What Is It With These Customs Holds And Exams?


There are strict deadlines with the customer. You have been pushing your factory for weeks to complete the production on time so you can ship out the goods from the origin country which will barely make the deadline with your customer. Factory ships the goods finally after tons of emails, telephone conversations and correspondences. Everything is finally on track and your container arrived at the port.
US Customs Exam
All of a sudden you get a notice from your service provider advising that there is a customs exam hold on your container. No way… How are you going to meet the deadline now? You get another notice from your service provider two days later advising your container is held up for further examination. Why is this happening to me? What can I do to get my container immediately so I can deliver it to my customer that is about the cancel the order?

Above scenarios are very common amongst the importers. Customs exam holds are unavoidable and they are crucial to protect our homeland from contraband. Each year alone thousands of containers are held up. Some of these are even re-exported to the origin country before even leaving the terminals. Exam and related charges are costing the importers hundreds of thousands of dollars every year.

As per Customs Border Protection (CBP) the importer shall bear any expense involved in preparing the merchandise for CBP examination and in the closing of packages” (19 CFR 151.6). Household effects are not exempt. No distinction is made between commercial and personal shipments. In the course of normal operations, CBP does not charge for cargo examinations. However, there may still be costs involved for the importer. For example, if your shipment is selected for examination, it will generally be moved to a Centralized Examination Station (CES) for the CBP exam to take place. A CES is a privately operated facility, not in the charge of a CBP Officer, at which merchandise is made available to CBP officers for physical examination. The CES facility will unload (devan) your shipment from its shipping container and will reload it after the exam. The CES will bill you for their services. There are also costs associated with moving the cargo to and from the exam site and with storage. Rates will vary across the country and a complete devanning may cost several hundred dollars. The CES concept fulfills the needs of both CBP and the importer by providing an efficient means to conduct exams in a timely manner. ( www.cbp.gov)

Under 19 USC 1467, CBP has a right to examine any shipment imported into the United States and it is important to know that you, the importer, must bear the cost of such cargo exams. Per the CBP regulations, it is the responsibility of the importer to make the goods available for examination.

US Customs ExamThere are threats to US everyday and one of CBP’s responsibilities is to secure and facilitate the trade. There are various exam types:

Tailgate Exam: Customs officers open the container and check to see if there is anything suspicious that may lead to further examination.

Intensive Exam: Containers are drayed to Customs exam site and contents are physically inspected.

USDA Exam: USDA inspects the goods for insects, infestation or improper wood packaging.

CET Exam: Physical examination of the container. CET stands for Contraband Enforcement Team. If your import cargo is subject to CET exam it will be transported to customs exam warehouse for physical inspection for narcotics, drugs, weapons etc.

Since there is not much to do to control the exams the best thing to do is to take preventive actions, and comply with the requirements. In conclusion, it is important to understand the necessity of the exams and procedures and that they are inevitable for homeland security. In order to minimize the exam holds I would recommend the importers to become a member of C-TPAT and provide appropriate paperwork that complies with the customs requirements.

Next articleCorporate Office v.s. Home Office – Are You Working Naked?
Serkan Kavas
Serkan Kavas was born and raised in Turkey. He graduated from Dokuz Eylul University with a Degree in Business Administration in 2001. He had an internship in Germany at a major industrial company after college. He worked at their family business in Turkey and managed their exports from Turkey to Europe. He moved to the U.S. to continue his education in New York and obtained his MBA degree with International Business concentration at New York Institute of Technology in 2005. After graduation he was recruited by MTS Logistics and he has been working at the company since 2005. Serkan worked his way up from the entry level to operations manager and to his current position as our VP of Imports at MTS Logistics. He wears different hats daily with different responsibilities. He has vast knowledge, experience, and understanding of all aspects of logistics, freight, and the supply chain. His focus now is to help develop our import department and help our company move forward.


  1. “USDA exams” are exams performed by CBP-Agriculture Specialists. After 9/11, when the sitting President formed DHS, he had all port of entry functions transferred to CBP. For USDA APHIS, that meant the portion of the workforce clearing cargo/PAX/mail at the ports of entry became CBP employees. As ‘specialists’ in doing the Agriculture mission and clearance of goods on behalf of USDA APHIS, they become known as CBP-AS.

    All logistical and operational exams and decisions that involve the USDA APHIS mission now lie with CBP. The ACS systems still designate “USDA Exam”, but the person’s carrying out exams wears a blue uniform and a CBP Badge.

    • I feel the exact same way. I have searched and asked around for info on how to confirm fees and actual container movements or flaggings.
      If you have any more info please share.

  2. I understand that the CBP is working to insure the safety of the USA. I am more worried about the freight companies which hold your cargo ransom until they are finished depleting your savings just because they can charge all the extra 3 letter acronyms with arrival fees. Now we have CES stations which will add more expense and lets not forget brokers fee which also can be inflated. I would like to know, who is keeping an eye on these service providers to make sure they are not corrupt? As all season importers know there is a potential for abuse by these service providers. If we feel we have been cheated who do we call?

  3. Waiting for a container of ginger, came in last week. Got a message that they have time next week, to do a full strip. Right now they are to busy. In the meantime, the charges go up every day

  4. Nothing but a racket. These exams are a farce. Another government bureaucracy aimed at squeezing the business owner. Look at the pics above. It takes 5 agents to inspect. One is in the container, the other four stand around. I have asked my broker to provide docs that show the container was actually sent for an inspection and I get nothing. How do you know an exam is for real?

    • Hardly a racket. Police agency’s respond by protocol. Many times there are more fire trucks than needed or local police than necessary. They may have specialists or other necessary officers, or inspectors there as well to help clear the freight.

  5. How many containers that get inspected are found to contain contraband? I have looked at the cost to importers vs. what customs has found and am unable to locate statistical information. I imagine that is for a reason. Why isn’t it transparent?

    • Like other enforcement activity CES exams are a deterrent. It is a credit to the agency that percentage wise little is found. Customs / CBP is an enforcement agency effective only if partially cloaked just like any other police agency.

  6. hi my container almost took one month for exams to be done ! still waiting and everything is done still its on hold paid thousand of dollars extra! to do all the exam ! who do i complaint too > please let me know i am desperately need in advise from someone where i can file a complaint ! my container is still in Norfolk Va thank you

    • I would complain to the Customs House Brokers Association in that region. The trade has a hand in the selection of CES’s and they know who at Customs to go to for the problem. Most CES’s have a time mandate they work under. You could also contact the Assistant director for the region.

    • Yes; It is called an exodus exam and targets goods such as technology banned from certain commerce. It also addresses drug cash and money going to fund terrorism.

      • Related question… an export container holding our boxes, as well as whatever else got placed in that container, made it from Georgia all the way to Hamburg, and now US Customs in GA are calling it back for inspection. Is that legal?

  7. They hold my container for 23 days, charged me a fortune per day claiming it would be under RX and 2nd inspection. I received paperwork detailing what they claimed they inspected, but the container was never open. The locker was the original from departure and all my boxes were still sealed with the tape with my own logo.
    These people are a bunch of thieves and if you complain they accuse you of contraband. I am outraged with the whole experience.

  8. Hi. Just received information about my container that’s on hold by customs. It shows up to me -outbound enforcement exam- I export motorcycles to Europe from the USA. In this container r 15 harleys .. how do you think? Are they going to unload them ? What if they damage them ??what they r looking for?

  9. There’s also Vacis exam AKA X-ray done at the terminal.

    Where is a tailgate exam done? At the terminal?

  10. Generally new importers or shipments from high risk countries are more likely to be flagged for customs exams when arrived to port for FCL. For LCL the chances of exam is even higher due to many shippers in a container. Customs also has their own quota to fill per year regarding the amount of exams they have to perform.

    All Cleared Customs Brokerage

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