We've all seen it: in the midst of a bustling, a couple of sad-eyed people sitting on folding chairs in an otherwise-empty booth space. Their exhibit didn't show up. But your pity quickly turns to panic: Could that happen to me?
It could. But it won't if you use an experienced international freight forwarder to ship materials for your meeting or exhibit and if you have all your customs documents in order before you ship.
The international freight forwarder is a crucial supplier. It will transport your shipment from one of its consolidation points in the United States to the airport or seaport. (Some forwarders will transfer shipments from your warehouse to the consolidation point.) And it will help with documentation. If you're shipping exhibit booths and exhibit materials, such as products for display, consider using an international exhibit freight forwarder. This specialized forwarder is more expensive but provides additional services, including delivering the freight to the stand (as booths are known outside the United States), unpacking, and storing empty crates during the show — and then reversing the procedure at the end of the show. In other words, the international exhibit freight forwarder usually — but not always, so be sure to ask — handles drayage, which in the United States is handled by a separate contractor.
Another important partner is the customs broker, who receives goods at the destination, declares the value of the shipment, processes the paperwork, and handles the payment of any fees required to clear the goods. You canseparately with a freight forwarder and a customs broker, but it makes sense to select a forwarder who is also a licensed customs broker, because it's a seamless process. Customs can be a hassle, and you want to simplify as much as possible.
Just as you are ultimately responsible for the accuracy of your income tax returns, even if you use a professional preparer, you as shipper are responsible for the completeness and accuracy of your customs documents, even if the international freight forwarder advises you and helps prepare the documents. So it's important for you to know which documents and information might be required. Here's an overview.
The commercial invoice and packing list are nearly always required. The commercial invoice lists all items being shipped (including exhibit booths) with their dimensions, weight, and value. The packing list itemizes the contents of each package or crate. You can combine that information into a single form. For items that will be displayed and then re-exported, not sold, be sure to list the cost of manufacture, not the selling price. Lists must be accurate and specific, so “exhibit materials” or “meeting room supplies” won't do. There's no official form for either the commercial invoice or the packing list, so you may use your company's own form, buy one at a commercial stationery store, or obtain one from your international freight forwarder. It's smart to prepare the forms in both English and the language of the country where the event is being held.
Certificate of Origin. Some countries require a certificate, separate from the commercial invoice, specifying the country of origin of the shipment. Your international freight forwarder can advise you, or you can check with the Trade Information Center of the U.S. Dept. of Commerce at (800) USA-TRADE.
FDA Export Certificate. Some countries require a separate certificate for FDA-regulated products such as pharmaceuticals, medical devices, dietary supplements, and cosmetics. The document certifies that these products meet FDA requirements for sale in the United States. Certificates can also be issued for products that meet FDA requirements but are not yet approved for sale in the United States. Generic information on requirements for these certificates is available at www.fda.gov/default.htm, but contact the FDA directly for current information on your specific products.
ATA Carnet. This is a “merchandise passport” issued by the United States Council for International Business (www.uscib.org). It certifies to customs officials that you are bringing in the merchandise only temporarily. If you do not re-export the merchandise, however, you will be subject to penalties.
The ATA Carnet may be used for most business-related items, including commercial samples, professional equipment, and goods for trade shows and exhibitions. Caution: Carnets do not cover consumable goods or samples that will be sold or given away.
Although a Carnet is not required, there are several advantages to using one. It's valid for a year and can be used for unlimited exits from and returns to the United States and foreign countries. The Carnet is currently accepted in 65 countries and 27 territories. It eliminates temporary import duties and value-added taxes (VAT). It is far less expensive than Temporary Importation Under Bond (see last item), which can reach 150 percent of the value of the shipment. Basic processing fees for the Carnet range from $200 to $330, plus a security deposit of approximately 40 percent of the value of the shipment. The deposit is returned if all terms of the Carnet are met. Finally, it simplifies customs procedures and re-entry into the United States.
Details on the ATA Carnet, and downloadable application forms, are available at www.uscib.org.
The Shipper's Export Declaration is a U.S. Census Bureau document that is required for most shipments valued at more than $2,500. Forms are available from your freight forwarder or from www.census.gov/foreign-trade/www.
Temporary Importation Under Bond. If you don't use a Carnet, you must post a bond to guarantee that the merchandise will be re-exported. A bond must be purchased — in cash — from a customs broker for each country on arrival in that country. TIB fees vary widely, and it can take from six to 24 months for that money to be returned.
Rayna Skolnik has written about meetings and expositions for more than 25 years. She is the author of “TSEA Guide to Successful International Exhibiting,” published by the Trade Show Exhibitors Association.
Finding the Right Freight Forwarder
A good international freight forwarder can guide you safely through this document minefield, helping determine which documents you need and making sure that everything is in compliance. To find an international freight forwarder, start by checking the listings of the following industry associations: International Exhibition Logistics Associates (www.iela.de), Trade Show Exhibitors Association (www.tsea.org), International Association for Exhibition Management (www.iaem.org), Center for Exhibition Industry Research (www.ceir.org), and the National Customs Brokers and Forwarders Association of America (www.ncbfaa.org). Also ask for suggestions from colleagues who have had good experiences with international exhibiting.
When you have a list of candidates, ask them the following key questions:
Experience — How long have they been in business? How many international events do they handle per year? If you are shipping specialized equipment, have they handled it before?
Services — Request a detailed list. How do they handle documentation? Customs clearances? Temporary Importation under Bond? Transportation to the consolidation center, then to the meeting or trade show site, and the return? If materials are being shipped to a trade show, will there be an on-site contact? Will that person speak both English and the local language?
Reputation — Ask for current references — names of other shippers with needs similar to yours, show organizers, and, if practical, managers at foreign facilities.
Affiliation — Does the forwarder belong to industry associations? (Affiliation with industry associations is a good indicator of professionalism.)
Rates — Request a comprehensive quote on something specific. The forwarder should provide a close estimate, which can help you compare price-value ratios for the forwarders that you are considering.