Customs Terminology Explained

Customs has a language all of its own as well as terminology that can appear a little complicated at times. Our glossary presents some of the more common terms you will come across when shipping dutiable goods internationally.

ATA Carnet

The ATA Carnet is an international Customs document. Issued under the terms of the ATA Convention and the Istanbul Convention, it incorporates an internationally valid guarantee.

The carnet can be used in place of national Customs documents and as security for import duties and taxes. This covers the temporary admission of goods and the transit of goods.

The ATA Carnet can also be accepted to control the temporary export and re-importation of goods. However, in this case, the international guarantee does not apply

Bonded Goods

These are goods stored in a secure warehouse. While they remain there, they are not liable for any payment of import duty. That is, until the duty is paid or the goods are exported or legally dealt with.


Often refers to customs brokerage, where a third party is used for the clearance of inbound or outbound shipments.

Certificate of Origin

This is a specific document that expressly certifies that the goods to which the certificate relates, originate in a specific country.

This Certificate may also include a declaration by the manufacturer, producer, supplier, exporter or other competent person.


An abbreviation used in some international sales contracts, when the selling price includes all “Costs, Insurance and Freight” for the goods sold.

This means that the seller arranges and pays for all relevant expenses involved in shipping goods – from their point of export to a given point of import.

In trade statistics, “CIF value” means that all figures for imports or exports are calculated on this basis, regardless of the nature of individual transactions.

Consular Invoice

This is a detailed statement of goods shipped, certified by the consulate of a country. It is required by certain foreign governments that want a tighter control over imports.

Customs Declaration

Any statement or action, in any form prescribed or accepted by Customs, giving information or particulars required by Customs of that relevant country


Electronic Data Interchange – the electronic transmission of data.

Free Zone

An area within a country (a seaport, airport, warehouse or any designated area) regarded as being outside its customs territory.

Importers may therefore bring goods of foreign origin into such areas without paying customs duties and taxes. This is always pending eventual processing, trans-shipment or re-exportation.

Free zones were once numerous and prosperous when tariffs were higher many years ago. Some still exist in capital cities, transport junctions and major seaports, but their number and prominence have declined as tariffs have fallen in recent years.

Free zones may also be known as "free ports", "free warehouses", "free trade zones" and "foreign trade zones".

Harmonised System

The international system published by the World Customs Organisation that sets out in a systemised form the goods handled in international trade.

Goods are grouped in Sections, Chapters and sub-Chapters that are governed by rules.

Incoterms® Rules and Trade Terms

“Incoterms” is a trademark of the International Chamber of Commerce. Incoterms® rules and trade terms are recognized and accepted as the standard for international trading and are regularly updated as commercial conditions change. Terms were last amended in 2010.

Phytosanitary Certificate

A certificate issued by a Government agency (usually Agriculture) to satisfy import regulations of foreign countries.

The certificate indicates that a shipment has been inspected and found free from harmful pests and plant diseases.

Preference (or Preferential) Duty

A lower duty rate based on the value of the goods and dependent on the country of origin.

Pro-forma Invoice

An invoice provided by a supplier prior to the shipment of merchandise, informing the buyer of the kinds and quantities of goods to be sent, their value and specifications (weight, size, etc.).