November 25, 2011
strategic insight | Global Logistics - The Americas

Seven steps to speedier border crossings

Seven steps to speedier border crossings

Border crossings can be time-consuming and unpredictable. Here are some tips on how to minimize delays.

By Toby Gooley

At a time when virtually all customs information is transmitted electronically and free trade agreements abound, you might assume that crossing international borders would be a piece of cake. For the most part, it is easier than it was in the past, but the act of bringing goods out of one country and into another continues to be a source of delays and headaches for international traders everywhere.

There are dozens of reasons why border crossings continue to bedevil importers and exporters. Sometimes, the problems are caused by errors or inconsistencies in documentation. Other times, delays are due to security concerns, poor timing, or even inadequate packaging, to name but a few possibilities.

Although each company's situation is unique, there are some steps everyone can take to minimize the risk of border-crossing delays. Here are just a few tips, with an emphasis on the U.S. border with Mexico.

1. Know when to go. International trade may take place 24/7, but that doesn't mean border crossings are staffed around the clock. For that reason, it's helpful to know when inspection stations will be staffed. Most of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) personnel at the land borders are union members and their hours are strictly scheduled, notes Arnold Maltz, associate professor, supply chain, at Arizona State University. Even if a crossing is staffed around the clock, there may be just one lane open at off hours. "If you don't go when CBP is going to be staffing all of the booths at a crossing, you're kidding yourself if you think you're going to avoid congestion," he says.

It's important, too, to be aware of holidays on both sides of the border. "Mexican, U.S., and Canadian holidays aren't the same, so every now and then someone runs into a problem because it's not a holiday here but it is on the other side, and nobody's working," Maltz says.

2. Watch your weight. Container and trailer weights that may be acceptable in one country may not be allowed in another. Inbound containers that are too heavy for over-the-road travel may have to be moved to another location and their contents transloaded into a larger container, two trailers, or a truck that has the required number of wheels for extra-heavy loads.

Allowable cargo weights for U.S., Canadian, and Mexican are not uniform. In Mexico, for example, carriers sometimes have to unload containers and trucks before they cross the border, says Maltz, who advises shipping loads that will be acceptable on both sides of the border. "The weight has to be legal before the cargo hits U.S. roads," he says.

3. Get everyone on the same team. It's not necessary for the freight forwarder in the exporting country and the customs broker in the destination country to be from the same company or the same forwarders' network, but it can sometimes help speed shipments along. That's because both forwarder and broker will be using the same information system, and they generally will follow the same protocols for communication and documentation, making for consistent processes and a fast, efficient exchange of information.

Big companies that move a lot of merchandise across borders on a daily basis often eliminate communication worries by having their own customs brokers on staff.

4. Know all the players. Customs authorities aren't the sole decision makers on the border. Depending on the product, other government agencies, such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Department of Agriculture, may have a say in whether a shipment enters the country. Furthermore, state agencies often station their own inspectors at border crossings, and Canada and Mexico have their own agencies that screen and inspect shipments. Knowing in advance which agencies on both sides of the border have authority over a product or commodity and providing them with the necessary documentation will reduce hold-ups.

The trucks themselves may be subject to inspections by multiple agencies. The U.S. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) inspects trucks on both borders, and state highway patrols often work alongside FMCSA personnel. It's wise, then, to verify in advance that the motor carrier and the imported merchandise meet both federal and state requirements.

5. Get certified. Shippers that participate in voluntary government- and privately sponsored security programs generally do benefit from faster clearance, fewer inspections, and privileges like authorization to pre-clear cargo prior to arrival. It takes time, effort, and money to earn those certifications, but it generally is well worth it. "Investing a lot of effort in participating in certification programs in Europe, Brazil, and the United States has really paid off," said one attendee at a session on international trade at the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals (CSCMP) 2011 Annual Global Conference. To get the full benefit, encourage suppliers and other supply chain partners to get certified under U.S. and foreign cargo security programs, such as CBP's Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT), Europe's Authorised Economic Operator (AEO) program, Canada's Partners in Protection (PIP), Sweden's StairSec, and Australia's Frontline.

6. Be realistic about how long it will take. It's unrealistic to assume that any two shipments will take the same amount of time to cross the border, even if they're identical. Factors like time of day, time of year, local traffic conditions, and security alerts levels can greatly affect the time it takes to cross a border.

Border crossing times for northbound cargo from Mexico can be highly variable. Research conducted earlier this year by Prof. Miguel Gastƒ³n Cedillo-Campos of Mexico's National Council of Science and Technology found that on average, it takes just over one hour for a truckload shipment from Mexico to the United States to process documentation, transfer to local drayage, and pass through Mexican customs—if, that is, the driver gets a green light when he presses the "go or no go" button, and no inspection is required. A red light, signaling that an inspection is required, will add 98 minutes on average. If after the primary inspection the driver gets another red light and undergoes a secondary inspection, tack on another 98 minutes.

Once the truck leaves Mexican customs, it takes another 207 minutes on average to cross into the United States, undergo another primary cargo inspection, clear U.S. customs, undergo a truck safety check, and drop the trailer for the linehaul carrier. Get tapped as a security risk and the resulting secondary cargo inspection will add an average of **ital{30.5 hours} to the transit time.

The lesson: Plan for the worst (i.e., secondary inspections), and time all downstream logistics and distribution activities accordingly.

7. Explain yourself. Anything out of the ordinary—unusual packaging, a new product or supplier, a sudden change in routing—could raise suspicions and trigger unnecessary inspections. Let customs authorities at the port of entry know of the change in advance, and offer to show samples or demonstrate a new procedure. One attendee at the CSCMP session said that when her company began using a new type of high-security container seal, she sent a sample of the seal and a video showing how the seal was applied to CBP officials at the U.S.-Mexico border. "They really liked it, and we had no problems," she said.

About the Author

Toby Gooley
Senior Editor
Before joining DC VELOCITY and its sister publication, CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly, where she serves as Editor, Toby Gooley spent 20 years at Logistics Management covering international trade and transportation as Senior Editor and Managing Editor. Prior to that she was an export traffic manager for 10 years. She holds a B.A. in Asian Studies from Cornell University.

More articles by Toby Gooley

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