All imports and exports must be classified according to the Harmonized Tariff Schedule (HTS) or, in the case of U.S. importers and exporters, the Harmonized Tariff Schedule U.S. (HTSUS). Where imports are concerned, classification is the responsibility of the importer of record. Regardless of who or what that entity might be, the individual who does the actual work is known as the classifier.
Ironically, you could gather twenty-five import classifiers in a room and give them all the same product, only to discover that they do not all come up with the same HTSUS number. Why is that? Ohio-based Vigilant Global Trade Services says it is because import classification is not an exact science. There are literally thousands of classification codes. Moreover, a single product can be classified using one of several numbers, depending on its intended use.
Classifiers have to do a lot of research before reaching their conclusions. In some cases, the research results in a definitive classification code that does not leave a lot of room for interpretation. In other cases, research ends with the classifier taking an educated guess.
Plenty of Resources
The good news for classifiers is that there is plenty of resource material to work with. A typical classifier will start with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Importing into the United States guide. Other research resources include:
HTSUS – The HTSUS is not just a government policy or classification regime. It is an actual published document that classifiers can look through to find the correct codes for whatever they are trying to classify.
Customs Rulings – The CBP maintains an online database of past rulings on classification cases. It is known as the Customs Rulings Online Search System (CROSS).
Compliance Publications – In addition, the CBP publishes what are known as Informed Compliance Publications. Classifiers are free to download and consult them as needed.
Previous Classification History – The HTSUS database maintains a record of all past classifications. Classifiers can look at the history of a given product to learn how it has been classified previously.
In addition to official resources, classifiers rely heavily on more generic resources including product catalogs, manufacturer descriptions, and even dictionaries. It is even appropriate at times to contact a manufacturer to inquire as to whether the company has ever had to classify the product in question before.
General Rules of Interpretation
Though it may seem like a daunting task to do a ton of research prior to classifying a product or service, classifiers are not left hanging out to dry. The HTSUS includes what are known as the General Rules of Interpretation (GRI). Those rules are actually published as part of the printed schedule.
The GRI can effectively walk classifiers through the process for most products and services. That does not mean the rules eliminate all ambiguity. They clearly do not. But following the GRI at least puts classifiers on the right track. They just go through the rules one by one, in the order they appear.
Computer programmers would find the GRI’s format pretty familiar. It is more or less a series of if/then rules, with each rule either leading to a classification number or pointing the classifier to the next rule.
Mistakes Are Still Made
The down side to being an import classifier is knowing that you are unlikely to get it right 100% of the time. Mistakes are still made even by the most experienced classifiers. The mistakes are part of the job. Unfortunately, the job is not made any easier by regulatory authorities who think nothing of constantly changing the rules.