Operations & resources

A day in the life of a customs agent

Customs agents now have to process more paperwork than ever before due to Brexit. This increased workload can lead to delays in goods passing through customs, and even cause disruptions in the supply chain.

You might think the handling of customs information is routine and well frankly boring, but the reality can be very different.

I review the manifests of the ferries to determine if any unexpected diversions have been made and assess what impact this may have on our operations. It is also important to consider how much space will be available for new trucks in upcoming sailings. To ensure smooth sailing, I assign priority bookings based on fleet availability and cargo deadlines. In addition, I monitor weather forecasts as part of planning, so that truckers are aware of potential delays ahead of time.

Overall, my job involves being proactive and making sure our customers receive their shipments on time. My success means that I have to stay one step ahead of the ever-changing logistics landscape. It is a challenging but rewarding role, especially when I am able to match customer needs with efficient solutions.

It is important to ensure that all paperwork is accurate and up to date, in order to avoid delays and potential fines or violations. The customs declaration process involves the truck driver, who must provide information about the goods being transported including quantity, value, type of goods and purpose of transport. In addition, other documents may be required such as proof of origin certificates or a contract summary for the consignment. It is essential for truck drivers to familiarise themselves with their requirements before crossing any international borders.

Failing to declare correct documentation can incur costly delays at the port, due to additional checks and investigations that need to be carried out before entry is allowed; therefore it is advised that drivers check their paperwork thoroughly prior to arrival. Furthermore, if the goods are found to be declared incorrectly or the paperwork is incomplete, then the truck driver may be liable for fines or other penalties. Stuck in a holding area is no fun and panic phone calls quickly start being made.

Once any overnight issues are resolved, attention turns to the regular flow of goods and trucks. These are the predictable stream of movements such as lettuce from the Netherlands coming to the UK and whisky going to Germany. These regular movements are easy to handle, as robots from Ether Solutions process the declaration information with minimal manual work. Taking away the boring repetitive activity.

It’s important to note that no two shipments will ever be the same – many hauliers arriving by lunchtime request trucks that reach ferries later in the day, overnight and early the next morning. As such, it’s crucial for customs agents to be prepared and able to quickly identify any issues or requirements which may arise. With this in mind, they must possess excellent problem-solving skills in order to effectively handle different shipments on a daily basis. Above all else, the mission of a customs agent is to ensure that shipments arrive safely and without issue while adhering to the latest regulations.

Everyday, there is operational pressure to get the paperwork complete, it is not the sort of job where you can say “I will do it tomorrow”. The job of a customs agent to be aware of any regulations and changes in terms of what can or cannot be imported. This includes understanding the complexities of different types of loads, such as whether permits are needed for certain items, and if there are special requirements for unusual items. For example, coffins from Turkey may require additional paperwork due to their sensitive nature. In addition, customs agents must also have up-to-date knowledge on tariffs, taxes and other costs associated with each shipment.

In this way, being a customs agent is both challenging and rewarding – it takes dedication and attention to detail in order to succeed in such a fast-paced environment. By continually updating their knowledge of cargo transportation laws, taxes and tariffs, customs agents are essential for smooth operations at ports around the world.

Some of my most unusual declarations and commodities came early in my career. On one such occasion, it was tasked with exporting a World War II battle tank to a country outside of the EU. This posed so many risks and rewards; I did not know the commodity of a tank before, but with some research and conversations with the seller of the tank we were able to get the declaration off to a flying start. Once HMRC completed their checks and balances on the declaration, the goods were free to leave the port.

One more close to my heart would be around the time of the Corona-Virus vaccine rollout. A vehicle exporting COVID supplies to Ireland was stuck at the port. A customer called me after I finished work for the day and asked for my help. It was not my declaration or a shipment under my control, but I was happy to help where I could. Within an hour, a new declaration and factsheets were completed for the goods, safety declarations were compiled and sent over to the driver for them to show the port officials; the truck was free to leave the port! Although I do not know specifically if my actions did much to aid in the response to COVID, but it is great knowing my actions got that truck moving in the right direction.

As well as peaks that align with the ferry departures, there is always a pipeline of work associated with container movements coming and going on big cargo ships. The voyage time for such journeys can be days and weeks, so there is less of rush on the paperwork. As an agent, we might be only processing 10 of the containers on a 1,000 container ship but collectively there is a mountain of paperwork to be processed.

With goods making international movements, it can be a complex route. An export in Turkey could be sending goods through the EU to a warehouse in Manchester. This means to get all the paperwork in place, as an agent we need to speak with other customs agents located around the world. At least English is the international language for trade – most of the time.

In the UK, HMRC enforce the rules for customs paperwork, and they do carry out audits on agents. This means compliance is an important part of the service we offer as a business.

As the day draws to a close, you just hope there is not a phone call saying a truck is stuck at the port, or a ferry is not going to sail so trucks are being re-routed. Not being able to see the harbour from the office does not remove the activity from the front-line pressures of the logistics world. Real people, with real goods moving to manufacturing plants, warehouses and retail shelves mean that you can relate to the biscuits at the supermarket with a feeling of I did the paperwork to get them here.

Tyler Townsend
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Tyler Townsend

Tyler Townsend is leading UK Customs expert who has published an Amazon leading seller on Customs Processes. With a background in the food distribution sector, Tyler has worked in many aspects of the Customs world for a variety of business before co-founding JT Group. Living in Dover, customs is highly visible in daily life so it is not surprising that Tyler has a passion for both the technical and practical aspects of international trade.

A day in the life of a customs agent

by Tyler Townsend Time to read: 4 min