If the CBP has detained your package for some reason (for example, due to the lack of a proper invoice, bill of sale or other documentation, a possible trademark violation or if the package requires a formal entry), the CBP International Mail Branch holding it will notify you (in writing) of the reason for detention and how you can get it released.

When you have fulfilled the requirements necessary to effect release, CBP will clear the package, note how much duty is owed and return it to the US Postal Service (USPS) for delivery. Usually, you will receive notification in a matter of days, but it can take as long as 30 to 45 days.

If your package is long overdue or you think it may be lost in the mail, you should contact your local post office and request that a parcel-tracer action be initiated to locate it. The post office often advises callers to contact CBP; however, CBP doesn’t track packages into or out of its facilities, and unless you have a detention notice from CBP with a number to refer to when you call, CBP will not be able to locate your package even if it is being held by CBP.

If the post office has a tracking number that indicates the package went into CBP but there is no record of its exiting the facility, you might ask USPS’s customer service representatives to work directly with the CBP facility to see if it is still there, although the absence of a record is not proof that the package is still in the CBP area. Packages exit the CBP facilities on a conveyor belt, and the post office’s electronic scanners do not always catch the bar codes on packages as they exit the facility.

Packages that contain items of agricultural interest are inspected to ensure they meet the requirements of the US Department of Agriculture, Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service. Any agricultural items that are removed from the package are noted. The package is then returned to the US Postal Service for delivery.

Incorrect amount of duty

If you believe you have been charged an incorrect amount of duty on a package mailed from abroad, you may file a protest with CBP. You can do this in one of two ways.

1. You can accept the package, pay the duty and write a letter explaining why you think the amount was incorrect. You should include with your letter the yellow copy of the mail entry (CBP form 3419Alt).

Send the letter and the form to the CBP office that issued the mail entry. The address is located on the lower left-hand corner of the form.

2. The other way to protest duty is to refuse delivery of the package, then, within five days, send your protest letter to the post office where the package is being held. The post office will forward your letter to CBP and will hold your package until the protest is resolved.

For additional information on international mailing, go to

B. Express shipments

Packages may be sent to the United States by a private delivery service, which will clear your goods through a Customs broker for a fee.

When you use a shipping company such as FedEx, UPS or DHL, the shipper handles the paperwork necessary to clear Customs and also advances to you any duties that may be charged.

C. Freight shipments

All cargo must clear Customs at the first port of arrival in the United States. While it is still in CBP custody, you may have it forwarded to another port for clearance. This is called “forwarding freight in bond.” You are, or someone you appoint to act for you is, responsible for arranging to clear your merchandise through CBP or for having it forwarded to another port.

Note that regulated agricultural shipments must be inspected at the first port of arrival, with few exceptions.

Frequently, a freight forwarder in a foreign country will take care of these arrangements, including hiring a Customs broker in the US to clear the merchandise through CBP. Whenever a third party handles the clearing and forwarding of your merchandise, that party charges a fee for its services. This fee is not a CBP charge.

Customs duty guidance on mailed and shipped goods

The following will guide you through the Customs duty procedures necessary on mailed and shipped goods.

If your unaccompanied purchases are from an insular possession (an IP; i.e., US Virgin Islands, American Samoa or Guam) or a Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) or Andean country and are being imported within 30 days and sent directly from one of those locations to the US, you may enter them as follows:

• Up to $1,600 in goods will be duty-free under your personal exemption if the merchandise is from an IP.

• Up to $800 in goods will be duty-free if it is from a CBI or Andean country.

• Any additional amount, up to $1,000 in goods, will be dutiable at a flat rate (3%).

To take advantage of the Customs duty-free exemption for unaccompanied tourist purchases (mailing/shipping) from an IP or CBI country, do the following:

Step 1. At the place and time of purchase, ask your merchant to hold your item until you send him or her a copy of CBP form 255 (Declaration of Unaccompanied Articles), which must be affixed to the package when it is shipped.

Step 2. On your declaration form (CBP form 6059B), list everything you acquired on your trip that is accompanying you. You must also complete a separate Declaration of Unaccompanied Articles form (CBP form 255) for each package or container that will be sent to you after you arrive in the US. 

This form may be available where you make your purchase. If not, you may find the form on the website by typing into the search bar “Declaration of unaccompanied articles form 255.”

(I would like to point out that there is some misinformation in the CBP website. It states, “To take advantage of the Customs duty-free exemption for unaccompanied tourist purchases [mailing/shipping] from an IP or CBI country, use form 255.” However, form 255 pertains only to goods sent from an IP territory and not from a CBI country. Thus, Steps 1 through 6 that I am outlining here pertain to IP territories and questionably to CBI countries.)

Step 3. When you return to the US, the CBP officer will (a) collect Customs duty and any tax due on the dutiable goods you have brought with you, (b) verify your list of unaccompanied articles with your sales receipts and (c) validate your CBP form 255 to determine if your purchases are duty-free under your personal exemption ($1,600 or $800) or if the purchases are subject to a flat rate of duty.

Step 4. Two copies of the 3-part CBP form 255 will be returned to you. Send the yellow copy of the CBP form 255 to the foreign shopkeeper or vendor holding your purchase, and keep the other copy for your records.

Step 5. When the merchant gets your CBP form 255, he or she must place it in an envelope and attach the envelope securely to the outside wrapping of the package or container. The merchant must also mark each package “Unaccompanied Purchase.” Remember that each package or container must have its own CBP form 255 attached — the most important step to follow in order to gain the benefits allowed under this procedure.

Step 6. If your package has been mailed, the US Postal Service will deliver it after it clears Customs. If you owe duty, the Postal Service will collect the duty along with a postal handling fee. 

If a freight service transports your package, they will notify you of its arrival and you must go to their office that is holding the shipment and complete the CBP entry procedure. If you owe duty or tax, you will need to pay it at that time in order to secure the release of the goods. 

Alternatively, you could hire a Customs broker, which is a private business, to do this for you.

If freight or express packages from your trip land in the US before you return and you have not made arrangements to pick them up, CBP will authorize their placement into a bonded warehouse or public storage after 15 days (fewer days for perishable, flammable and explosives). 

This storage and all other related charges (transportation, demurrage and handling) will be at your risk and expense. If the goods are not claimed within six months, they will be sold at auction.


Per US Postal Service regulations, packages sent by mail and not claimed within 30 days from the date of US arrival will be returned to the sender unless the amount of duty is being protested.


Most goods imported for personal use are not subject to quota. The one exception to this is made-to-measure suits from Hong Kong.

What is a Customs broker?

A Customs broker is a licensed individual who works for a Customs brokerage firm. He/she prepares all the documentation needed to import goods. 

Brokers must take an exam to prove that they have expertise in the entry procedures, admissibility requirements, classification and valuation of imported merchandise as well as in rates of duty, applicable taxes and fees. In addition, they facilitate communication between the importer and CBP. 

I, personally, would use a Customs broker for complicated or expensive shipments, unless I shipped goods by FedEx, UPS or DHL, firms that take care of all the prerequisites. You should find out beforehand what the broker will charge. 

How to find a Customs broker

To find a broker, do one or more of the following:

• Look in the Yellow Pages under “Customs brokers,”

• Search the Internet for “Customs brokers” or

• Go to and type in the Search box “Port Codes,” then click on ”Locate a Port of Entry.” Next click on the interactive map. Subsequently, at center left, click on a city within the state, then scroll down and click on “Brokers.” 

In addition to brokers, you will find under each city specific phone numbers of the various services available at that port.

The phone book listings as well as the Internet listings are limited to brokers who submit their contact information. It is not all-inclusive. The listing of brokers on the CBP website is updated on a regular basis. This list is the only broker information provided by CBP.

Each listed broker has a current permit in that port. 

When a foreign seller entrusts a shipment to a broker or agent in the United States, that seller usually pays only enough freight to have the shipment delivered to the first port of arrival in the US. This means that you, the buyer, will have to pay additional inland transportation, or charges, plus broker fees, insurance and possibly other charges.

If it is not possible for you to secure release of your goods, yourself, another person may act on your behalf to clear them through CBP. You may do this as long as your merchandise consists of a single noncommercial shipment that does not require a formal entry, meaning that the merchandise is worth less than $2,000. You must give the person a letter that authorizes that person to act as your unpaid agent.

Once you have done this, that person may fill out the CBP declaration and complete the entry process for you. Your letter authorizing the person to act in your behalf should be addressed to the “Officer in Charge of CBP” at the port of entry, and the person should take the letter with them when they go to clear your package. 

CBP will not notify you when your shipment arrives, as this is the responsibility of your carrier. If your goods are not cleared within 15 days of arrival, you could incur expensive storage fees.

Informal entries

The duty rate for many items typically bought in an online auction is zero; however, the CBP may charge a small processing fee for mailed imports that do require the payment of duty.

Formal entries

If your goods are valued at more than $2,000, you will be required to file a formal entry, which can require extensive paperwork and the filing of a US Customs & Border Protection bond. For various reasons, the CBP may require a formal entry for any importation, in which case you may want to hire a Customs broker.

Next month, I will continue my report, discussing gifts, automobiles and prohibited and restricted items.    ✦