I wrote previously about the extortionate “brokerage” fees charged by UPS and FedEx for imports into Canada. That post has attracted a huge volume of response from other enraged people. I have learned more since then, including an interesting response direct from the Canada Border Services Agency.
If you contact UPS, they’ll tell you that you can indeed clear your package through customs yourself, but you have to do so at the customs office in the same town as the UPS depot where your shipment is being held. For me, receiving shipments into Ontario, it would either be Fort Erie or Windsor. They can’t tell you in advance which it will be. But either way, it’s a long drive.
One option that might be acceptable for some people is to use a shipping depot inside the US. You just have your package shipped to the depot. They’ll hold onto it for you until you come get it. Some of them, remailing services, will actually ship it on to you themselves, but then you may end up getting the same brokerage treatment again.
I was considering trying CBI Usa in Niagara Falls, NY. Their rates seem very reasonable, they’re easy to use, and I’ve seen mostly positive experiences reported on the web. But still, it’s a regrettable amount of driving.
I contacted Canada Border Services Agency by email to get their take on doing your own customs clearance:
I’m trying to find a way to import a package by UPS from the US. I refuse to pay their extortionate brokerage fee. I would sooner burn the money than gave it to those bastards (more colourful terms come to mind, but I’m trying to keep this polite.)
As I understand it, I have no choice but to deal with the Customs office in the town where they hold my package, which is going to be either Fort Erie or Windsor. I don’t know why that is, there’s a customs office at the KW airport 15 minutes drive from me, but there it is. But UPS can’t tell me which in advance which office the package would go through. I’d guess Windsor.
After I found out which of those two offices it was, would it be possible for me to complete the clearance process by phone, fax or Internet? It’s a simple process, right? I just give you the Harmonized Codes, you calculate what I owe, and I pay you, probably by credit card. No part of this strictly requires my physical presence. I can’t see any good reason why, in this day of high-speed Internet in every home, I can’t do this whole process in my pyjamas from the comfort of my bedroom.
If we can’t figure out a reasonable way to do this without uselessly converting another tank of fuel into greenhouse gases, then it just won’t happen. I’m not going to pay off those UPS criminals to do this trivial thing (and probably do it wrong) on my behalf. Or rather, it probably will happen, but it will happen by way of me driving to the US to pick up the package myself from a maildrop service. It’s actually a shorter drive to Niagara Falls, NY than to Fort Erie.
But it would be really damn stupid for me to have to do that. There has to be a better way. Tell me what it is.
When I said UPS would probably do the clearance wrong, I wasn’t kidding. My first ever experience with courier brokerage was some X-10 home-automation gear imported via FedEx. After I learned more about this stuff, I figured out that they had use the wrong Harmonized Codes for some of the gear. Because they basically had no idea what the stuff was, they were just looking for similar-sounding words. Fortunately, the codes they picked had the same (ie, zero) tariff rates, so I didn’t get burned that way.
CBSA’s first response to this email was unhelpful, merely referring me to web-pages about Licensed Customs Brokers, and Importing Non-Commercial Goods By Mail. Both of which I had already read, and which did not address the essential question: can I deal with customs at my local office, or by phone, fax, or email, and if not, why not?
After a long delay, I received a second rather more helpful response:
This is in response to your e-mail concerning the clearance of non-commercial goods imported by courier. It should be noted that your inquiry was originally forwarded to Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) Client Services in Windsor, Ontario, who attempted to contact you in person to discuss your concerns. Client Services was unable to reach you, thus requiring the preparation of a written reply, and hence the delay in responding.
In some instances, an individual who has imported goods by courier may wish to pay the duties and taxes owing for a shipment released under the Courier Program rather than using the accounting services of the courier or agent. Such shipments do not have to be accounted for at the office of release, but may be accounted for at any CBSA office. In situations such as these, the courier does not automatically release the shipment to the importer, but holds the goods until the importer presents satisfactory proof that the appropriate duties and taxes have been paid directly to the CBSA. In most cases, this would be a copy of the B15, Casual Goods Accounting Document. The importer is responsible for contacting the courier to make the necessary arrangements for this type of transaction.
It should be noted that every person who accounts for casual goods should provide, at the time of accounting and before the goods are released, a commercial invoice, current price list, bill of sale, or other similar document that describes the goods and contains enough information to enable an officer to determine the tariff classification and appraise the value for duty of the goods. In the case of courier shipments, the importer must also provide the unique shipment identifier number assigned by the courier to his or her particular shipment.
Payment of any applicable duties and taxes on casual importations can be made in cash, by money order, traveller’s cheque, bank draft, cheque, Visa, or MasterCard. Payment by debit card is also available at a number of sites.
Although the CBSA allows approved clients to transmit data electronically, this is not the case for casual, non-commercial importers such as you. Accounting for your goods must be done in person, and any monies owing must be paid at the time of accounting.
For additional information and/or clarification on accounting for casual importations, please contact Border Information Service (BIS) by telephone. You can access the BIS line free of charge throughout Canada by calling 1 800-461-9999. If you call during regular business hours (8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. local time, Monday to Friday, except holidays), you can speak to an agent by pressing “0” at any time.
Thank you for contacting the CBSA.
Now that’s more like it! Straight from the horses mouth: UPS is full of shit. You can do your own customs clearance at your local customs office, you don’t have to drive to Windsor or Fort Erie!
Here’s a forum posting where a guy (“Drehkraft”) claims to have done it (“UPS REALLY hates this.”). He even used the same Kitchener airport terminal customs office I would use. I stopped by that customs office and asked them in person if I could do it, and they said it was no problem from their end.
That said, I haven’t yet actually done this myself. It remains to be seen if UPS will throw up arbitrary obstacles (“the B15 document must be faxed to us on yellow paper between 3:00am and 3:01am.”) But there is some homebrewing gear I’ve been planning to buy, hopefully I’ll get around to trying it soon.