Don’t Give Customs an Excuse to Ask a Question!

On April 1, 2024, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) released a new Cargo Systems Messaging Service announcement addressing “vague descriptions” of imported merchandise used by filers (importers of record).

The CSMS reminded importers of the importance of using a complete verbal description, in English, with sufficient detail.  

Let’s remember the goal of using a verbal description: we want the customs agent to look at the description, look at the HTS classification, and think “Yes, that makes sense.” We do not want to give an agent an opportunity to ask a question.

Apparently, filers (importers of record) are overusing descriptors such as “parts” “accessories” and “gift.”

There is nothing wrong with the word “parts” if it is followed by a more specific qualifier, such as “parts of motors” or “parts of furniture.” Descriptions such as these appear all over the Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the US (HTSUS).  However, if it were me, and I were shipping table legs, I would describe them as table legs rather than “parts of furniture.”

To describe anything as simply “parts” or “parts of furniture” or “furniture parts” is to invite further inquiry from CBP. Inquiries always cause delays, and delays always cost money.  Sometimes, inquiries lead to delays, and then to penalties.  Sometimes they lead to investigations.

Filers are reminded that CBP recognizes industry jargon. In fact, CBP has been known to prefer this over simply repeating the mundane language in the tariff (“motor housing” is preferred over “parts of motors”).

“Accessories” is likewise not preferred on its own.

The worst offender is “other.”  Yes, many provisions begin with the word “other” but that does not allow a filer to simply use that word as a descriptor. Filers are reminded that “other” follows the more detailed and inclusive descriptors at the heading and subheading level, which are preferred.

“Other,” “accessories,” and “parts” are what we in the business call “basket provisions.”  A provision is an HTS classification. When we say something is “provided for,” we mean it is described at the heading or subheading level; it is specifically named.

All too often filers use parts provisions too liberally.   

For example, importers in the civil aircraft industry are consistently found to overuse the “parts of aircraft” provisions too often, resulting in an over-exploitation of the duty-free status for certain parts of civil aircraft under the Agreement on Trade in Civil Aircraft duty preference program, indicated by the letter C in the Special sub-column of column 1 duty rates in the HTSUS.

Product-specific descriptors that may be confidential are not required to be on the commercial invoice.  In fact, too much detail can be obfuscating. Consider simple language that ties the line item to the classification. Sentences are not needed and are advised against.  Remember: you don’t want to give an agent an excuse to ask a question.

O’Meara and Associates, Inc. has extensive experience writing customs-friendly descriptions used for import and export declarations. We routinely classify thousands of SKUs per year, and have classified master catalogues for more than a few clients.

When we do an import audit for a client, when we examine (or reexamine) an importer’s HTS classifications, the first things we look at are classifications whose descriptors begin with a basket provision. CBP takes the same approach.  You should too: your classifications whose descriptors begin with basket provisions deserve a second look.

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