What to Look for When Choosing a Customs Broker


Whether you are acting as a private individual, or as the owner or manager of a business operation, you usually have a range of choices when it’s time to look for help in getting an important job done correctly.  This is just as true when selecting a plumber to fix a clogged drain, or a surgeon to deal with a serious medical condition, as when choosing a lawyer, an accountant . . . or a customs broker.

If you aren’t already a specialist in the field where you’re looking for help, it can be challenging to identify which candidate appears to be the best match for your specific situation.  This can be especially true when time is short, important issues are technical in nature, and delays are likely to cost you money . . . and even worse, opportunity.

What kinds of questions should you ask when choosing a customs broker – both to the broker, and to yourself?  There is no single, standard list, but here are a few points to consider:

Customs brokerage firms vary in size from very large multi-national operators, to individual sole proprietors.  Some commonly encountered sizes are:

  • Large – many have offices in a large number of US sea, air, and land border ports.  Several well-known firms are subsidiaries or affiliates of very large multi-national freight forwarders.

  • Medium – often regional in scope, or concentrated in areas like land border locations.  Typically have from a few to a few dozen offices.

  • Small – usually locally or regionally based, typically with one to a few offices.

  • Very small – typically with one or two offices, either within a local area, or at a few key locations around the country.  Some are as small as one-person offices, operated by a sole practitioner.

Most larger customs brokerage firms are generalists, though some may have locations or departments specializing in particular commodities or types of operations.  Medium and smaller firms may also be generalists, but many specialize in one or more areas of operation, such as:

  •  Specific classes of commodities, such as textiles, machinery, electronic equipment, food and beverages, medical equipment, motor vehicles, petroleum products, chemicals, household goods and personal effects, and so forth.

  •  Focus on clients within a specific industry, such as motor vehicle manufacturing, electronic equipment distribution, retail distributors and “big box” store chains, and the like.

  •  Particular trade lanes, such as between the US and one or more of China, India, Europe, the Middle East, South America, Australia, or even more closely defined areas.

  •  High-precision, time-sensitive transactions where speed and reliability are more important than cost.

Especially in some of the larger firms, clients’ customs entries may be handled in “assembly line” fashion, where individual parts of the entry process are done by different people, and no single person handles the entire entry.  At the opposite end of the spectrum, other brokerage firms find that having one individual take responsibility for handling all aspects of the entry helps their people to better understand the specific needs of the individual client, and promotes a stronger professional investment by the entry preparer, in the client’s ultimate success.

So, a few questions to consider asking your prospective customs broker:

  • Is your brokerage familiar with the types of products that I will be importing, including the specific requirements of any other Federal government regulatory agencies that also have jurisdiction over these types of goods?

  • Do you use an “assembly line” for customs entry preparation, or does one person maintain at least primary responsibility for handling an individual file, all the way through the customs clearance process?

  • Do the members of your import team regularly share specialized knowledge with each other, so that all of your clients can benefit from the team’s total amount of knowledge and experience?

  •   When reviewing my requirements, does the brokerage also look for opportunities to:

      - review and confirm the correct classification and valuation of my imported products?

      - identify and take action to prevent potential regulatory compliance issues, both with US Customs and with other US Federal government regulatory agencies?

      - legally minimize customs duty and fees amounts, by identifying non-dutiable costs and other savings opportunities?

  • Are the brokerage team members pro-active about reaching out to me and my team?  Do they actively seek out the information they need, to perform timely and accurate customs clearances?

  •  Does the brokerage coordinate with truckers, warehouse operators, ocean carriers and their agents, terminal operators, and the ultimate recipients of my import shipments, to facilitate timely, efficient deliveries while avoiding unnecessary delays and storage expenses?

And, a few questions for yourself:

  •  Will at least one of the people I have been in contact with, at this brokerage, be personally involved – at a “hands on” level – with the preparation and filing of my customs entries?

  •  Do these people appear to know what they are doing, and have a thorough understanding of the specific customs (and other agency) issues associated with my shipments?

  •  Can I contact specific individuals for answers to both general questions (“What types of possible FDA issues could I have with new product xyz?”) and specific queries (“why did the customs duty rate on this product change, from the previous shipment?”), and expect to receive clear and useful responses?

  •  Has the broker clearly explained both its own service fees, and the customs duties and fees that I can expect to pay, for my shipments?  Has the broker also advised me about other possible costs that I may encounter, that may be billed by other parties involved with my import shipments?

  •  Can I expect the broker to be accessible, and keep me informed – especially of any issues likely to affect the timely delivery of shipments, or my total costs?

Transmark Customs Brokers will be glad to help you answer these questions, for our own customs brokerage and related services, and help you evaluate your options.  Choosing a customs broker is a critical step in setting up your import program, and we appreciate the opportunity to help you make informed decisions about what will actually work best for you.  We look forward to working with you!