One misstep with customs could lead to a disaster. What can you do to avoid this?

Cross-border shipping is a lot like baking. You’ve got to have the right tools, follow instructions, and do things in the correct order. 

One error could lead to a big disaster. 

If you’re unsure what a baking mishap looks like, you need to check out the Netflix series Nailed It! In each episode, a group of three amateur bakers competes to recreate intricately decorated desserts. If you’ve ever tried to make a picture-perfect dessert from a Pinterest recipe, you know it’s rarely as easy as it looks. 

Unfortunately for many stores, cross-border shipping is the eCommerce equivalent of a Pinterest fail. 

In theory, it seems simple. 

You already ship teacups, necklaces or sweater from one state to another. How much more different could it be to ship to another country? You get your first order from the U.K. You do a quick internet search, and you send your first order from Nashville to London only to have it held up in customs for two weeks.

Today we’re helping you cook up a recipe to avoid a customs calamity. 

We’ll examine what customs is, why it’s a hassle, and what you can do to prevent some of the most common customs problems. 

What are customs? 

When items ship from one country to another, they have to go through customs before they can be released for final delivery. 

During this process, a customs officer in the country you’re shipping to will review the package to make sure it meets the country’s regulations and to determine what duties and taxes might be due

If you’ve traveled internationally, you went through customs when you landed. You probably filled out a form beforehand with questions ranging from basic to somewhat odd, like if you’re transporting soil or animal parts. Then you answered a few of the customs officers’ questions once you got off the plane and before you know it you’re on your way.

Customs for packages works similarly. You still must have a customs form. The main difference is you’re not with the package to answer any questions the customs officer has. And that’s where the problem lies for many novice cross-border shippers. 

Quickly clearing customs requires providing all the right information about your package before you ship it. 

Why is customs such a hassle for eCommerce shippers? 

Customs can be quite a headache for new cross-border shippers. Last year, World Customs Organization (WCO) Secretary General Kunio Mikuriya said customs officers around the globe were struggling with a “tsunami of small packages” thanks to the growth of eCommerce. 

Most customs systems were designed to handle bulk orders from wholesale importers. If you regularly ship three pallets of paper plates, you probably know what you’re doing and have your paperwork in order.

However, the rise of B2C eCommerce drastically changed the volume of packages moving through customs. At the same time, many countries are introducing new regulations to capitalize on the growing eCommerce market or in some cases to protect domestic industries from growing international eCommerce rivals. 

Cross-border eCommerce is growing at twice the rate of domestic eCommerce and is expected to represent nearly one-fourth of global online sales by next year, according to recent estimates.  

The increase in cross-border shipping is driven by sellers and buyers who may lack extensive experience with customs. 

So not only are customs officers dealing with a massive increase in the number of packages they’re processing – many of the packages are missing the vital documentation customs officers need to do their job and move the package along the process. 

What causes a package to get stuck in customs? 

So what can you do to make sure your package isn’t stuck in customs? The first step is understanding what customs officers are looking for and what can cause them to hold your package. 

The most frequent reasons a package gets stuck in customs are:

Missing Paperwork

Every international package will need a commercial invoice and a customs declaration form. The customs officer will use these forms to determine the value of the goods and what duties and taxes may be due. The commercial invoice should include details about the seller and the buyer, as well as more information about each item in the order:

Note: Item codes can be tricky for new cross-border sellers. We recommend reaching out to your shipping carrier for help in making sure your inventory has the right HS code. 

Having the correct paperwork isn’t just about making the customs officer’s job easier. Incorrect or missing paperwork could result in the customs officers tearing open your package to inspect it or possible fines or criminal penalties. 

Unpaid Duties or Taxes

Nothing is leaving customs if the appropriate duties and taxes aren’t paid. When shipping internationally, you have two choices. You can ship with the duties and taxes already paid (DDP) or unpaid, where the buyer has to pay them upon delivery (DDU).

For more on DDP vs DDU check out our blog explaining both. If you’re shipping DDP and made a mistake in calculating the amount due, the balance will need to be paid before the package is released for final delivery. In this case, some  carriers may bill you for the difference plus an additional fee for their efforts. 

Shipping Prohibited Items

A customs officer’s job is to do more than making sure you pay taxes. Customs officers also make sure prohibited items aren’t being shipped into the country. 

When shipping to a new country, it’s essential to learn about any specific regulations they have. 

Here are a few examples from some of the top growing eCommerce markets:

  • China restricts imitation firearms and some types of communications devices and cosmetics. 
  • The United Kingdom typically bans firearms and other weapons and has restrictions on meat and dairy from outside the European Union. 
  • Germany, like the UK, also has restrictions on food products from non-EU member countries and additional limits on some medical and dental supplies. 
  • France imposes restrictions on electronics, alcoholic beverages and food from outside the EU. Additionally, France requires French language on all packaging. 
  • Canada places restrictions on pharmaceuticals, agricultural, food items, and some pet foods. 

This isn’t an extensive list, but hopefully gives you an idea of what types of restrictions could exist in a country you’re considering shipping to. For more detailed information, be sure to check out Export.gov. You should also consider configuring your eCommerce platform so that customers shipping to a country where an item is prohibited cannot purchase that item. 

How can you simplify customs? 

At this point, shipping internationally may seem overwhelming, but trust us, you can do it. 

Cross-border shipping is a growing segment of the eCommerce business and will play a vital part in your growth. To help you conquer customs, we recommend finding a shipping partner with the right expertise. 

Zenda is just one of the shipping partners you can find in the ShipperHQ marketplace and is excellent for anyone looking to expand into Europe. 

The great thing about Zenda is they handle customs for you. 

Zenda’s door-to-door service picks up your parcels at your facility, then delivers them to one of 21 U.S. airports for overnight air freight to London’s Heathrow airport.  

Upon arriving in London, your parcels are cleared through European customs automatically and are then dispatched for final delivery to your customers in 25 European countries. Plus, Zenda provides a turnkey solution for you to ship DDP (Delivery Duty Paid) to Europe. Zenda maps your items to commodity codes which means you will have an accurate calculation of taxes and duties at checkout and you will avoid customs delays.

If your current global shipping strategy is to send it and – cross your fingers – it clears customs and arrives on time, you might want to consider finding a partner like Zenda. The right partner can eliminate the confusion around customs and save you both time and money. 

Customs Success Recipe

We hope you’re feeling confident enough to begin cross-border shipping. Remember to Nail it and not end up with a shipping fail, follow this simple recipe:

  • Check the country-specific regulations for your product at export.gov
  • Make sure your paperwork is in order, including information like harmonization codes
  • Leverage a partner like Zenda to take care of the heavy lifting of clearing customs

Good luck and keep us posted on how your global expansion is going.