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Policies & Procedures

by Duff McCutcheon
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Apart from some potentially long line-ups, and assuming your past isn’t too blemished by Johnny Law, crossing the border into the United States should be a relatively pain-free exercise as long as you’ve crossed all your ’T’s and dotted all your ’I’s.

If you haven’t, or – God forbid – you arrive at the border before your paperwork does, you could be in for a world of frustration, not to mention a load that’s not going anywhere fast.

For many readers, much of what follows may be old hat, but here’s a brief refresher on what’s expected – from picking up a U.S.-bound load, through to arrival at the border.

Full Load
After securing the load from the exporting shipper, it’s up to the driver to secure the bill of lading as well as customs documentation.

With this information, along with information on what port you’ll be crossing at, and your expected time of arrival, the driver sends a fax request to a customs broker. “Most brokers need this information three hours in advance of arrival at the border,” says Larry Hahn, director of regulatory affairs with Livingston International. “And if you’re carrying food product, you may need to provide that information four hours in advance.”

The customs broker needs this three-, or four-hour window because they require about two hours to assemble the information and present it to agents with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at your targeted port. Customs, in turn, needs an hour to process the information. All this must be completed prior to your arrival at the border.

Less than truckload
“LTL shipments are a little easier because normally drivers make the pickup and bring it back to their hub, where they consolidate and assemble many shipments before heading to the border,” says Hahn. Most LTL carriers will ask the same questions when they’re doing the pick-up: Do you know the broker handling this clearance? Do you have the customs documentation? The pick-up driver normally brings this back to dispatch, who will then fax all the documentation to the broker. Once the broker has acknowledged the load is in the system, the truck will head for the border.

“In some cases, the LTL carrier will not even load the trailer until they’re certain that the documentation will be submitted to U.S. customs,” says Hahn.

Most customs brokers now offer some form of web-based track-and-trace tool to inform drivers that the relevant information has been submitted to customs.

“If they don’t find this info, the driver should call the broker to find out if there’s any issues with the documentation that may cause delay at the border,” says Hahn. “The last thing you want is a fine for arriving before CBP has had a chance to process your information. Since last spring when the law came into effect, drivers arriving ahead of their information can expect fines of $5,000 for the first offence, and fines of $10,000 for subsequent offenses.

Common Problems
Beating your customs information to the border is something you want to avoid, but there are other pitfalls, too.

Among the most common problems seen by Livingston are customs brokers not receiving a full set of documentation. “It’s hard for the driver to know if it’s all there. If the shipper has provided a three-page document, along with some additional information, often someone will fax only two or three pages thinking they’ve faxed everything we need. Later, we find out that we’re missing some key information, and that prevents us from even filing the release request with customs. We encourage drivers to fax all pieces of paper and allow the broker to decide what they need or don’t need.”


Unreadable faxes are another problem. Sometimes today’s fax technology will automatically shrink the fax image to the point where it’s impossible to read. Hahn suggests drivers provide a contact number – perhaps a cell number or dispatch’s number along with the fax so the broker can get in touch if there’s a problem.

And if the count on the bills doesn’t match the count in the trailer, watch out. “That’s not the driver’s fault, but if customs does an examination and they find overages, there’s going to be significant delays as they sort it out,” Hahn advises. “And there’s often some form of penalty to follow.”

A port is a port is a port, you say? Not necessarily. While crossing the Canada-U.S. border requires the same paperwork no matter where you go, regional protocols may be different – and there are inconsistencies.

Ron Cameron of Liberty Linehaul in Ayr, Ont., says the bulk of his company’s freight runs across the four main southern Ontario crossings: Queenston-Lewiston, Buffalo-Ft. Erie, Detroit-Windsor, and Port Huron-Sarnia. “There are major differences in how they do things at even those ports, which are only a few hundred kilometers from each other,” he says.

“At Ft. Erie (Peace Bridge), for example, if I’ve got five different shipments on the truck from five different brokers, I can put all of them on one manifest. If I take those same five orders through Detroit, I have to do a manifest for each broker. And in Detroit, because I have more than three shipments – a trap load – I have to go inside to clear it. That can take upwards of an hour and a half.”

You even get discrepancies from different shifts of customs officers at the same port, according to Cameron. He says he’s crossed at Port Huron during the day, done something, only to be told, ‘no, this is how to do it.’ “And then I’ll cross during the night shift, do it how the day shift said, and be told, ‘no, you do it this way.’”

Recently Cameron had a household goods shipment crossing at Ft. Erie. His driver arrived, and the officers on duty told him he wasn’t following the rules properly. The driver called for advice. Cameron phoned the customs superintendent, who realized the driver was right and had to explain to his staff what to do.

“It’s incredibly frustrating,” Cameron laments. “The biggest gripe we have as carriers regarding the border crossings – and this is for both countries – is inconsistency in the implementation of policies, and the officers’ understanding and interpretation of them. That’s the biggest beef.”

But of course, no one dares to complain too much. Customs officers have long memories, it seems. “It’s a very fine line to walk,” says Cameron. “I can phone down and yell at a customs officer, but the minute I hang up the phone, my driver just became his. And I’m not going to subject a driver to an officer in that kind of mood.”

Too much time; too few trucks
Yanke Group president, Scott Johnston, says ports that don’t have the same volumes of commercial traffic – like, say, the miles of trucks that cross between Windsor and Detroit every day – can be far more sticky in their dealings with truckers.

“Some of our operators have been with us for years, and they cross at major ports like Blaine, Wash. or Sarnia, Ont. without incident, but have crossed at smaller ports like Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. and have been refused access [because of a criminal record, or even having been fingerprinted at some time],” says Johnston. “Then they’re told to apply for a waiver or something.”

That can put a serious cramp in a driver’s – and carrier’s – ability to find lanes.

“You find certain emphasis changing from port to port: interpretations, how mandates are interpreted, and the reality of logistically managing and enforcing the regulations – I think to some degree that’s just human behaviour,” observes Johnston.

“Applying regulations at the Emerson, Man. crossing, might be quite different logistically than applying the same rule in Windsor or Sarnia where you don’t have the real estate to stage a lot of trucks. They might be more apt to give you the once-over in the Soo, whereas in Windsor, they want to get you out of there to avoid the miles-long lineups. They’ve got no place to put you, they’re trying to clear the loads, and trying to facilitate commerce. The smaller crossings? The customs agent’s not going for lunch for 45 minutes so he’s got lots of time. Does the officer at Coutts have certain flexibilities unavailable to the officer at Windsor? You bet.”

Cameron puts it down to different management styles. Just as different trucking companies are governed by markedly different management styles according to the executive talent at the helm, so too are border facilities run by directors that set their own policies – at least to a degree. They follow the rules issued by “head office,” but they can have their minor variations, “which is where we’re running into trouble.”

Or they may have different lookouts on particular kinds of traffic – very much port-specific kinds of things, according to Maureen Celmer, vice president of Livingston International’s U.S. Customs brokerage operations.

“It’s supposed to function the same, but the local customs officials do have the authority to decide what is or isn’t important on a shipment-by-shipment basis. So you can visit one port and not experience any problems, and visit another with the same issue and find lots of additional questions being asked.”

So what’s the best way to deal with some extra attention at a border you’re not usually accustomed to? Keeping a level head is always a good idea, because getting into a shouting match with someone with the power to arbitrarily keep you out of his or her country is never a good idea. Your best bet is to arm yourself with intelligence on the port – even the particular shift you’ll be dealing with. Are they hard-asses? Are they sticklers for paperwork? Check with your dispatcher or operations manager, or other drivers that have crossed there before so you’ll be prepared.