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. []