Customs compliance manuals – tips for importers

Since a customs compliance manual is evidence of reasonable care under the Customs Modernization Act, an astute importer will maintain such a manual to demonstrate a proactive stance with regard to compliance.  In fact, creation and maintenance of an accurate and up-to-date customs or trade compliance manual can help to mitigate certain types of customs errors and penalties (provided that the steps in the manual are followed).  In addition, a customs compliance manual is typically required for both C-TPAT and ISA program acceptance.

Following are a few tips for maintaining and providing access to a compliance manual.

Internal use

Following best practices, an importer should maintain its compliance manual electronically.  The document is uploaded to the corporate intranet site, a SharePoint site or the like.  For version control purposes, the preferred approach is for the document to be stored in portable document format (PDF), read/view only or otherwise write-protected.

To the extent hard-copy versions of the manual are distributed internally, these manuals should contain a disclaimer, with a print date, that printed versions are for reference only, and that the electronic copy is the control copy (also helps to satisfy ISO9000 controlled document requirements).

Providing manuals to third parties

When US Customs requests a copy of the trade compliance manual, many importers provide a hard copy of the document, neatly arranged in a binder(s), with tabs for easy reference.  Some provide the entire manual, while others provide the specific section of the manual that CBP requests.  It is good practice to include the version control disclaimer mentioned above, so that Customs can see that the importer values the integrity of their compliance documentation.

Depending on the Customs representative’s request, some importers provide – instead of or in addition to the hard copy – a digital version of the manual on a flash drive or a compact drive.  In this case, it is best to ensure that the document on the disc is write-protected.  Most importers shy away from providing Customs with access to a company intranet to view a compliance manual, in order to maintain security of the corporate firewall.

Often, other third parties – usually a customs broker or a customer or supplier – may request a copy of the importer’s customs compliance manual.  As for brokers, since generally they are intimately tied into the import process, it makes sense that each of the broker’s employee handling an account is provided with the importer’s customs compliance manual (following the safeguards discussed above).  Alternatively, an importer may create a broker-specific manual, which the broker will use to create their internal SOP for the importer’s account.

Conversely, when a customer or supplier requests the manual, there may not be a need to provide the manual.  An importer may instead provide a certification that that it is in possession of a manual and adheres to the procedures outlined in the document.  Of course, whether to provide the manual to customers or suppliers may depend on any contractual obligations or the nature of the relationship between the parties.

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