What You Need to Know about Customs Clearance

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Originally published in 2013 / Updated in 2017

South America is known for its corruption, although I have to say that during our 9 years of traveling on the continent we have hardly ever had to deal with this. Having said that, in South American ports it is not unlikely that you will find it.

There is nothing you can do about that. What you cán do, is to be prepared as well as possible in terms of port handling procedures and knowledge of shipping fees. It will save you time and hassle, and lessens the chances of having to hand out facilitation fees – to use a friendlier term than bribes.

The Paperwork

Although it varies per port or even per customs broker, papers you  probably need are:

  • Valid passport and visa (if required).
  • Valid international driver’s license.
  • Bill of Lading, the document that is issued by the shipping line when the container is loaded on board. The Bill of Lading proves ownership of that container.
  • Delivery Order, issued by the shipping line after arrival in the port of destination.
  • Car documents such as registration papers and third-party insurance.

A Carnet de Passage (a document that allows travelers to temporarily import their vehicles without having to leave a cash deposit at the border) is not required in South America. Having said that, a Carnet de Passage may facilitate the procedure, at least that was our experience when shipping to Argentina in 2007.

Read More: Carnet de Passage – What is it and When do you Need It?

The Use of a Customs Broker

There are two ways to arrange customs clearance:

  • Working independently. It has the advantage of not having the expense of hiring a customs broker; the disadvantage may be having to pay exorbitant shipping fees because of ignorance, or unnecessary prolongation of port handling procedures.
  • Hiring a customs broker. You will be certain of having to pay his fee but it may save a lot of time, stress and possibly extravagant charges.

Choosing to work with a customs broker may either be the result of personal preference or because the port authorities demand an intermediary in the person of a customs broker.

How to Find a Reliable Customs Broker

Where to find one:

  • At, or around, ports you may find men hustling and handing out business cards, trying to find customers. Talk to them and see if you find a click with one of them.
  • Tour the city and visit different customs brokers.
  • Ask your shipping line which customs broker they work with.

How to pick one:

  • Compare customs brokers and their quotes.
  • Price is important, but do not underestimate the value of having faith in a customs broker. Some of them are simply not interested in going through the motions of customs clearance for just one private vehicle, while others are happy to be of assistance. We find that having a good (reliable and pleasant) person to work with is more worthwhile than the lowest price.

Shipping Fees

  • The shipping line charges local taxes, logistic fees, Delivery Order, and THC Destino.
  • The Terminal, or Port, charges things such as verification, cargo de seguridad, cargo manipuleo, tasas a las cargas impuestos (price per ton).

Note that since you don’t import your car, you don’t pay import duty!

Read More: Car Shipping Rates and Shipping Terminology

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Specific Tips on Customs Clearance Procedures in South America

  • Before starting the official customs clearance, take the time for a chat. In Argentina, accepting a mate (a herbal tea) is an easy way to break the ice.
  • Never, ever be in a hurry – an essential South American rule in any bureaucratic rigmarole. If in a hurry, do not show it. My personal way to deal with this: I bring a book.
  • Feeling rested and being familiar with the surroundings before starting a port handling procedure avoids a lot of stress.
  • Master a few basic words in Spanish or Portuguese, just knowing the words hello and thank you may help a lot.
  • Visit customs brokers personally. There is a reasonable chance that the quote given by e-mail will be lower after a meeting with the customs broker.
  • Check websites of overlanders on experiences with customs clearance and current shipping fees. Here you find the overlanders who are currently on the road.

What are your experience with customs brokers and custom clearance procedures? Please share in the comment section below.

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