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Customs checks are an intensive headache

Posted: January 29, 2018

By Jacob Yount

There are not many things worse than your container being flagged for an intensive customs exam.

Sea shipment already isn’t the quickest thing in the world.

But on top of that, your order may have taken longer than expected. For example, the supplier quotes 30 days mass production, but it took 40.

Then after production finishes, it’s another 7 to 9 days for factory departure and waiting at the port to load next vessel (sailing date).

It all kinda adds up, right?

Finally, after all that time, your goods are arriving.

Customs exam bad news

Then you get an email from your freight forwarder, who already seems to speak in code, and they’re the bearer of more pain-in-the-ass news.

I’ve done a lot of orders from China to the USA and this customs bully gave me my share of sucker punches. I mean, it seems like it comes out of the blue!

Generally this plays out like your freight forwarder sending you an email that says:

We just received message from Customs broker. This container has been flagged for Customs intensive exam The container needs to be moved to exam site for unloading and examination by CBP.

What does that mean?

Generally you’ll shoot your freight forwarder back an email asking a bunch of questions.

How long will this take?

Was it something we did?

Was it something you did?

At that stage, they won’t have a lot of exact answers. They’ll only be able to answer in generalities.

Customs doesn’t reveal their reasons for their dreaded decrees.

Think about it like TSA at the airports.

Besides holding the ground down and adding to the chaos, they also do seemingly random pulls, searches, and other fastidious acts that add delays. Very similar…

Customs exams, waiting and process…

The better exam is a basic x-ray exam.

This is less intrusive.

It does add some timing to your delivery, but it’s not that bad. Recently we had an order to just have the x-ray style exam. I didn’t really notice much if any timing increase.

As you saw from the above quote, that herald of bad news said “intensive exam”.

Intensive exam

This is more of a headache.

Your container has to wait at the port until the green light to go to the exam site. This takes time.

They take the container to an exam site. This added on transportation from the port to the exam site costs money.

Then the container has to wait for the inspection. As far as I know, this actually involves hands grabbing, moving and opening cartons.

Do they open every single box? I don’t know.

It’s called intense, but I’m not sure how intensive it actually is.

Is customs actually being diligent? Is it a dog and pony show?


The timing is intense.

It seems to take an extra 2 to 3 days to just move from the port to the exam site.

This customs exam folderol takes about 5 to 7 business day.

All and all I’ve seen the whole shebang take upwards of 10 days if you’re lucky.

20 days if you ain’t.

Were they all business days? It doesn’t matter, we’re all pretty busy and regardless whether Tuesday or Saturday it’s not very convenient.


Yeah, there’s a monetary gift here as well. And it’s not customs bequeathing you with a parting prize.

We just had one of these intensive probings. It was upwards of an additional $1,300.00 added to the freight bill.

This is for the transportation to the exam site and other incidentals.

What causes this?

Most freight forwarders will tell you it’s random. It probably is. But random in a “they have some sort of computer algorithm” sense of random.

I don’t think it’s all random.

Here are my theories on what triggers customs:

  • New freight forwarder
  • New item. If you don’t normally import something and then start to.
  • Haven’t imported a whole lot. You have no established data with customs.
  • Documents don’t line up. Be vigilant with documentation. This helps to bring a strong closure to your China order.
  • Sensitive item such as toys or food stuff.

At the start of the post, I said they’re aren’t many things worse than this customs hassle news.

That’s all inside of the dynamic of the ordering process though…keep it all in perspective.

Jacob Yount lived in China from 2001 to 2012, during which time he started JLmade. He is now based out of North Carolina in the US and his home office is still in Suzhou, China; manufacturing and exporting branded merchandise, promotional products and retail gifts for distributors worldwide. Contact Jacob at, or find him on his blog.

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