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A Beginner’s Guide to US Customs Clearance for Imports: Documentation

Are you asking yourself: What documents do I need to clear my cargo?


Importing goods into the United States involves the complex process of Customs clearance, but understanding the necessary documents beforehand can save importers like you a significant amount of stress, time, and even potential penalties. One key to a smooth clearance process is having the correct documentation in place and in a timely fashion.

Here’s a beginner-friendly overview of the essential documentation required for US Customs Clearance:

Understanding the Basics

The 19 CFR Appendix to 163, also known as the (a)(1)(A) list, contains all the necessary documents for the Customs and Border Protection release of merchandise.

Power of Attorney

A licensed Customs Broker will need a Power of Attorney to conduct business on your behalf. This document must be signed by an officer of the company with legal authority to bind the company. Depending on your business’s organizational structure, renewal may be necessary every few years. Brokers may also require additional documents to confirm the existence of the importer entity identity (for instance, Articles of Incorporation, IRS Tax Identification number confirmation letter). A Customs Power of Attorney must be in place and confirmed with the nominated Customs broker before any filing can be made on the importer’s behalf.

Below are some primary documents required for general cargo imports into the US.

1.  Importer Security Filing (ISF) for Ocean Cargo

For ocean cargo shipping to the US, an Importer Security Filing (ISF) form is required 24 hours before lading onto the vessel at the last port of export before departing for the United States. Late filings can result in penalties of up to $5,000 per transaction. The ISF form is typically completed by the shipper or their agent and forwarded to the importer and/or their customs broker for filing.

The following 10 data elements must be supplied by the importer (via ISF submission):

  • Importer of Record Number
  • Consignee Number
  • Buyer
  • Seller
  • Ship-to Party
  • Manufacturer (Supplier)
  • Country of Origin
  • HTS Codes
  • Consolidator (Stuffer)
  • Container Stuffing Location

2.  Commercial Invoice

The commercial invoice must be in English and provide Customs & Border Protection with enough information to assess the shipment’s contents, origin, and values. Based on 19 CFR 142.6, the commercial invoice should include:

  • Adequate description of the merchandise in English
  • Harmonized Tariff Schedule (HTS) classification or appropriate information for classification (an international system used to classify traded products for customs purposes)
  • Quantities of the merchandise
  • Value of the shipment (include Incoterms and currency)
  • Country of origin
  • Details for goods subject to antidumping/countervailing measures
  • Information on all parties connected with the sale and purchase of the merchandise.

Additional information may be required for specific classes of merchandise.

3.  Packing List (when appropriate)

This document should detail all inner and outer packages, including weights. Packing lists generally support piece count verification, and more detailed versions can serve as supporting documents for entry purposes beyond just quantity tabulation.

4.  Bill of Lading or Airway Bill

Transport documents and contracts of carriage show how the goods have been shipped to the US. This includes carrier information, voyage details, origin and destination ports/airports, pieces, weights, and involved parties. Customs uses an inbound manifest to manage import cargo; these transport documents connect the manifest to the entry detail, allowing for the release of freight by carrier once a Customs entry is filed and accepted.

5. Other Supporting Documentation

Depending on the products imported, country of export, and other factors, additional documentation may be required to satisfy other government agency import requirements, additional product-specific requirements, and any country-of-origin-specific requirements.  For instance, Chemicals and foodstuffs may require additional documentation to support required U.S. EPA and U.S. FDA filings that are also due at the time of entry.


If you need guidance, your broker can support and offer instruction, and there is a wealth of online information. CBP has provided informative publications on its website covering general importing topics and specific commodities. These publications can be found on CBP’s Informed Compliance Publications page.

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