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What does a Customs Broker do?

By Cassie L. Damewood
Updated Feb 16, 2024
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A customs broker facilitates the import and export of goods with foreign countries that are subject to customs inspection and restrictions. These commodities shipments can be large or small and include perishable as well as non-perishable merchandise. The broker normally serves as the key liaison between the importer, exporter and government agencies. She may specialize in certain types of merchandise such as clothing or food, or confine her job to authorizing and approving the manifests and crews of large cargo ships or container vessels.

Freight forwarders and customs brokerage firms are often considered the most common employers of customs brokers, but brokers also commonly work for shipping companies, trade authorities or import and export firms. Some customs brokers also work as independent contractors who provide services for a variety of companies. Customs agent jobs are typically located at major harbors or airports with heavy international trade activity.

A commonly misconstrued assumption is that United States (U.S.) customs brokers are the same as customs agents. U.S. customs agents, however, are employed by a government agency, while customs brokers are private sector workers. In some other countries though, the terms are interchangeable.

Preparing documents according to stringent guidelines is a large part of a custom broker’s job. For goods to be expediently forwarded to the desired locations, documents regarding excise restrictions, duty terms and taxes must be fully and correctly completed. If the customs authorities discover any omissions or non-conformance issues in the paperwork, the goods are normally held in limbo until she corrects the errors. Wholly compliant documentation generally requires full payment of all fees before the shipment is released.

Requirements for incoming and outgoing shipments vary greatly. A customs broker is commonly required to be knowledgeable of these regulations and guidelines and keep informed of changes to these terms and conditions. She normally received regular updates via e-mail to ensure she is aware of any changes in international trade policies and procedures. These informational bulletins typically come from countries around the world and frequently pertain to shipments of food, drugs, animals and fresh fruits, vegetables and plants.

Being well informed of the most current prerequisites for imports and exports helps eliminate shipping delays or confiscation of goods. These setbacks are often costly to the involved merchants. A successful customs broker can sometimes negotiate extensions for the clearance of goods until the proper documentation is obtained.

There are no prescribed educational requirements to become a customs broker. A bachelor’s degree in international trade or economics is often preferred. A number of colleges and trade schools offer courses in customs brokerage. Most customs brokers are required to pass a test and background check prior to being hired.

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Discussion Comments
By Glasis — On Feb 24, 2014

Customs brokers are licensed in the United States. To obtain a customs broker license, the applicant must pay a fee and take an examination.

Depending on a variety of factors, a customs broker license can take as long as one year to receive. There is also an appeal process for applicants who feel their test scores were wrong or whose applications are denied by the licensing authority.

The open-book exam tests the applicant's knowledge of tariffs, federal regulations and regulations directly related to work as a customs broker.

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