Certificates of Origin for Export Shipments

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As US producers and sellers prepare documents for their export shipments, many encounter – usually in the foreign buyer’s Purchase Order – a requirement that the exporter’s documents include a “Certificate of Origin” for the merchandise being shipped. 

This document is usually used, by the destination country’s customs officers, in their import shipment document review and verification process.  Depending on the details of the individual country’s customs laws and regulations, and their interpretation by the customs officers handling the clearance of a specific shipment, providing an acceptable Certificate of Origin may be anything from a minor detail for the exporter, to a complex, time-consuming, and expensive process. 

To varying degrees, the customs officers of the countries requiring a separate paper Certificate of Origin tend to value form over substance, and to place a higher priority on how the documents look, rather than the underlying reality of what the documents are intended to represent.  This is especially true for countries which require not only a Certificate of Origin, but also one or more additional “legalizations” or “attestations” that are intended to confirm the validity of the certificate.  (These countries tend to be concentrated in south and southeast Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America.)

Commonly, countries requiring a Certificate of Origin require (or at least request) that this document be either issued, or certified, by a local Chamber of Commerce in the area where the product was produced or manufactured, or at the location from which it is being shipped.  In most cases, the producer (or shipper) prepares the Certificate of Origin.

The Certificate of Origin should include enough detail about the nature and quantity of the goods being certified, and the various shipment reference numbers (such as invoice number, international carrier’s Bill of Lading number, shipping container number, etc.) to clearly identify exactly which goods are being certified as originating from what country.  A Certificate of Origin can generally be used to identify the origin of specific items from each of multiple countries, as long as it clearly states which items, and what quantity of each, originated in which country.

Some foreign buyers may be able to provide – as part of their Purchase Order or other documentation – specifics about what degree of product description and other detail their national customs authority wants to see on a Certificate of Origin.

Generally, most local Chambers of Commerce asked to certify an exporter’s Certificate of Origin will ask the exporter to bring the document to the Chamber’s office, where an authorized representative of the chamber will sign the document, and stamp it with the Chamber’s official seal.  There is usually a modest charge for this service, frequently discounted for Chamber members.  At some locations, a local Chamber of Commerce may allow selected member firms to obtain and keep a copy of the Chamber’s official seal, and deputize employees of a firm to perform certifications on behalf of the Chamber.  (Occasionally, a freight forwarder or customs broker who is a member of a local Chamber of Commerce, and has enough client business of this type to make it worth the extra effort, can obtain this type of authorization, and use it to certify documents prepared by the firm’s clients, or by the firm on behalf of those clients.)

Some destination countries go a step (or several) further, and require that a Certificate of Origin, after being certified by a local Chamber of Commerce, be further certified by one or more of:

  •  the Secretary of State of the US state in which the producer, manufacturer, or shipper is located

  •  the US Department of State

  •  the embassy or consulate of the nation to which the goods are to be shipped

Each of these certifications will generally require a separate fee payable to the government department, or embassy or consulate, doing the certification.  The “turn-around time” for each can be highly variable, although some departments, embassies, and consulates may publish typical processing time ranges for their “certification” or “legalization” of Certificates of Origin and other types of documents.

If any (or all) of these are located outside the producer, manufacturer, or shipper’s local area, overnight courier service to (and return from) each required location can be useful, both for timeliness and status tracing. 

If one or more of these locations (example: the appropriate US State Department office, and the embassy or consulate of the destination nation) are located in the same general area, such as the Washington, DC metro area, a specialized local messenger service (also acting as a document management service) can handle the delivery and pickup of the appropriate documents at each location, and eventually return them to the producer, manufacturer, or shipper.  There is, of course, a substantial fee for this type of service, in addition to all of the other costs and charges noted above.

If the destination country requires a Certificate of Origin, but not certification of that document by a Chamber of Commerce (or any other entity), then a simple signed statement on the producer, manufacturer, or shipper’s letterhead may be acceptable for the purpose, and require essentially no additional time or cost.  Certification by a local Chamber of Commerce (or its authorized agent, such as a customs broker or forwarder that is a member of that Chamber) typically requires only a little (or no) additional time, and minimal (or no) additional cost.

At the other end of the complexity spectrum, some destination countries will require certification of that document by multiple entities, including their own embassy or consulate.  Depending on exactly what that destination country requires, the total amount of time needed to comply with all of those requirements can be anywhere from a few days to several weeks, and the total costs (including express courier services) can be up to several hundred dollars.

So, before pricing an export shipment to a country which requires a Certificate of Origin, it is helpful to confirm exactly:

  •  what information must be included on the Certificate of Origin, for that destination country

  •  whether the Certificate of Origin must be further certified and/or “legalized”, and if so, by which entities

  •  the direct costs of each required certification or “legalization”

  •  the additional costs of express courier service, local courier and document management services, and any other related expenses

  •  the additional time required to accomplish all of the above

Transmark Customs Brokers, and our service partners, are always available to help clients navigate the unfamiliar – and occasionally perilous – environments in which Certificates of Origin may be required for your export shipments.