"Stuck in Customs" - how NOT to import goods into a neighboring country

A short while ago I decided to be clever and try to save a bit on shipping costs. I had priced out the cost of shipping all my orders to my Canadian backers and calculated that it would be a bit of a savings to ship them from Vancouver, BC, instead of Seattle, WA.So, one day after work, I loaded up the back of my trusty Honda Accord with packages:


Now, I was planning on declaring the goods I was carrying all along. I have no desire to be accused of being a smuggler, and I am sure Canadian prison would be no picnic. So I went ahead and printed copies of all the invoices and filled out a copy of a NAFTA Certificate of Origin documentation.

I got to the Peace Arch border crossing at Blaine at 8pm. 30 minute wait time at the border. Finally, it's my turn, and I hand over my passport to the CBSA agent.

CBSA: "What is the purpose of your trip?" Me: "I'm coming up to mail some packages, and visit a friend of mine" CBSA: "Is this for a company?" Me: "Well, I just started the company, so, yeah…" CBSA: "Okay, sir, you can't bring commercial goods into the country via this border crossing. You'll have to cross with all the trucks a mile down the road. Go talk to that officer over there, he'll direct you back into the US"

So I turned my car around, and got back in line to head back towards the US. Fortunately, at this time of the night, most Canadians have better things to do than visit the US, so the line was fairly quick at the border.

5 minutes later I pull up to the US Customs and Border Protection booth.

CBP: "How long were you in Canada?" Me: "Actually, I've never made it into Canada. I have commercial goods and I didn't know you weren't' supposed to cross at Peace Arch…" CBP: (Eying all the OpenBeam tubes in the backseat of my Accord) "What's in those tubes?" Me: "It's, uh, a construction toy" CBP: "Construction toy?" Me: "Yeah. Like Legos. For engineers" CBP guy starts scribbling something fast and furious onto a bright orange sheet of paper. I can't read it, but I doubt it's a drug prescription… CBP: "Okay, go talk to that officer over there - he'll tell you where to go" and slaps the said orange sheet of paper on my windshield.

I drive around to a very humorless and bored looking CBP officer, who made a slight twitching motion with his arm to tell me to "turn left". Seeing that the road winds up to a guard post, I drive up there, where I encountered a even more humorless and agitated looking CBP officer:

CBP2: "Where do you think you're going?" Me: "They said I was supposed to talk to someone. I guess you're it". CBP2: "What you are *supposed* to do is to go inside that building over there. And take that orange slip with you". Me: "Ok".

Turns out I was flagged for secondary inspection. So I took up a place in line behind a crying blonde woman and 3 college kids, aged 19, entering the US for a road trip.

Now, for those of you who's never had the pleasure of a CBP secondary inspection - these guys make post office workers look like type-A workaholics in a startup. For about 45 minutes, I watched as they typed away like trained chickens at a computer keyboard, ask a few questions, stamp the little orange sheet of paper - then walk away from the counter with said stamp, over to a row of desks, take a seat, and proceed to type away more like trained chickens at a computer keyboard.

Finally, after about 45 minutes (with just one party of three kids in front of me) it was my turn.

CBP3: "Where are you from?" Me: "Redmond, WA" CBP3: "What were you doing in Canada?" Me: "I was trying to bring some commercial merchandise over. Here's my paperwork, I didn't realize that commercial goods aren't allowed at this crossing".

And so for the next 3 minutes or so, the CBP officer would stare blankly at his screen and click a few keys here, type a few sentences there…

Suddenly, sirens sound. Over the intercom, I hear:

"Lane 2! Lane 2!!!"

And, for how lethargic the CBP officer had been, he immediately bolted out of his chair, along with his coworker, and they rushed out of the side door. I look over at the next booth to the 19 year old visiting the US for the first time and he looked back at me with the same bewildered look on his face. I think we were both expecting to hear gunshots.

Minutes went by, then as suddenly as the alert had begun, it was over. My CBP officer calmly walked back over to the counter.

Me: "What was that about?" CBP3: "Don't worry about it"

And so he continued typing into his computer, and every once in a while asking a seemingly random question or two.

CBP3: "Ever been convicted of a felony?" Me: "No." CBP3: "Ever been in trouble with customs before?" Me: "I had a ham sandwich in my backpack a few years ago flying back into the US." CBP3: "That's it?" Me: "That's all I can recall. Why, do you see anything else on there?" (and of course, he doesn't answer that last question).

Finally, he asked to search my car. "Go right ahead" - and hand him the car keys. A few moments later he came back

CBP3: "What are all these tubes?" Me: (Thinking: A hah. Finally we get to the issue at hand") "It's a construction toy. I am the business owner producing it." CBP3: "Where is it made?" Me: "Woodinville, WA. Do you want to open it and see?" CBP3: "No. Have a good night, Mr. Tam."

And, with that, he stamps my orange slip and send me on my way, a full 75 minutes after my attempt to cross back into the US.

Following the directions they gave me, I arrive 5 minutes later at the Blaine truck crossing. By now it's pushing 21:45. I got in line behind an 18 wheeler and pretty soon it was my turn to talk to CBSA again.

Now, you may take this for granted - but semi-trucks are REALLY, REALLY tall. And so, the booths in which CBSA agents sit are also REALLY, REALLY tall. I pull up to the station, roll the window down, unbuckle my seat belt, and reached up to hand the guy my passport and import paperwork. A nice older Canadian gentlemen looks back down at me.

CBSA2: "So, you're importing goods into Canada?" (eh) Me: "Yes. I have included the paperwork" CBSA2: (Flips through the paperwork, then pauses, then looks at the passport, then back down at me in my Honda Accord) "Are you importing this yourself?" Me: "Yes, I am" CBSA2: "Have you ever done this before?" Me: "No, sir. I'm a small business owner - just started the business" CBSA2: "So, you did all this paperwork on your own?" Me: "Yes, sir" CBSA2: "Okay. What I need you to do is go over there into the customs compound, and file the paperwork for a B3 clearance. Once you have that done, we'll let you into Canada"

Music to my ears, at this point. I pull into the customs building between two big 18-wheeler truck and trotted up the stairs, where I encounter my third CBSA agent for the night.

CBSA3: "Can I help you?" Me: "Hi, yes. I am trying to import something commercially into Canada. Here's my paperwork" CBSA3: (Flips through the stack of invoices I've printed and the NAFTA paperwork) "Do you have a Canadian Importer's ID number?" Me: "Uh…. no." CBSA3: "Okay, no problem. What you need to do is to go talk to the customs brokers across the street. Tell them you need a to have them process the paperwork for a B3 import and they'll issue you one. Once you have that, come back to me. Me: "Thanks!"

Across the street I go, and after a bit of searching, found the 24 hour customs brokerage office.

Me: "Hi. I am a small business owner and I'm trying to cross into Canada to mail some packages. Here's the package contents, and here's my NAFTA paperwork" Girl behind counter: "Um…. okay." (Starts flipping through paperwork, then calls her coworker over) "Uh, this gentlemen is an engineer and did all this paperwork for customs import… what do you want to tell him?" Guy behind counter: (makes a wincing face) - uh oh. "And you don't have a Canadian Importer's number?" Me: "No." Guy behind counter: "Well, I'm going to be honest with you. I can do this for you, and I can get you one. But it'll be a minimum of $400-$500 to do the paperwork, and… with how you have everything listed out, it'll probably be 10-12 hours of data entry on our end. Every item needs to show country of origin and the HTS codes. And frankly - with how much this is worth, you would have been much better off mailing it. Packages under $1600 don't usually get flagged by Canadian customs, and even if they do they let the package through and then send the guy a tax bill afterwards. Make it your client's problem when it comes to importing stuff".

Then, he continued to give me import advice that's probably worth the entire trip's hassle:

"Do you have a dealer? If you have a Canadian dealer / distributor, the easiest way would just be to drop ship them a big pallet of your stuff, and have them kit up the orders and ship them within Canada."

Me: "Okay. So can you give me a "Get out of jail free card" so I can go back home?" (Mentally I'm kicking myself for not having eaten dinner. I was expecting to be sitting in Vancouver's China Town slurping down a bowl of beef brisket noodles by now).

Guy behind counter: "Well, you're not in any trouble. You did the right thing by declaring what you have and all you have to do is to tell Customs that you aren't importing tonight. In fact, most people don't get as far as the NAFTA paperwork, so you're already ahead of the game. Say, what is all this anyway?"

Me: "It's a construction kit. Kinda like legos for engineers. Here's my card..."

So, I walk back to the customs building. By now, it's 22:15, and my stomach is grumbling.

Me: "I am not importing this tonight. Broker says it's too much hassle for the paperwork. What do I do now?" CBSA3: "Okay. I'll need to call you a police escort back to the border." (Into Radio: ) Do I have anyone available for a police escort back to the US border?

(Voice over radio:) Make of the truck?

Me: "Uh. It's, uh, a Honda Accord. License plate (censored)" CBSA3: (Into Radio: ) "It's a Honda Accord" (Voice over radio:) "It's a what?!?" CBSA3: (Into Radio: ) "Honda Accord. It's the only non-truck in the lot. You can't miss it. "Okay, head downstairs and wait for a unmarked silver Explorer. They are on their way" Me: "Thank you!"

One of these is not like the others...

Down at my Accord, the silver unmarked explorer pulls up, with two CBSA officers in it.

CBSA4: "You ready to go back home, sir?" Me: "Hey, I've got a question. I have a friend who is 5 minutes from the border. Can he bring my stuff across, and pay import duties on it? CBSA4: "Unless he's a registered customs agent, no, he cannot. You can only bring goods across for personal consumption or, in the case of a visitor, as a gift." Me: "Ah, okay. Thank you!"

And so away we went. The driver of the SUV thoughtfully waited to make sure I got through the security gates okay, then both officers got out to move a security barricade out of the way for me to cut into the truck crossing line.

CBSA4: "You should probably cross back through at the commercial truck crossing line. Here, just cut in behind the Audi pulled over to the side of the road. Have a good trip home!"

(Terence's note: If ever you were to be stuck in a foreign country's customs and immigration department, I highly recommend Canada. Nicest. People. Ever. I mean, every one of the CBSA folks I've talked to have been not just polite, but actually courteous and helpful. The only problem is that Canada is attached to the US…)

I drive up to the US CBP post, and again, reached up to hand over my passport.

CBP4: "How long have you been in Canada?" Me: (Oh, crap, not this again) "Uh, I, uh, never made it into Canada…"

and so the grilling, the vacant stare, the random questions and trained chicken typing at the computer begins again. After about 5 minutes:

CBP4 "I'm going to have to X-ray your vehicle before I can let you go" Me: "Okay…"

So they direct me around to the X-ray machine. Now, at Peace Arch, the lawns are nicely manicured, (we joke that each country must take turn mowing the lawn, or at least paying for gas for the lawn mower) and it's a generally nice and pleasant location, with a great view, for folks crossing back and forth. The truck crossing on the other hand … could use some TLC. It almost felt like I'm driving through a test chamber out of the hit PC game "Portal". Or "Portal 2", after years of neglect.

A bored looking CBP agent started flashing hand signals at me. I didn't realize it, but I'm actually *inside* the X-ray machine. Of course, I had no idea what the hand signals mean, so I drive a little closer to talk to him. Turns out that wasn't the right move.

CBP5: "Turn off the engine and get out of the car!" Me: "Oh. OH! DUH. It's an X-Ray machine."

I walked over to the CBP agent. "Hey, man. Do you think I can watch you X-ray my car?" I asked, with a grin on my face.

The CBP agent looks at me like I'm from Mars. "No". Then, sensing that perhaps I'm slower than the average truck driver, he points at a lead lined booth behind the control room of the X-ray machine. "Go wait in there".

As soon as I sat down in the leaded glass booth, alarm sirens came on and I hear LOUD mechanical humming noises. This proceeded for a good 5-10 minutes. (They probably had a hell of a time X-raying through the OpenBeam tubes and a metal car body...) Finally I hear a voice over the intercom. "Thank you!".

I walk back to the car, and the CBP guys were nowhere to be seen. They probably operate the X-ray machine from a lead lined bunker. I got into my car and zipped off - or zipped off as fast as a 4 cylinder Accord loaded with 500 lbs of metal can manage.

There was one more customs checkpoint! I didn't realize what it was until about 30 meters of the guard post, so I slammed on the brakes to face my final, humorless Customs and Border Protection agent of the night.

CBP6: "Where the hell do you think you're going?" Me: "Home." CBP6: "Where's home?" (as he looks over my passport) Me: "Redmond, WA" CBP6: (Does the vacant stare into computer screen and trained chicken typing routine) "How long were you in Canada?" Me: "I never made it into Canada"

Apparently satisfied with my answer (or maybe even starting to feel sorry for what I've went through that night) he handed my passport back to me. "Drive safe, Mr. Tam".

So, by now, it's 23:30 - a full 3.5 hours after I first pulled up to Peace Arch - and I head home, after stopping by at the first McDonalds I come across.



I'm happy to report that by the time you are reading this, all of my Canadian orders have now shipped out along with almost all of the European, Australian and Asian orders. In light of the experience with importing goods into Canada - the extra $15.00 per parcel doesn't seem like too bad of a hit.