How To Ship Freight Across The U.S.-Canada Border Successfully

The great white north is home to just over 318 billion trees, 39 million Canadian citizens and 25,000 mid to large-sized businesses. 

Couple this with the fact that Canada is consistently among the U.S.’ top trade partners year after year and the stunning value of this international relationship is plain to see.  

As a shipper located in either of these countries, you’re all but guaranteed to move freight using one of the many (100+) Canada-U.S. border crossing locations at some point in your working life.

Additionally, you recognize that the international cross-border shipping process isn’t as simple as moving freight through state lines or from one province to another. 

To make this process as smooth as possible, you need a resource that explains the U.S-Canada cross-border freight shipping process in depth. 

Here at ATS, we help customers move freight to and from Canada frequently. And, as such, we understand the intricacies of this process and what it takes to successfully do so. 

In this blog, you’ll be given clear instructions on how to move freight to and from Canada including: 

What Trucking Services Are Available to Get Freight Across the Canada-U.S. Border?

As a shipper, finding a truck to move your freight to and from Canada can be done in several ways. 

Unlike shipping freight to Mexico — which can be done via through-trailer or transloading service — transporting inventories to and from Canada isn’t so complex.

Since this process is done so frequently, getting goods across North America’s northernmost border has become heavily streamlined in recent decades and today is done with through-trailers alone.

This means that the trailer picking up your freight will be the same one to drop it off at its destination.

Luckily, this also means that you’ll only need to find a single carrier for your freight’s journey. 

Which partner you select, however, will depend largely on your situation, the type of freight you need to get moving and the current transportation relationships you have. 

That said, the three options available to you are:

  1. Using a freight brokerage
  2. Using a U.S.-based trucking company
  3. Using a Canada-based trucking company

1. Using a Freight Brokerage

If you have a well-maintained relationship with a reliable freight brokerage, using their expertise and overall market visibility for cross-border shipping will help you get your freight onto the right truck, at the right price.

Often, a good brokerage will be able to save you extra money by finding a truck that either needs to get back to Canada or home to the United States. 

Carriers from Canada and the U.S. aren’t allowed to pick up and haul freight within their non-native countries without proper licensing.  This works in your favor if your freight is on the back end of their trip. If your freight will pay them to drive home, you’ll often get a relaxed rate.

Good brokers understand this and will be able to find the best-fit truck for your freight based on your capacity needs, the current market pricing and your freight’s destination.

Freight shipment crossing the border

2. Using a U.S.-Based Carrier

Many United States-based carriers are well versed in cross-border shipping and will be able to provide the truck capacity you need to move freight into the land of Canada. 

U.S.-based carriers will have all of the documentation they need (such as passports for their truckers) and will fully understand the best routes, crossing sites and practices to get your freight through Canadian customs smoothly.

3. Using a Canada-Based Carrier

Canadian carriers who specialize in moving freight to and from their neighbors to the south aren’t hard to come by. In 2018, there were more than 318,000 drivers employed by the Canadian trucking industry. These are drivers who are more than a little familiar with traversing Canada’s highways, cities and wilderness. 

As such, if you‘re a shipper hoping to move freight across the border, utilizing a Canadian-based company may be a good option for you. 

What Documentation Do You Need To Ship Freight to Canada?

Although the documentation you’ll need will vary depending on factors like the type and quantity of your freight, here are three documents that are universally necessary for getting freight over the border. 

To make this process as smooth as possible, make sure to have each of these forms prepped and attached to your shipment before it arrives at cross-border customs. 

  1. Bill of Lading (BOL)
  2. Certificate of Origin
  3. Customs Invoice

1. What is the Bill of Lading (BOL)? 

A bill of lading (BOL) acts as a receipt for freight services. It’s a contract between a freight forwarder or carrier and a shipper that highlights the mode of transportation and the route of a shipment.

In the international shipping world, there are three main types of BOLs:

  1. Overland/Truckers BOL
  2. Ocean BOL
  3. Airway Bill 

When moving across the U.S.-Canada border you’ll only need the former of these, the Overland/Truckers’ BOL  which is used to transport freight across an international border via land. 

2. What is the Certificate of Origin?

The certificate of origin (CO) is an important document for all Canada-U.S. freight movement. It certifies that all goods were wholly obtained, produced, manufactured and/or processed in a particular country. 

Additionally, the CO serves to outline where the material-in-transit originated from and verifies the cargo meets all necessary trade agreement requirements.

Note, this document is only required when shipping to certain regions or countries and — due to the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) — a product’s certificate of origin is required for U.S.-Canada border-crossing purposes. 

3. What is a Customs Invoice? 

A customs invoice is an extended form of the commercial invoice that’s required by customs officials at international borders. Within the customs invoice, the exporter states the description, quantity and selling price, freight, insurance and packing costs, terms of delivery and payment and the weight and/or volume of the goods in transit. 

All of this information is outlined to determine the customs import value of the freight upon entry into its nation of destination. 

The customs invoice will be compiled, outlined and verified by the customs broker associated with each shipment.

three semi trucks crossing the international border

What is The Role of The Customs Broker?

The customs broker plays a highly specific and very important role in the process of moving your freight over the U.S. - Canada border. 

These are individuals, associations and companies who are regulated and licensed to operate by the Department of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) — on the U.S. side — and the Canadian Border Protection Agency (CBSA) on the Canadian side. 

Today, there are nearly 14,500 customs brokers licensed to operate in the United States and around 300 in Canada. 

Customs brokers are typically well-versed in the border crossing process as their main function is to ensure that all federal rules, regulations and guidelines are followed during international imports/exports. 

To function properly, customs brokers must have an intimate understanding of all import/export procedures, any necessary paperwork, item classifications and valuations, the differing rates of duty and any taxes or fees associated with an item’s import into its destination country. 

To move freight between the U.S. and Canada, customs brokers help shippers coordinate documents, follow federal guidelines and pay all necessary fees attached to their shipments.  

Customs brokers also help their customers by using the Pre-Arrival-Review-System (PARS) when moving freight into Canada, and the Pre-Arrival-Processing-System (PAPS) when moving goods into the United States. 

These systems serve as an electronic bridge between the documents attached to the shipment and the customs official waiting for the freight to arrive at the border. 

PARS and PAPS were designed to speed up the release/referral for examination process when goods arrive at the border. 

Since, when using these systems, customs officials already have all of the necessary border-crossing information on hand, they’re able to review all these documents before arrival. This helps to make sure that, when the freight reaches the border, everything goes smoothly and cargo isn’t left waiting for clearance upon arrival.

Using PAPS and PARS, the paper copies of each document are checked against the electronic copies, all necessary checks are completed and a truck is sent on its way. 

Without leaning on the expertise of a customs broker, moving freight over the border is very difficult. 

It’s the customs broker’s job to clear a shipment with the customs border agencies ahead of time and verify that all of the steps needed to ensure a shipment’s successful transit have been taken. They are truly experts in the border crossing prospect and it’s up to you, as a shipper, to find a good one

Luckily for you, a lot of carriers and freight brokers have a list of trusted customs brokers who they work with frequently. As such, you should lean on these partnerships during your search for a good customs broker.

What Else Should You Know About Freight Shipping To and From Canada?

Beyond what we’ve already covered, shipping freight to and from Canada by truck has a few additional intricacies that you should make note of. 

1. Product Restrictions, Regulations and Permit Requirements

When moving freight across the border into or from Canada, you’ll want to work with your customs broker to determine whether your freight is subject to any of the many rules, restrictions and guidelines for products entering each country. 

Products such as arms and ammunition, agricultural goods and electronics — to name a few — have import restrictions and regulations that vary from one country to another. 

Work with your custom’s broker to ensure your freight’s successful transit should any of these regulations apply.

Check out this list of products under regulation when moving freight into the U.S.

Check out this list of products under regulation when moving freight into Canada.

2. Used Equipment Transportation

When transporting used, self-propelled, equipment such as a motor vehicle or construction machinery across this international border, you must have the title of each vehicle cleared by the appropriate customs agency 72 hours before it arrives at the border.

This means that if you’re looking to send used equipment over the border into or from Canada, you’ll need to send its title to your customs broker well before the 72-hour mark. 

From there, your customs broker will send that title to the customs agency in charge of granting your freight entrance so that they can clear your freight for entry 72 hours before it arrives for crossing at the border.  

Failing to do so could create major issues in your supply chain as you have to wait at the border for the title of your used equipment to get cleared.

In the worst-case scenario, this could cost you money as unloading crews wait on-site and your timelines see a 72-hour shift.

3. Bonded Shipments

Sometimes, shippers from Canada or the United States will move goods to their final destination by way of the opposite country. In situations like this, the term “bonded shipment” is applied to these goods. 

For example: 

If a Canada-based tire manufacturer needs to get their product to France and has arranged to do so via the port of Virginia, they’ll need to transport their freight across the U.S. border to its port of loading. 

This shipment of Canadian tires won’t officially go through customs until it arrives in France where all of its documentation will be referenced and its import will be verified. 

As such, none of the taxes, fees or other customs activities occur during this shipment’s movement across the U.S. border. 

These bonded shipments are, once again, arranged with a customs broker per the laws, regulations and guidelines of the destination nation (in this case France). 

Related: Bonded Shipments: Everything You Need to Know About Shipping a Load In-Bond

How to Make Your Next Cross-Border Shipment a Success

Now that you understand the key documents, processes and stakeholders involved in making the cross-border journey to and from Canada, you’re ready to plan for your next international shipment.

To make sure that this process goes as smooth as possible, you’ll need to do these three things:

  1. Have all documentation prepped and ready
  2. Know the specifications of your product
  3. Work with reputable providers

1. Have All Documentation Prepped and Ready

This is essential. If you don’t have the appropriate documentation attached to your shipment upon its arrival at the border, serious delays can occur. 

Once again, a great customs broker will be able to help you make sure that all of your documents are completed correctly and ensure that when the time comes to cross the border there’s a minuscule chance of delay. 

2. Understand the Specifications of Your Product

When moving foreign goods into either of these nations you must understand the taxes, tariffs, regulations and restrictions associated with your freight. 

Understanding these specifications will not only save you the inconvenience of delays and avoidable mishaps at the border but will also save you money in the long run as you understand and plan for the intricacies of your freight’s transit. 

3. Work With Reputable Providers

Transporting freight into a foreign country can certainly seem like an impossible task, especially if you’ve never done it before.

As such, you need to find dependable cross-border transportation partnerships to get your freight moved successfully and efficiently. 

Find a provider that has a demonstrated history of moving your commodity over the border and a customs broker who’s been licensed for at least 3 years. 

To help you select the best service provider for your cross-border freight, watch this video where we outline the top 7 things to consider when selecting a freight brokerage

In our experience, having the right partnerships typically means the difference between cross-border shipping success and eventual failure. 

If you’d like to find out more about how ATS can help you make your next shipment to or from Canada as successful as possible, let’s talk about it

Tags: International Shipping, International Shipping Documentation, Customs Clearance

Jerry Ramirez

Written by Jerry Ramirez

Jerry joined ATS in 2003 and has served in various roles over the years, including time as a customer service manager in ATS’ Vans division. Now as an operations manager with ATS Logistics, Jerry works to develop employees and grow relationships with customers, focusing primarily on the specialized and heavy haul side of the business.

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