A Definitive Guide to Customs Holds and Exams

A Definitive Guide to Customs Holds and Exams

In this guide, you will learn about the various types of Customs holds and examinations placed on goods upon their arrival to the United States.

The Issue 

The 9/11 attacks in New York marked the beginning of a precautionary era, which has directly affected the operations of international agencies and homeland security authorities. Before this, the main priority of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection was simply to prevent the smuggling of illegal substances into the country and to avoid importers from misclaiming the value of imported goods. CBP’s responsibilities have since shifted and extended to protecting the country and monitoring any security risk that may come in from international grounds. 

The Result 

Nowadays, the U.S. Customs targets, pulls, and examines any questionable shipment that enters the United States. With an automated scoring and flagging system, Customs inspectors are able to identify and review potentially faulty shipments. 

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Who pays if my LCL shipment is selected for a Customs Exam?

If your LCL shipment is selected for an exam, then the costs per container will proportionally be divided between the importers depending on how much space their goods occupy in the container.

How long do Customs Exams take?

The duration of Customs Exams vary depending on exam intensity, port capacity, and labor capabilities. Here’s a general timeline:

  • X-Ray Exams can take 2-3 days. 
  • Tail Gate Exams can take 5-6 days. 
  • Intensive Exams can take 5-7 days.

How long will my customs exam take if I’m shipping via air?

Shipment exams will only take a couple of days, as air cargo is handled on an individual or loose basis, and doesn’t require much labor to break down or pack up the contents.

Why is there a hold on my goods if Customs has already examined it?

Oftentimes this means that other federal agencies have requested for Customs to hold your products for  further examination of samples. There are two types of holds that allow this: Commercial Enforcement Hold and PGA Hold.

How does CBP select shipments for examination or holds?

CBP is very secretive about its targeting and examination tactics, but there are known key factors that affect this process. Some things that CBP takes into consideration: 


  • If you’ve imported before: first-time importers have a higher risk of getting their goods examined. 
  • Country of Origin: if your goods are coming from a country with a high-security alert, your goods are likely to be selected for examination.
  • Type and Commodity: if your goods are questionable or dangerous, they will be selected for examination. 
  • Import Documentation: CBP looks at the documents entered into its Automated Manifest System (AMS) and the Importer Security Filing (ISF) prior to importation. 

Ultimately, providing correct information will help you avoid customs holds and exam charges when your goods arrive in the United States.

What types of Customs Holds are there? 

There are five common types of Customs Holds, they are as follows: 

  • Manifest Hold - This is based on the provided data or the lack of crucial information on the ISF or on the carrier’s manifest.
  • Commercial Enforcement Hold - As the auditor for Federal Agencies, the U.S. Customs may place a shipment on a Commercial Enforcement Hold, if they do not meet the standards of the FDA, USDA, CPSC, and other government agencies. 
  • Statistical Validation Hold - Shipments are selected ‘statistically’ for verification of manifested or reported commodity, its value, weight, and quantities. 
  • CET Hold (A-TCET) - Anti-Terrorism Contraband Enforcement Team- All dangerous substances and items, such as guns and drugs, are placed under this type of hold. 
  • PGA Hold - Participating Government Agencies (PGA)- Products are placed under PGA hold when any government agencies instruct CBP to place a hold on a given shipment, to make sure that it meets U.S. standards. The participating agencies are as follows: 

 - FDA- Food and Drug Administration

- USDA- United States Department of Agriculture

- CPSC- Consumer Product Safety Commission

Who will notify me if there’s a hold on my shipment? 

The U.S. Customs sends an electronic notification to the broker and importer about any Customs holds. 

How much do Exam Charges cost? 

The cost of Exam Charges vary depending on intensity. Here’s an overall price breakdown: 

  • X-Ray Exam: fees range anywhere from $150 to $350 per container, depending on its size and the port location of the container. 
  • Tail Gate Exam: fees range from $150 to $350 per container, again, depending on the size and port location. 
  • Intensive Exam: fees for this exam will run between $1000 to $2,500 or more per container, as it requires extra labor, trucking, etc.