The world grows smaller every day, and more and more businesses are finding international markets for their products and goods. For many companies, though, the shipping process represents one of the greatest challenges when expanding overseas. In particular, filling out the paperwork can be daunting. 

For those who regularly ship packages to foreign countries, completing customs declarations forms can be a time-consuming and highly error-prone process. In some companies, more than one person may be responsible for different aspects of packing and shipping—when several people are involved, errors are more likely, and it can take more time for forms to be completed accurately. Some technologies may not be adaptable to shipping overseas, so they must be jury-rigged for the job or more than one type of software may be needed. This approach can also lead to errors and wasted time. For smaller organizations that only ship overseas occasionally, the idea of filling out customs declarations forms may be too intimidating or too labor-intensive, and many small businesses may deny themselves sales growth opportunities by deciding to limit operations to the United States. 

Fortunately for those with overseas customers, there are ways to lessen the burdens of labor, cost, risk and time management and minimize the chance of errors when filling out customs declarations forms. While paper forms will not disappear any time soon, a number of technological advances can help shippers increasingly find automated and digital options for international shipments. Those who ship numerous items around the world can achieve significant savings, while smaller operations can open themselves up to new markets. By considering their own processes and procedures, those responsible for shipping can pinpoint areas where they can remove the impediments of manual processes and integrate technology and databases in order to reduce the challenges of customs declaration forms. 

Going Global
Many businesses have an online presence nowadays, either through their own websites or sites such as eBay. In the wired world, international borders are often irrelevant, and customers can just as easily be around the globe as across town. But shipping packages globally offers different challenges than shipping across the state or across the country. The United States Postal Service has its own requirements for customs declarations forms, and different countries have their own regulations regarding customs and security. 

Consider what can be involved in shipping just one package overseas. First, it’s important to understand that individual countries have their own laws and restrictions. For example, according to the USPS, it is prohibited to send “printed matter offensive to Arabs and Muslims” to the United Arab Emirates. When shipping fabric to China, senders are restricted to 10 meters of cotton or synthetic fabric, and the width must not exceed 50 inches.

After determining that items will not raise any red flags, those items must be properly packaged to avoid breakage during an overseas shipment. Then, the shipper must determine the type of customs form required—depending on the size and value of the products or goods, it is often either a 2976 or 2976-A form. Customs forms have to be accurately filled out, the information must be legible on every copy of the form and the addresses of both the shipper and the receiver must be complete, along with specific descriptions of the package’s contents. Information about tax codes and value-added taxes may be necessary, and some countries also require tax ID numbers. Then, the customs declarations forms must be placed precisely on the package with all the pertinent documentation properly attached.

Considering the many steps involved, it should be little surprise that shipping overseas can be rife with errors and inefficiencies, particularly when processes, people and technology are not working in alignment.

Improving Processes and the Bottom Line
With the right alignment, though, any shipper can confidently tackle customs declarations forms and other intricacies of international shipping. While companies have their own unique situations structures, there are several factors to think about.

Have People Working Together
When multiple people are involved in packing and shipping, it’s important that each person is clear on his or her responsibilities. That way, packages don’t get stuck in limbo when one person thinks someone else is involved in the process. 

Standardize Processes
Make sure there is a standardized approach to the shipping process, from the moment a customer places an order to the time it is delivered. This will ensure that all customs declarations forms are filled out completely and that the shipment can proceed smoothly. 

Find the Right Technology
Automating the process of completing customs declarations forms can save considerable time and money. Before investing in any type of new technology, though, shippers must make sure that particular technology is the right one for them. Some things to consider:

Compatibility and Ease of Use
The technology should be simple to use and intuitive, without requiring extensive training. It should also integrate seamlessly with current software programs and hardware devices—shippers should check to be sure that any program designed to automatically complete customs declarations forms can easily pull information from customer and shipping databases and import it easily into the shipping form. After all, if shippers just wanted a blank customs form that they manually type information in to, they can go to the USPS website.

Forms should also be able to print easily from every type of printer in the organization, whether it is laser, inkjet or thermal. Organizations that ship packages overseas regularly should also be sure that the technology can keep up with the volumes they require—some programs may not be able to manage batch printing and are more suited for smaller organizations or those that ship fewer packages overseas.

Flexibility and Customization
Of course, businesses that are small today or that don’t ship many packages overseas may find themselves growing in the years to come. And customs forms can change as well. Before investing in technology and training, shippers should be sure that the software can evolve as well. Otherwise, it may be necessary to switch technology providers in a couple of years.

USPS and UPU Compliance
In order to meet the twin goals of increased efficiencies and decreased errors, any new technology should be compliant with all USPS and Universal Postal Union requirements. Such technologies should be able to print and format all documents and forms to USPS and UPU standards, including the International Postal Manifest and Postnet barcodes.

Electronic Manifest Discounts 
Under a new program being developed by the USPS, customers with qualifying technology may be eligible for postage discounts if they meet certain volume requirements for shipments to different countries. The USPS is in the process of developing a reduced-rate program for international shippers who use an “electronic manifest.” While details are still being finalized, the USPS has indicated that qualifying electronic manifests will consist of a shipping form with a bar code that can be scanned at the post office. Shippers who can include the right information and who have sufficient volume will qualify for cheaper rates. Until the Postal Regulatory Commission issues finalized guidelines, it’s difficult to know which technologies may qualify. But it’s important to make sure potential vendors have this issue on their radars before adopting any new technology.

Overall Costs
When investing in any type of new technology, shippers must understand the true costs of software, forms and labels. Some products may include hidden costs, which can chew up any labor and efficiency savings.

Particularly in today’s economy, time and money are of the essence. International shipping errors and inefficiencies can quickly increase costs while dragging down turnaround time, leading to employee frustration and decreased customer satisfaction. With the right processes and technologies, though, completing all the necessary customs declarations forms can be easy, quick and cheap, freeing up people to focus on other aspects of their businesses.

Josh Fabel is an author, presenter and industry expert on integrated business solutions for mail and parcel technologies. He is president of LaserSubstrates, Inc., the leading provider of PC-based and web-based software solutions to automate the generation of USPS Certified Mail and Customs Declaration forms. He can be reached at