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Types of Customs Holds and Exams: In Detail

There are several types of US customs inspections and holds that can occur during shipping. In this article, we lay them all down for you so that you can go through your shipment in a breeze.

Customs examinations are a vital component of international logistics, specifically in the context of freight and cargo shipping. When importing goods into the United States, such inspections can lead to significant delays and expenses, often causing frustration for importers. While it is possible to adopt measures to decrease the likelihood of an exam or manifest hold, a considerable aspect of the process remains beyond your control.

To effectively navigate these challenges, it is crucial to work with experienced customs brokerage professionals who possess a thorough understanding of the complexities surrounding customs examinations and holds. By adhering to best practices in international logistics and seeking appropriate support, you can minimize the impact of these events and ensure the prompt and efficient processing of your shipments.


The United States Customs and Border Protection agency (CBP) plays a vital role in regulating international trade entering and leaving the country. This includes enforcing trade, customs, and immigration rules, as well as collecting import duties.

Whether you choose Less than Container Load (LCL) or Full Container Load (FCL) shipping for your ocean freight, there is always a chance that your container could be held for inspection by US Customs. Inspections may be conducted randomly or due to suspected infringements. In either scenario, the shipper bears the responsibility for covering examination costs and any associated fees. As a result, it is essential to familiarize yourself with the various types of US customs inspections and holds that may occur during your shipment.

Types of US Customs Inspection Holds

1) Manifest Hold- A hold imposed on containers containing inaccurate manifest information.

A manifest hold occurs when the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) issues a notification for an international shipment, necessitating inspection by a Customs official. This procedure ensures the shipment's contents accurately correspond with the information stated on the manifest. Moreover, a manifest hold may be enforced if the cargo is suspected to pose a threat to public health or safety.

In the event of a manifest hold on your shipment, it must be presented to a customs officer for examination. The officer will validate that the shipment's contents align with the manifest details and confirm the absence of prohibited or restricted items. If the inspection reveals no issues, the officer will authorize the shipment for continued transport. However, should any inconsistencies arise, the officer may confiscate the shipment or impose a penalty.

While manifest holds are commonly associated with international shipments, they can also be imposed on domestic shipments if there is reason to suspect wrongdoing.

2) CET Hold (A-TCET)- A hold instituted by the Anti-Terrorism Contraband Enforcement Team on containers potentially harboring illicit contraband.

The US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has recently implemented an additional security protocol known as the Container Eligibility Test (CET). This process involves a comprehensive assessment of containers arriving in the US to establish their suitability for release. Containers failing the CET will be held (A-TCET) until they receive clearance from the CBP.

The Anti-Terrorism Contraband Enforcement Team carries out the CET to identify any illicit contraband in containers that could potentially present a terrorist risk to the US. This precaution not only mitigates the likelihood of terrorist incidents but also bolsters the safety and security of the nation's ports.

3) PGA/Commercial Enforcement Hold- A hold that can be applied by Participating Government Agencies (PGAs), such as the FDA, USDA, CPSC, and other organizations overseeing products entering the US, to ensure compliance with the appropriate regulations.

The Protected Geographic Indicator (PGA) program is designed to safeguard the intellectual property rights of producers of specific agricultural products across the globe. The PGA/Commercial Enforcement Hold is a measure enforced by Participating Government Agencies (PGAs), including the FDA, USDA, and CPSC, as well as other regulatory bodies overseeing products entering the US, to ensure compliance with relevant regulations.

Under the PGA program, the CBP possesses the authority to hold containers of imported goods that might encompass items subject to PGA protection. This hold prevents the goods from being released from CBP custody until it is verified that they do not contain any PGA-protected items.

When importing goods potentially subject to PGA protection, it is crucial to guarantee that your merchandise does not include any protected items. If you are uncertain about whether your goods fall under PGA protection, you may consult the CBP office responsible for overseeing the import of PGA-protected products.

4) Statistical Validation Hold- A hold imposed on containers when the items detailed on the manifest deviate from the anticipated weight, value, and other specifications.

The United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has recently introduced a refined strategy for the statistical validation of incoming containers, aiming to tackle cargo smuggling and other unlawful activities. This approach involves setting aside a predetermined percentage of containers for further inspection to verify the accuracy of information provided by shipping companies.

A Statistical Validation Hold is imposed on containers when discrepancies arise in the manifest details, such as weight or value, compared to expected values. The CBP is especially concerned about the considerable number of shipping containers entering the US without proper examination.

In line with this enhanced policy, a random selection of containers will be subjected to statistical validation holds. Shipping companies will be informed in advance if any of their containers have been designated for inspection.

Delay Fees From US Customs Hold

If your goods are detained by US customs, you may be subject to a delay fee. This charge arises when the merchandise is not released within the designated time frame set by US customs. The fee amount varies according to the type of goods and the length of the delay, encompassing row fees, demurrage fees (per day), shifting fees, and administrative fees.

When importing goods into the US, it is crucial to be aware of these fees and incorporate them into your financial planning. Additionally, you may want to contact US customs directly to inquire about any specific delays that could impact your shipment. By proactively addressing these concerns, you can prevent unexpected costs and expedite the release of your goods.


When the CBP flags your container for an inspection, they will perform a customs examination to determine whether to seize or release the cargo.

Here are the three types of customs examinations and their implications:

  1. The X-Ray Exam (VACIS exam)- Containers are subjected to an X-ray scan at the terminal. After reviewing the images, customs officials will either release the container or designate it for a further examination.

  2. The Tail Gate Exam- The container undergoes inspection at the pier, where a customs officer removes the container seal and conducts a physical examination of the shipment. If everything is deemed satisfactory, the container will either be released or forwarded for a final assessment.

  3. The Intensive Exam- The entire container is transported to a Customs Exam Site (CES), where an authorized agent removes all its contents. The shipment is then divided into individual parcels and boxes, ready for a thorough inspection of the cargo by a customs officer.


For those new to importing, handling customs examinations can be a difficult experience. As an importer starting out, it is likely that your initial shipments will face some form of US Customs scrutiny. Nonetheless, the tips below can assist you in decreasing the chances of future examinations:

  1. Ensure you have dependable partners in place (e.g., shipper, freight forwarder, US Customs broker) before finalizing the purchase.

  2. Consider obtaining a continuous bond if you intend to import multiple times.

  3. Discuss with your partner and submit documentation before completing the transaction.

  4. File ISF on time.

  5. Ensure your HTS number is correct.

  6. Ensure the valuation of your goods is correct.

  7. Avoid importing from high-risk countries.

  8. Determine necessary licenses or certificates from partner government agencies that may be involved.

  9. Investigate quota information and requirements for specific commodities before importing. Check out the US Customs and Border Protection website for more information.

For importers who frequently engage in international trade, it is strongly recommended to enroll in the Customs Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (CTPAT). This program prioritizes security in the supply chain, which permits CBP to forego examinations on such shipments, given that they are already deemed secure.


In conclusion, customs examinations are an integral aspect of international logistics, particularly in the realm of freight and cargo shipping. Importers may experience significant delays and costs due to these inspections, leading to frustration. While some measures can be taken to reduce the probability of an exam or manifest hold, importers must acknowledge that a large part of the process is out of their control. Collaborating with knowledgeable customs brokerage professionals is essential for effectively managing these challenges. By following best practices in international logistics and obtaining the necessary support, importers can mitigate the effects of customs examinations and holds, ultimately ensuring the timely and efficient processing of their shipments.


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