News & Press


U.S. Imports: Inspections and Examinations

July 3rd 2024

Rogers & Brown

Written By: Lori Mullins, Director of Operations at Rogers & Brown

What are the different U.S. Import inspections and examinations? Who is responsible for paying these fees? How can my company avoid these?

U.S. imports are required to pass through multiple government agencies and processing layers that could cause various types of holds. U.S. Customs & Border Protection enforces over 400 different laws on behalf of 40 government agencies. Your specific commodity may have additional agency processing, but this article will address the primary types of holds seen with general cargo.

Products like pesticides, meats, perishable food products, lumber, consumer products, and numerous other types of products could have additional participating government agency (PGA) holds in addition to the types of general cargo holds mentioned here.

Below are a few general types of holds that could be encountered with U.S. imports. This list is not meant to be all-inclusive; additional information on exams from CBP can be found here.

A-TCET HOLDS (Security)

The CBP Anti-Terrorism Contraband Enforcement Team (A-TCET) places hold on cargo at the first U.S. port of discharge. These types of holds have limited delays and typically resolve within 24-28 hours after arrival, depending on congestion.

VACIS—These are non-intrusive holds using X-ray-type equipment. The seal is not broken for these exams unless the hold is upgraded to a physical inspection.

DOCKSIDE/TAILGATE EXAMS—The A-TCET team may break seals at the dock for physical inspection for these exams. If the seal is broken, the A-TCET team will input the new seal into the Automated Commercial Environment (ACE) system.

PHYSICAL—When an A-TCET hold upgrades to a physical inspection, delays could be as much as a week or more to coordinate and move to the approved exam site. In this case, the cargo owner or their agent (usually a Customs broker) will need to coordinate and move to an approved exam site for inspection.

Below are some reasons this type of exam may occur.

  • Security risk or intelligence based on commodity or parties involved
  • Random targeting
  • ISF filings submitted late or not matched to the correct “lowest level” bill of lading

CBP Agriculture

This division within CBP manages multiple functions related to U.S. Agricultural concerns. CBP Agriculture (CBP Ag) targets, detects, and intercepts invasive species, pests, toxic substances, and soil contaminants that could harm U.S. Agriculture or wildlife. Due to the broad scope of services and agencies that CBP Ag represents, these types of holds could be documentary or physical inspections. Several commodities require special documents or permits; others may have special pre-arrival notifications. However, all import cargo is subject to International Standards for Phytosanitary Measures (ISPM) wood packing guidelines and pest, soil, noxious weed identification, and inspection.

If CBP Ag views or identifies an apparent risk at the terminal at the time of vessel discharge, securing the area for bulk cargo or to dray the cargo to an exam site could be necessary. CBP Ag issues an Emergency Action Notice (EAN) for cargo that has a finding and may require treatment or immediate export. All risks and expenses for all services related to Ag holds, EAN action, immediate export, or remarking are at the risk and expense of the cargo owner.

Intensive Trade Exams

These are physical inspections by CBP for trade-related data. This type of exam can occur randomly and based on targeted intelligence and will always require physical inspection at a central exam site (CES). Moving the cargo off the terminal and responding to the exam request in a timely manner is extremely important. This type of hold will usually be multi-layered, covering a multitude of regulations related to import data transmitted as a part of the Customs entry, such as:

  • Intellectual Property Rights verification
  • Country of Origin Marking
  • Classification verification
  • Labeling

How Long Does a CBP or CBP Agriculture Exam Take?

The timeline with which an exam will take place depends on the nature and type of exam but will rely on variables such as exam facility volumes, CBP staffing and workload, and prompt movement to the exam site. Non-intrusive holds and dockside or tailgate exams will move much faster.

Still, the typical physical exam for an ocean shipment is roughly a week or longer after arrival, pending movement/drayage to the exam site for devanning. Exams for air cargo move quicker and should be complete within 72 hours, assuming no additional concerns or findings exist.

Who Pays for a U.S. Customs & Border Protection Examination?

All exam risks and expenses are for the cargo owner’s account. Any supplemental costs, such as facility costs, per diem, demurrage, detention, etc., are also at the cargo owner’s risk and expense.

How Do I Avoid CBP Import Exams?

There is no easy answer to this question. Exams are essential for protecting U.S. laws, agriculture, and the safety of U.S. citizens. While there is no way to outright avoid exams, the following can minimize the risk/possibility of examinations.

Import exams

  • Be proactive.
  • Understand and follow the rules and regulations specific to your imported commodity.
  • Make sure complete and correct documentation is being filed.
  • Hire a professional Customs Broker with experience in U.S. imports (like Rogers & Brown.)

We are a certified and validated member of Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism.