5 Tips for Simplifying Your Cross-Border Shipping

Aug 1, 2023

Nearly $2 billion worth of goods traverse the border between Canada and the U.S. each day. With that kind of volume, it follows that many well-prepared carriers and drivers find themselves hauling freight across the border regularly and without incident — but for a handful of unlucky ones, sudden customs delays threaten to disrupt shipping windows and frustrate customers, carriers and shippers.

Whether you’re a seasoned professional or preparing to ship goods across international lines for the first time, here are five keys worth observing to keep things running smoothly:

1. Check Your Documentation

Incomplete or out-of-date documentation is the primary reason shipments are stalled at the border. Border control and customs officials have infamously limited patience for missing or otherwise unsubstantial documentation, so you’ll want to make sure these documents are complete, easily accessible and up to date for a stress-free border crossing:

  • Shippers letter of instruction: This document should be completed by the shipper and given to the carrier in preparation for transportation, and include full start-to-finish instructions for the job.
  • Bill of Lading: This is a legally binding agreement between the shipper and the business providing the transportation. This should be created by the carrier and a copy given to the shipper.
  • Commercial Invoice: A commercial invoice is used as a customs document. While there is no internationally standard format, every commercial invoice should at least include:
    • Name and address of the buyer and seller
    • Detailed description of goods included
    • Country of origin
    • HS code for what is being shipped
    • Value of all goods
    • Terms of sale
  • Packing List: Similar to a commercial invoice, the packing list specifically includes the accurate count, weight, measurement and description of the cargo.
  • Certificate of origin: This certifies that goods were manufactured or processed within a particular country. It’s important because some countries will not accept goods produced or manufactured in certain countries.
  • Carrier Manifest: detailed document that serves as a record and inventory of items being transported by a carrier, such as a shipping company or a freight carrier. It includes essential information about the goods being shipped, the origin and destination of the shipment, and other relevant details necessary for the transportation process.
  • Driver Details: Include a valid passport and record-in-good-standing with the customs authority. It’s also a good idea to double check your driver’s license and other identification to be sure they’re up-to-date before crossing the border.

A simple checklist to review before each trip goes a long way toward catching those easily missable documentation gaffes. Make sure two sets of eyes go down the list before shipping out, ensuring all documentation is filled out and up-to-date.

It’s also wise to check your clearance status online before arriving at the border. Many large shippers and 3PLs have options to check a specific shipment’s status ahead of time, sparing you from a long phone call. Utilize the technology available to make things easy and seamless.

2. Have Your Customs Broker (or First Call) on Speed Dial

One of the best ways to mitigate potential international supply chain headaches is to choose a reputable logistics servicer with experience in cross-border shipping (sounds a lot like someone we know). A good 3PL partner offers the following advantages:

  • Established network contacts
  • Proven track record (also key to avoiding fraud posed by fake companies)
  • Positive customer reviews and case studies

3PLs that maintain good reputations among customs brokers can more easily resolve the occasional delay. If you have a customs broker you like to work with, it’s worth recommending them to the shipper to save time and stress when submitting your paperwork.

Of course, they can also help point you in the right direction — literally. Knowing which border crossing to take can save you time and fuel that may otherwise be wasted idling at inefficient or out-of-the-way crossings.

3. Respect Local Laws and Regulations

Understanding trade laws for the destinations to which you plan on shipping goods is a prerequisite for successful cross-border transport. Every country has its own set of rules and requirements; preparing in advance to accommodate these unique requirements will keep shipments on target for timely delivery and spare your drivers potential rejection or other delays at the border.

Here are a few examples of common border regulations:

  • Customs Documentation and Tariffs. Shippers should be aware of any specific tariffs and taxes that may apply to their goods in the destination country, as these can significantly impact the cost of shipping and the time it takes to clear customs.
  • Import/Export Restrictions and Licensing. Certain items, such as hazardous materials or restricted goods like firearms or pharmaceuticals, may require additional permits or compliance measures before they can be transported across borders.
  • Product Labeling and Packaging. Improper or inadequate labeling can result in customs delays, fines or even the rejection of the shipment.
  • Security Measures and Cargo Inspections. Many countries have strict security measures in place for cross-border shipments, particularly for high-risk goods or shipments originating from certain regions. Shippers should be prepared for potential cargo inspections.
  • Sanctions and Embargoes. Exporting goods to sanctioned countries or entities can lead to severe legal consequences, including fines and potential criminal charges.

Remember: getting into trouble with customs once might just get you a warning or a fine, but frequent mishaps can result in being blacklisted and frustrating your customers with extended shipping times.

4. Carefully Package & Label Your Freight

Labeling improperly can be catastrophic when it comes to delays and timelines. Take the time to double- and triple-check every label before anything is loaded up for transportation.

It’s also critical to use the right packaging for each shipment. No one wants to receive a parcel that has been damaged in transit — ensure your packaging is strong enough to withstand constant jostling and potential temperature changes throughout its journey.

Bear in mind the increasing importance of sustainability to today’s consumers. When you package goods, be sure to use sustainable materials whenever possible. Choose something recyclable rather than plastic bubbles to keep things protected and secure. This also keeps the size of the parcel down, making it easier to transport across borders.

5. Consider Potential Hazards

It’s impossible to plan for the unknowable, but that doesn’t mean all attempts at foresight should be thrown out the window either. Prepare a contingency plan for when things do go wrong, considering factors like hours of service, specific receiver requirements and ways of maintaining clear channels of communication.

Finally, don’t forget to ask other shippers and carriers in your area to find out what their experience crossing borders is like and value their advice when shared. It will save you in the long run!

BONUS TIP: Choose a trustworthy 3PL

Choosing a company with experience in crossing the border makes a big difference when it comes to streamlined shipments. An experienced third-party logistics partner reduces your risk of stressful delays considerably. Contact First Call Logistics today to find out how we can help make your cross-border shipping woes a thing of the past.

Simplify your Next Cross-Border Shipment with First Call Logistics

Building and managing cost-efficient supply chains is a full-time job. First Call’s rare combination of in-house assets, expert problem-solving and track record of stellar customer service makes us the 3PL of choice for business partners with a wide range of shipping needs.

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