We’ve all heard the phrase “held at customs,” but how many of us fully know what that means? If you’re a small business, it’s a phrase you need to understand—and avoid.
Any package sent to an international destination requires a customs postage form, or more specifically, a customs declaration form. Even shipments sent to U.S. Territories or Military bases require customs forms in some cases. There are exceptions when it comes to traditional letters and postcards. For example, a correspondence sent via First-Class Mail International® that weighs under 16 oz. is exempt from customs.
Be prepared for a lot of exceptions and phrases like “it depends.” But don’t despair. This crash course in customs postage will walk you through the basics and provide resources for more information.
What a customs form is—and why you need one
Customs is complicated, but its purpose isn’t. A customs form is simply a declaration and an acknowledgment: it declares a package’s contents and value and it acknowledges that the sender has complied with international shipping laws.
The form is included on the package so that the destination country can validate its contents are not prohibited and determine if any duties or taxes are applicable.
How to fill out a customs form and avoid customs holds
Customs forms require much of the same information you need to create a domestic shipping label: names and complete addresses of both sender and receiver, weight and dimensions of the package, date sent, invoice number and terms of payment.
In addition to shipping information, a customs form requires information about the package’s contents:
- Quantity of items
- Description of each item
- Value of each item
Simple enough. But here’s where many online sellers run into trouble and why some end up with shipments in the dreaded “held for customs” zone:
- Incomplete forms: This one is easily avoided by completing your customs form and contacting your carrier about any information you’re unclear about.
- Unpaid duties or taxes: Unless you’ve prepaid any duties or taxes, your customer or recipient is responsible for paying these. And the amounts differ by country.
- Restricted or prohibited items: There is a long list of items that can’t be shipped internationally. There are also country-specific restrictions and prohibitions.
This is where purchasing postage online through a carrier or carrier-approved shipping service becomes so valuable. Most major carriers and online shipping services automatically generate the country-appropriate customs form for your destination and prepopulate it with your shipping label information. All you have to do in many cases is correctly list and assign value to the items in your shipment.
Remember, specific requirements for customs documents vary by service and destination. Be sure to confirm what is needed for that carrier and country before sending.
International shipping prohibitions (items you can’t ship)
A good rule of thumb for your international shipments: If it can’t be shipped within the U.S., it can’t be shipped from the U.S. You can, and should, refer to the USPS® list of International Shipping Prohibitions & Restrictions. But it includes much of what you’d expect, like flammable items, poisons and cigarettes. Hand sanitizer and flammable sanitizing wipes have joined that list recently as well.
Some items are restricted, meaning they can be sent if they meet certain criteria. For example, paint: Flammable paint products may not be shipped internationally. Latex Paint or water-based paint products are not restricted. Again, you can find a more complete list on the USPS website.
Many countries have additional restrictions and prohibitions. Thankfully, USPS also has a complete Index of Countries and Localities that includes those prohibitions as well as postage information. It’s important to review this country-specific information before shipping to a new customer location.
Other burning questions about customs declaration forms
How do I attach customs forms to my USPS packages?
Depending on the carrier, package type, and destination, you'll print one of two customs forms. For many carrier services, your customs form is combined with the shipping label you attach to your package. Some deliveries require a multi-page form that should be attached using a clear envelope. It’s also a good idea to include a copy of the customs form inside your shipment.
You can learn more about the forms required by your carrier on their website.
Will my package be subject to customs charges?
It depends. But yes, many packages are subject to taxes and duties when they arrive at their destination. These customs duties and taxes are not covered in your postage fees. In general, the buyer is responsible for paying these additional costs.
If you’re a small business shipping to a customer in another country, there are two methods for paying these duties:
- Deliver Duty Paid (DDP): You, the seller, pay any duties and taxes associated with the shipment. Some online merchants include customs charges as part of their customer’s total shipping costs.
- Deliver Duty Unpaid (DDU): Your customer is responsible for paying all customs charges to release the shipment from customs and have it delivered.
How do I calculate customs postage?
Customs postage is not accurate here, since postage only covers the cost of shipping. What you really want to ask is how do you calculate customs duties.
Calculating and collecting fees and taxes can be challenging for new sellers. Online calculators can simplify your international shipping cost calculations, including customs duties. So can carrier websites and online shipping services.
Simplify the customs forms process with PitneyShip
Purchasing international postage from an online shipping service like PitneyShip simplifies the customs form process by automatically providing the required country-appropriate customs forms to include with your package. The easy-to-use interface walks you through the steps for filling in both your international shipping label and customs forms.