Skip to main content

Customs Broker Basics: What Cross-Border Shippers Need to Know

customs broker basics header image

Whether you're shipping from Canada or Mexico to the U.S. or vice versa, your freight will be required to clear customs and both nations’ respective government agencies.

Importing and exporting freight can be a complex process, with a lot of documentation, multiple steps to complete and nuanced regulations to comply with.

Fortunately for you, an industry of experienced cross-border providers exists to help make life easier for the thousands of shippers who send freight across both borders every day.

If you're new to shipping cross-border freight, one of the first key steps we suggest is to set up a reliable and experienced customs broker.

Let's answer some basic questions about customs brokers so you can start the process with confidence.

Customs Broker Basics

What is a customs broker?

Customs brokers facilitate the clearing of cross-border shipments with customs and the relevant government agencies.

They handle trade duties and fees with the country into which the freight is being imported, so it can quickly cross the border and get delivered to its final destination.

What does a customs broker do?

Each country operates under a different set of regulations and rules regarding goods entering or leaving its borders.

Customs brokers are responsible for knowing these rules, which are constantly changing, and making sure your shipment smoothly clears customs and complies with government regulations in order to avoid administrative penalties.

Customs brokers help you ship smoothly across borders by:

  • Doing necessary research to properly classify your freight.
  • Assessing tariffs, duties, and import taxes.
  • Making sure you have all the proper documentation and meet all import requirements.
  • Filing your paperwork with customs and government agencies.

All of this allows you to focus on running your business while they manage the details of border crossing.

Do I need to use a customs broker for cross-border Mexico or Canada freight?

No, you don't need one, but we strongly recommend you use one regardless.

Though you can clear your own shipment with customs, a good customs broker is a professional with wealth of experience in this specific task. They will make the process much easier by helping you avoid penalties and delays.

You, as the customer and importer of record, are always ultimately responsible for knowing the necessary customs requirements and for ensuring your importation complies with all federal rules and regulations. Using a customs broker can save you from making very costly mistakes.

In short, it's a good idea to have a customs broker for all shipments to and from both Canada and Mexico.

How do I find a customs broker?

The U.S. Customs & Border Protection website has a list of brokers by port.

An experienced cross-border freight provider will work with several brokers on a daily basis. They can help you refine your search and make some recommendations. 

For instance, Coyote is familiar with all major providers and, as part of UPS Supply Chain Solutions, we can also connect you directly to their customs brokerage solution

Pro Tip: You'll want to work with a broker that operates 24/7, as freight will often cross the border outside of normal business hours, including nights and weekends.

Does it matter which side of the border my customs broker is located on? 

Yes it does, but the standards are a bit different at the Canadian and Mexican borders.

For Canada/U.S. Cross-Border
  • You need to have a customs broker on the side of the border you’re sending freight to.
  • If you’re in Canada and exporting to the U.S., you need a U.S. customs broker.
  • If you’re in the U.S. and exporting to Canada, you need a Canadian customs broker.

Pro Tip: If you’re importing on both sides of the border, you may not need two separate customs brokers.

Many customs brokers, such as UPS SCS, have operations on both sides of the border. Though the offices and contacts will be different, they collaborate with each other. 

For Mexico/U.S. Cross-Border
  • You will need a customs broker on both sides of the border.
  • Similar to Canada, most cross-border customs brokers have operations in both Mexico and the U.S., so you will likely only have to hire one provider to cover your shipment’s entire journey.

Related: Canada vs. Mexico Cross-Border: 5 Cross-Border Freight Shipping Differences

How long does it take to set up a customs broker?

You should allow at least two weeks to set up your customs broker. 

This is not a process you can complete in an afternoon. Though you may be able to complete it in as little as five business days, this is a key step which we certainly recommend taking the necessary time to properly complete.

In fact, hurrying through the set-up process is one of the biggest mistakes we often see in cross-border shipping.

Your customs broker is representing your business at the border. You're giving them power of attorney. They need to know all about your shipping process. They need to get acquainted with your company and with all carriers who will be involved in moving your freight. 

Cutting corners is a big risk and can create costly delays at the border.

What if my customer on the other side of the border already has a customs broker?

That’s great — that means they likely have some experience with cross-border shipping, and it may actually be a good idea for them to be the importer of record and to use their customs broker.

Whether you’re shipping freight from your own facility or working with a customer or vendor, it’s important that there is at least one person involved in the actual shipping process who has cross-border experience to help with the paperwork.

You set up your customs broker. Now what?

Setting up an experienced customs broker is only the first step in the cross-border shipping process. 

Now it's time to choose a transportation provider and get ready to ship.

These step-by-step guides will give you everything you need to move your freight across the border.