Category: Marking

Customs Country of Origin & Substantial Transformation

Determining country of origin for U.S. Customs marking purposes can at times be easy but other times it can be very difficult. This depends largely on the number of countries involved and the processes the merchandise undergoes in those countries. We have previously discussed how to properly mark country of origin on imported merchandise in another article (READ IT HERE).

In this article, we will try to briefly explain how country of origin is determined for customs marking purposes for merchandise imported from countries that the U.S. does not have a special trade agreement with.1 At the time of posting this article, then, these rules for determining country of origin is appropriate for countries such as China, Germany, Switzerland, England, Italy, and some others where there is no special, overriding, trade agreement.

How is country of origin determined?

For customs purposes, country of origin is the country of manufacture, production, or growth of any article. If only one country is involved in the production, manufacture, or growth of the article, that is the country of origin.

However, for articles that are manufactured or produced with materials from more than one country, or which undergo further production or manufacture in more than one country, the country of origin is the country where the article last underwent a “substantial transformation.” Substantial transformation is defined as the process whereby the article is turned into a new and different article of commerce, with a different and distinct name, character, and use from the article as it was previously.2

Again, these rules are only for countries that the U.S. does not have a special trade agreement with. So, for example, there are different country of origin marking rules for NAFTA.

When is merchandise “substantially transformed” for country of origin purposes?

What constitutes a “substantial transformation” for any particular article depends on the specific type and amount of production and manufacturing that the article undergoes. For this reason, no general guideline beyond creating a “new and different article of commerce, with a different and distinct name, character, and use” is possible.

For that reason, each article’s country of origin must be determined on a case-by-case basis. If it is difficult to determine country of origin for a particular article, it might be necessary to get formal guidance from customs through a request for a prospective ruling, which usually results in customs issuing a formal ruling letter that they are obliged to honor. It can also be helpful to review previously issued ruling letters to find similar cases, and get a sense for how the law is applied to a particular situation. This should only be done by a customs lawyer or an experienced broker, who understands the law and the exact phases of production of the imported merchandise.

What happens if imported merchandise has an incorrect country of origin marking?Keep Calm and Contact Your Customs Attorney

If country of origin marking is wrong, Customs will deny release of imported products, or if already released from Customs custody, they will be required to be returned via redelivery notice. Customs may impose and collect an additional duty of 10% of the article’s value before allowing release (“marking duties”), an amount in addition to any other duties normally owed, if any. Before release, Customs will  require that the article be marked with the correct country of origin and until marked duties paid.

Customs Attorney Consultation for Country of Origin and Marking Requirements

If you have a question about proper country of origin marking, identifying the actual country of origin, otherwise determining how to comply with the Customs rules concerning proper country of origin marking for imported merchandise, or if your competitor is not marking or mis-marking country of origin on their products, you should contact our office at 734-855-4999 or send us a message on our contact page. We can always help.

  1. Different laws often apply for determining country of origin when there is a free trade agreement in place, as of this writing, the U.S. has free trade agreements with Australia, Bahrain, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Israel, Jordan, Korea, Mexico, Morocco, Nicaragua, Oman, Panama, Peru, and Singapore. []
  2. 19 CFR 134.1(d); In United States v. Gibson-Thomsen Co., 2 Cust. Ct. 172 (1938); U.S. Rules of Origin, CBP (2004), p. 9. []

Country of Origin Marking Requirements

In a global economy where a person can find products from every corner of the globe consumers are sometimes inclined to make their purchasing decisions based on the country of origin (meaning where the product is made and where it is imported from). Americans, for sure, like to base their decision of whether to buy certain products based on country of origin. We have all probably, at one time or another, been told to buy American, to look for a made in U.S.A. label, or not to buy anything from China or some other country. My grandpa, who grew up during World War II, wouldn’t buy anything made in Japan or Germany, and for a  time during the Iraq War there was a call among some to boycott French products for their unwillingness to join the U.S. efforts.

This sentiment is nothing new, and in fact, is the reason that all imports into the U.S. must be marked with the country of origin. Recognizing this tendency, Congress

Made in China Image
Country of Origin Mark

authored 19 U.S.C. § 1304 in order to specify the various rules and exceptions to the country of origin marking requirement, and set out penalties for failing to mark and/or properly identify the country of origin of imported products.

Marking Requirements for Country of Origin

This law plainly states that every foreign products or article entering the U.S. must bear a mark indicating the English name of its country of origin, unless the article fits into a listed exception, discussed below. The country of origin mark itself must meet two qualifications, simply stated:

  • First, it must be conspicuously located on the article;
  • Second, it must be legible, indelible, and permanent;

Id. at §1304(a). The reason for these requirements to enable the “ultimate purchaser” (i.e., the person who will receive the article in its imported form 19 CFR § 134.1(d)) to readily identify the article’s country of origin in case that will affect his decision to buy or not buy a particular product. Customs can require that certain articles be marked in a specific manner, without exception, by stamping, cast-mold lettering, etching, engraving, or cloth labels (e.g., coffee, tea, spices, manholes, pipes, fittings, etc.). 19 CFR § 134.42.

Interestingly, the country of origin marking requirement means if you cannot find a country of origin marking on a product or its container, you may presume that it was made in the United States, because there is no marking requirement under this law for non-imported products (it could also mean that the country of origin marks were intentionally destroyed, removed, or concealed, or that Customs failed to intercept violative country of origin marking).

Exceptions to the Country of Origin Marking Requirements

Exceptions to the country of origin marking requirement typically arise when marking an article is extremely difficult or purposeless to mark. For example, the statute can exempt particular articles which are physically incapable of being marked, cannot be marked prior to their shipment to the U.S., or are imported for the private use of the importer and not intended for sale in the U.S. Id. at §1304(a)(3). Even in those cases, however, while marking the article itself may be excepted, the law still requires the importer to mark the country of origin on the container of the article, like the packaging it comes in. Id. at §1304(b).

Exemptions could be available in a variety of circumstances.  For example, marking a product could be economically prohibitive to the article’s importation or injure the article, or the origin could be apparent without explicitly marking the article.

How U.S. Customs Treats Mismarked or Unmarked Imports

In the absence of the required country of origin mark on imported articles, Customs will ensure that unmarked imported products are denied entry in commerce, or if already released from Customs custody, they will be required to be returned via redelivery notice. Customs may impose and collect an additional duty of 10% of the article’s value before allowing release, an amount in addition to any other duties normally owed, if any. Id. at §1304(i). Before release, Customs will  require that the article be marked with the correct country of origin and until marked duties paid.  Id. at §1304(j).

What to do When U.S. Customs Takes Issue with Country of Origin and its Marking

If you have a question about proper country of origin marking, identifying the actual country of origin, and otherwise determining how to comply with the Customs rules concerning proper country of origin marking for imported products, you should consult with an attorney experienced in the customs and related laws. It is possible to get a prospective ruling from U.S. Customs product which you intend to import, and an attorney can arguing for a particular manner of country of origin marking. Contact out office today to discuss your problem and your options.

Feel free to use this article to supplement your own knowledge, but do not let it serve as a substitute for legal counsel familiar with the various restrictions and exceptions of the law.