How Long Does Customs Clearance Take?

How Long Does Customs Clearance Take?

April 27, 2022

One of the most frustrating parts of shipping large volume orders from manufacturers in China is unexpected delays incustoms. Even experienced businesses can get caught off-guard, but those that are new to ordering products from overseas are often overwhelmed with how to navigate customs once their products arrive at port.


Curious about how long customs clearance takes?  Below, we'll talk about how long customs clearance takes, other factors that will determine when your productscan be picked up by a freight partner, and how to avoid unnecessary custom delays once your products have arrived.

How Long Does Customs Clearance Take From China?

The actual customs clearance process is usually fast. In fact, if you have properly prepared to clear customs (which we'll talk about later), your products could clear customs within a day.  What businesses often don't realize is that once you clear customs, you need to have your products discharged from customs.


Getting discharged from customs can take a longtime. Since 2021, it was common to see it take 2-4weeks for orders to get discharged because the ports were so congested. Your products can't be picked up if there's a line of trucks waiting to pick upother discharged products. Some of our clients saw delays of a month or more.


While there isn't much you can do about discharge delay (though you can be prepared for it and have appropriate expectations), knowing what to do in the customs clearance process can help youto avoid mistakes that add on costly and unnecessary delays. Let's take a closer look at what's actually involved in the customs clearance process:

What is the Customs Clearance Process?

The customs clearance process is long and detailed-oriented and will vary depending on what kind of shipping you use. Youwill have a different experience with customs depending on if you use airexpress, like with DHL, UPS, and FedEx, air freight, or sea freight.


Customs clearance with air express is straightforward. All you'll be responsible for is making sure customs gets thecommercial invoice, which will include the product name, HS codes, the totalvalue of the shipment, and the weight. Aside from that, the company providingthe air express shipment will handle the remainder of the customers process onyour behalf.


If you're using air freight or sea freight, the process is much more involved. First, you'll need to file an ISF (or importsecurity filing) document with the exporter in China and the customs broker in the U.S. The freight forwarder (or the party that is shipping your products from China), will need to provide the customs broker with the Bill of Lading while you'll be responsible for givingthe broker the commercial invoice and packing list (if you partner with Kanary,we handle this entire process).

HTS Codes

Finally, you need to submit HTS (or harmonized tariff schedule) codes to the customs broker. Usually, this is done by lookingat the HS codes provided by your supplier and matching them with the most applicable codes for importing into the United States. Providing HTS codes ishow you know what taxes or tariffs you have to pay on your imports.


Determining which HTS codes are an accurate match for your products is crucially important. If you use an HTS code that makes you pay too much tax, you're wasting money and you can't get that money back. If you use an HTS code that has you pay too little tax, the U.S. government will view it as purposeful tax avoidance. They will force youto pay the tax that is owed and they will fine you for using the wrong HTS codes.


Your customs broker might provide guidance on which HTS codes to use, but they will not offer a guarantee that they're right. Your supplier might offer to apply HTS codes, but you should never rely on your supplier to do so. The only party held responsible for HTS codes is your company, so you need to make sureyour codes are correct.


If you partner with Kanary, not only do we handle all of the customs paperwork, but we will also find and apply the correct HTS codes for your products.

Arrival of Notice

Once the arrival notice is sent to customs(for sea freight, this usually happens when the vessel is 5-7 days from port),the clearance process will begin. As long as your documentation is accurate, it usually only takes one to two days to clear customs. If you are importing products that are food or drug related, customs clearance will take longer.


Customs will sometimes flag a container forx-rays. This is a random process, and there's no way to prevent it, but it can sometimes cause your shipment to be delayed in customs.

Port Discharge

Just because your order has cleared customs(which you will know by receiving an import customs clearance completed notice), it doesn't mean you can immediately load your products onto trucks andbegin domestic shipping. Since 2021, discharge times took 2-4 weeks, and increased congestion can make that even longer.

Remember to include port discharge time to your overall shipping logistics, as it often takes longer than the customs clearance process itself.

Customs Clearance Wrap Up

In summary, the customs clearance process actually starts on the shipping side, given how much preparation there is. Once the arrival of notice is received by customs, you can begin the custom sclearance process. Usually, this will only take a day or two, unless your products are flagged for x-rays, if you have missing documentation, or you have incorrect documentation.

Why Is My Package Stuck in Customs?

Now that you have a general background of the customs clearance process, it may be easier to understand some of the reasons your product order is delayed in customs. Let's take a look at some of the most common reasons an order may be stuck in customs:

Wrong HTS Code

As we mentioned earlier, the HTS code is used by U.S. Customs to determine what taxes or tariffs to apply to your products. If your HTS code is wrong, you'll get a delay in the customs clearance process.If you are inexperienced with importing products, or simply don't want to dedicate the time to ensuring paperwork is correct, a sourcing specialist, like Kanary, can help you with getting the right HTS codes.

Missing or Incorrect Paperwork

If you don't have the correct information on your customs paperwork, or you are missing documentation entirely, you'll face significant delays at customs. In general, you need to make sure to have:


●    The Bill of Lading

●    Commercial invoice

●    Packing list

●    HTS codes


A customs broker or a sourcing specialist(like Kanary) can help to ensure that you have all of the required paperwork. They can also make sure that your paperwork is free of errors.

Congested Port 

Even after you clear customs, a congested port will provide delays (even though your products are not technically "stuck in customs.") The supply chain issues have led to limited storage space at ports for unloading and returning containers. It's not uncommon to have to wait2-4 weeks to be able to discharge your products from port. At peak order times, you could have to wait as long as a month.

Complications with LCL Shipments

An LCL (or less than container load) shipment is when you have an order that isn't enough to fill an entire container. If your order can't fill an entire container, the shipper will fill the container with other orders from other customers. While LCL shipments aren’t inherently bad, they allow for the possibility of more delays at customs.


If any of the orders in an LCL shipment get flagged for issues or x-rays, then the entire container will be delayed. That means, even if your paperwork is perfect, if someone else didn't do their customs paperwork appropriately, the entire container, and all of the orders contained inside, will be delayed while the issue is resolved.


If you want to avoid the complication that can arise with LCL shipments, then prioritizing FCL, or full container load, shipments is essential. Many businesses miss an opportunity to have FCL shipments because they think their product orders are too far spread or or don't have enough volume to fill an entire container.


However, if you have consistent, large volume orders, then consolidated shipping should be considered. Consolidated shipping is a logistics strategy where products are manufactured, temporarily stored, and then shipped together when there are enough products for an FCL shipment. While the logistical planning of this can be time-intensive, it can shave off weeks of delays in shipping time, as well as saving your company thousands of dollars.


Many businesses have dedicated staff to planthe logistics of consolidated shipping, while other businesses outsource the planning to sourcing specialists, like Kanary.

Random X-ray

Finally, a random x-ray of your container will delay shipment. Unfortunately, there is nothing you can do to prevent this, sokeep it in mind if your customs broker informs you that a container has been chosen for x-rays.

How to Check on a Package in Customs

If your package or order has been delayed in customs, you should know what you can do to check on the status. While this isn't always an easy process (it can be difficult even for us at Kanary to check on a package in customs), we do have the general steps anyone can follow to try to get a status update on their order.

How to Check on a Package in Customs - Air Express

If you shipped your order with air express, it is generally easy to check on it during the customs process. Your carrierhandles the customs clearance process for you (be it DHL, UPS, or FedEx), so aslong as you have the tracking number of your order, you can check the status.Y ou may see status updates like:

●    If customs clearance has started

●    If more information is needed for customs clearance to complete

●    Whether the order needs to go through FDA inspection

●    Import customs clearance completed(an indication you have successfully cleared customs)


Air express is usually the easiest shipping method to check on the status of customs clearance.

How to Check on a Package in Customs - Air Freight

Air freight will work similarly to air express, except your carrier partner will be far less involved. You will needto check with your customs broker for status updates on your order, since the freight company isn't directly participating in the customs clearance process(like DHL, UPS, or FedEx will when using air express).

How to Check on a Package in Customs - Sea Freight

Checking on an order that is shipped with sea freight offers the most challenges to businesses. Remember, the arrival notice will be issued when the sea vessel is still several days away from port, so you'llbe looking at both tracking information on the shipment as well as custom updates from your customs broker.


Usually, it's easier to ask your customs broker for status updates on the customs clearance process. You also have the option to look at tracking information on the vessel carrying your shipment, but it's usually easier just to ask your custom brokers for shipping and customs updates.

How to Check on a Package in Customs - Kanary

If you partner with Kanary, we provide your business with tracking updates and customs updates. As soon as there is a newupdate, we'll contact you to let you know, but we handle navigating the customs clearance process on your behalf.

How Long Can Customs Hold My Package?

How long customs can hold or delay your order depends on which shipping method you used.

How Long Can Customs Hold My Package? - Air Express

If your package is held up in customs because more information is needed, air express shipping partners (like DHL, FedEx, or UPS), will hold your package for up to five days. If the needed information is not provided withinthat time frame, the air express shipping partner will return the package to the shipping origin.


Remember, just because customs can only “hold” your package for five days doesn’t mean you can expect to clear customs within five days. If customs is congested, it may take several days (or even weeks) to clear customs simply because the line for customs is that long.

How Long Can Customs Hold My Package? - Air Freight 

Customs won’t generally hold packages for long when you use air freight. If you don’t have the proper paperwork to clear customs, your air freight partner won’t usually send your order back. Instead, you’ll be charged storage fees if the delay is your fault. If there’s just congestion, the hold could be for an extended period of time, but this is rare for air freight.


Clearing customs when using air freight is generally very, very fast. It can take as little as a week to get products from the factories, onto the plane, through customs, and onto the trucks of your freight partners. The reason why most companies don’t use air freight for large orders is because of cost. It is far more expensive to use air freight, which is why most large order go through sea freight.

How Long Can Customs Hold My Package? - Sea Freight

How long customs can hold your package when using sea freight depends on the reason why the order is being delayed. If it's due to port congestion, your packages could remain in customs for extended periods of time. There's not a way to solve port congestion, but partnering with a sourcing specialist, like Kanary, may allow you to choose different ports or shipping options to avoid excessive delays.


If your order is held in customs because of incomplete or incorrect paperwork, not only will your products sit in customs, customs will also charge your demurrage fees while you resolve the issue. This kind of issue can turn into an expensive, complicated mess quickly, especially if you have to wait on a third-party (like your supplier) in order to get the paperwork you need.


If you are new to importing products, especially through large volume orders shipped through sea freight, it's easy to make costly mistakes. Partnering with a seasoned sourcing specialist, like Kanary, can allow you to easily avoid costly, unnecessary mistakes in the customs clearance process.

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. How long does customs clearance take in the USA?

Customs clearance usually only takes a few days, but that assumes you don't face any delays in the process. Almost all customs delays are the result of missing or incorrect paperwork, with the exception of getting flagged for unavoidable x-rays. Always make sure you know what paperwork you need and that it is correct when you know you have an order coming through customs.

2. How do I contact customs about a package?

You can contact U.S. Customs and Border Protection for general inquiries at this number: 1-877-227-5511. However, you should note that the office is located in Washington D.C., and they may have to transfer you to the appropriate department or port (and that's if there's someone who can actually address your concerns).

Usually, you'll contact a customs broker if you have questions or concerns about an order. This person will be able to provide updates to the customs process, including specific reasons why your order is delayed in customs.

3. How long does it take a package to clear customs?

For most packages and orders, customs clearance only takes 1-2 days. However, there can be delays, including those not directly related to customs. If your order gets flagged for x-rays (or if you are using LCL shipping, if any order in the container gets flagged for x-rays), you'll have an unavoidable delay. Missing or incorrect customs paperwork will also cause delays, and customs will charge you if they have to hold products because your paperwork wasn't correct.

Sometimes, port congestion will cause delays. Businesses often confuse this to be a customs delay, but they are distinct issues. It's possible for your order to pass customs successfully but still be held up for days or weeks at port if there's too much congestion.

4. Why does custom clearance take so long?

Unless you've had an issue with missing or incorrect paperwork, customs clearance actually only takes 1-2 days. The reason why it's felt so long recently is because of port congestion. When the economy began to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, there were three factors that resulted in issues at the ports.

First, the many ports laid off workers because of low volume of shipments coming in. Then, when customers began shopping again, there was an explosion in shipping orders but not enough dock workers to clear them. This resulted in a bottleneck at the ports, resulting in discharge delays.

Second, the sheer volume of orders overwhelmed the ports (which would have happened even if there were a normal number of employees). Many shipping vessels were stranded at sea because there was literally no room for them to dock. This resulted in discharge delays, even though the actual customs clearance process, once started, moved at a normal pace.

Finally, even when orders were cleared through customs, you then had dozens of truck freight partners all trying to unload the containers at once. There isn't space for all freight partners to unload their containers at the same time, and the congestion resulted in even more delays at the ports.

These issues have been improving, though extensive delays are still common.

5. How long do packages stay in customs?

Usually, packages and orders will clear customs in 1-2 days. If there is an issue with customs, how long they will be held by customs will vary. For example, air express shipping partners will hold packages for up to five days if there are customs issues (like missing paperwork).

Air and sea freight orders can remain at customs for extended periods of time. If your order is delayed because of missing paperwork, customs may charge you a daily demurrage fee  , which can become costly very, very quickly.

6. What does "held in customs" mean?

"Held in customs" means that the importer country is holding the order in customs due to an issue that needs to be resolved. This could be due to incomplete paperwork, unpaid taxes, or the discovery of products that are prohibited from importing. All three of these issues can be avoided with enough preparation or expertise, which many businesses new to importing may not have.


Due to the expertise and prep time needed to successfully pass customs, many businesses hire a sourcing specialist, like Kanary, to navigate the process for them.

7. What does "import customs clearance completed" mean?

If you check the status of your order through customs, and see "import customs clearance completed," congratulations! This means that your order has successfully cleared customs, and your order will soon be ready for unloading and transfer to your trucking freight partners.

Remember, just because you cleared customs doesn't mean you can immediately get to your products. Port congestion may prevent you from doing so quickly, and it's not uncommon to wait a couple weeks until it's your turn to get your products on trucks for domestic shipping.


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