US import procedures for UK and EU businesses

Our trading relationship with the US may be thawing, but UK and EU firms don’t have to wait for a trade deal before doing business there. This is what UK and EU businesses need to know to successfully import into the US + Access a 200+ detailed guide.

The US decision to suspend tariffs on UK and EU goods including scotch whisky and cheese has raised hopes of a transatlantic trade deal.

The UK's decision follows our exit from the EU which has been embroiled in a long-running trade row with the US over subsidies to rival aircraft makers Airbus and Boeing. This culminated in the Trump administration slapping a whopping 25% tariff on a range of EU (and UK) goods.

The EU's and UK’s temporary thaw in trading relations with the US, which follows our decision to lift some tariffs imposed by the EU, gives us some breathing space to negotiate a deal.

Should I wait for a trade deal?

But businesses here shouldn’t wait until the UK secures a free trade agreement with America before exporting there. A trade settlement doesn’t guarantee less hassle or even tariff-free trade – far from it.

Even though we have negotiated a trade agreement with the EU, exporting to the bloc can be fraught with challenges. Many businesses struggle with EU red tape, including complex rules of origin, and face hefty financial penalties if they get the paperwork wrong.

You still need to complete complicated customs declarations and provide health certificates if you export certain products. Many firms need the professional services of customs agents and specialists to help them navigate the new trading arrangements with the EU.

Trading on WTO terms

So how much more difficult can it be to trade without any free trade agreement, known to us as trading on “World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms”? After all, we already do business with several countries on WTO terms including China, India and Saudi Arabia and there’s no reason why we can’t do the same with the US and other countries.

It’s complicated but no longer overwhelming

Importing into the USA can be a complicated of a process as importing to the EU can be now. The good news is thanks to our steep learning of EU import requirements, trading with the US doesn't have to be so overwhelming anymore. Once we figure out how to do it with the EU, the US will be more straightforward.

Being forced to deal with import procedures into the EU, means that the numerous elaborate particulars that you will find with U.S. Customs processes are much easier to digest than before. Yet, like with the EU, without a good understanding of the process, you may still suffer delays and costs just because a single stamp is missing a box of a document. Trade deal or not, there are some fundamental details that UK exporters need to get right to ensure success in the U.S.

Top US tips to ensure a smooth import process into the US

The single most important suggestion to make is to consider enlisting the services of a licensed Customs Broker. They have the proper experience and knowledge of U.S. Customs to help you overcome border issues, of which there can be many.

For example, where you are "importer of record" and mentioned on the customs entry, you’d also be legally responsible in the eyes of.U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). As responsible party, you better understand the U.S. import processes thoroughly. You need to know, for example:

  • what commercial invoices and packing list should look like to satisfy requirements

  • where and how to get a U.S. Customs bond for your shipment

  • how much duties and tariffs and other fees are applicable and how you can pay them

  • how your packages, pallets, boxes etc must be labelled and treated

  • if a prior notice of shipment is required, to give authorities sufficient time to intercept and inspect your goods

  • what standards the customer expects you to adhere to

  • what conformity assessments with technical product regulation you need to carry out prior to exporting

  • how your product must be labelled for the US market to meet legal requirements and meet consumer’s expectations

  • if you need a specific license, permit or certification (risk an outright rejection without them)

  • if an import control on the volume of your commodity is in place, known as a quota

  • essential nitty-gritty to help your broker make a successful entry into the electronic entry into the U.S. e-customs clearance system ACE and complete the necessary CBP forms, such as the HTS code, the customs value and the country of origin to apply

  • if you can save a buck of two by importing goods at a reduced rate of duty under a Free Trade Agreement.

  • what requirements you have under the US’s Importer Security Filing (ISF/10+2) laws for ocean vessel shipments

  • if your measurements and weights are correct

  • if you are keeping an adequate and complete set of records proving you used “Reasonable Care”.

With the excitement of large, new export markets for your products, please to not underestimate the high number of requirements that importers have under U.S. customs law. Even with the best broker in the world, providing incomplete or wrong information to them may lead to delays and expose you to the risk of non-compliance with U.S. importing regulations and laws.

It’s gone wrong

Prepare yourself if things do go pear-shaped. Nobody wants to receive an CBP Form 28: Request for Information, or worse, a CBP Form 29: Notice of Action. But with awareness and preparation, its half as bad and with the right expert support, you can successfully appeal penalties and liquidated damage claims, if even you are exposed to them. Contact Customs Manager Ltd for support


Reaching a settlement with the US may make things easier for some UK exporters, but free trade agreements aren’t a panacea as our experience with Europe has demonstrated.

If you do your homework and have the right supply chain and support in place, however, you can navigate the complexities of global commerce without one and still trade profitably. And once you have mastered the intricacies of trading on WTO terms, the world is your oyster.


About the author

Arne Mielken is a leading global trade expert in the UK and the EU, and founder of the customs and training consultancy Customs Manager Ltd. Arne supports businesses to reach their international customers faster, by cutting costs, red tape and paperwork. He assists and trains companies to de-risk their supply chain and stay compliant, enabling them to grow globally.

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