The Shipping Obstacle Course

Sadie Keljikian, Express Trade Capital

Importing into the US requires considerable coordination. When you import goods, your shipment is often relayed among several other parties before you receive it: the supplier/exporter (or the person who ships the goods to you), the warehouse, carrier, freight forwarder, and customs. All throughout the supply chain, your goods need to be physically and documentarily prepared for each stage of transport and inspection to avoid delays.

Below are some of the most common troubleshooting issues importers encounter and how to address them:

Rolled Shipments

A “rolled shipment” is a shipment that has been intentionally delayed by the carrier. This can happen if necessary documentation is missing from the shipment, or if the carrier experiences a decrease in capacity, an increase in demand, or both simultaneously.

The best way to avoid this is to either develop a relationship with several carriers over time, or use a freight forwarder, since they will have relationships with carriers already. Confidence in any carrier’s reliability can only be achieved over a long-term business relationship, so if you don’t have the time for trial and error, it is wise to take advantage of a freight forwarder who’s already done it. Freight forwarders are also very helpful in auditing your shipping documents and making sure that nothing is missing, so you are unlikely to experience a rolled shipment delay in the company of an experienced forwarder.

Transshipment Ports

“Transshipment” means your goods will travel on more than one vessel to get to you. If your goods go from the original sender to a transshipment port before they reach you, you may find your goods delayed in transshipment. This can happen if the port accidentally misses a transfer of goods from one freight carrier to another or, worst case scenario, accidentally sends your goods to the wrong location. The simplest way to avoid this is obviously to send direct shipments from point A to point B without the need for transshipment. Depending on the point of origin, however, this may be a challenge.

The best way to avoid issues if you absolutely must transship your goods is to triple check all your paperwork and make sure your goods are properly labeled, declared, and any permissions obtained prior to shipment. You may want to outsource this task to a freight forwarder, particularly if you and your staff aren’t fully comfortable navigating logistical complexities.

Trade Route Delays/Port Congestion

Often, freight vessels make several stops in transit to accommodate goods bound for multiple destinations. Although this is not unusual, the more stops a vessel makes, the greater the possibility of delays at various points along the way. This may be due to port congestion or insufficient paperwork attached to the shipment.

Unfortunately, these kinds of delays are sometimes unavoidable especially when they relate to issues like heavy traffic at ports or malfunctioning equipment. Again, an experienced freight forwarder can set you up with carriers who know how best to prepare and prevent issues that occur in transit from delaying your goods.


Holds in the inspection process are some of the most common reasons for delays in shipping processes. The specific reasons behind these delays can vary, but most of them are related to the United States Customs and Border Patrol, or CBP regulations.

The foremost purpose of CBP regulations is to ensure that any incoming materials are safe to enter the country. If any of the goods you ship are deemed dangerous (weapons, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, etc.) or environmentally hazardous (plant matter that may host foreign pests, etc.), you must arrange all necessary permissions and declare your goods in detail to avoid holds. Otherwise, there is a chance your goods will be held indefinitely. Although there is no way to avoid inspection altogether, since inspections are often performed at random, having your paperwork in order gives you a greater chance of having a quick inspection or bypassing inspection altogether. If the goods are made to fulfill customer orders, make sure you communicate with your customer to keep them apprised of delays and coordinate expectations accordingly. This can prevent cancelled orders and potential returns and chargebacks down the line.

External Factors

Occasionally, your shipment will be held up for reasons that are out of anyone’s control. Inclement weather at sea, damaged vessels, or random flagging at ports can push back the projected arrival date of your goods by days, sometimes weeks. If you’ve taken care of all documents and permissions ahead of time, your shipments probably won’t be held for long, but the best way to avoid missed deadlines is to book your orders a minimum of 2 weeks ahead of the date by which you need them. You will be grateful for the leeway if anything unexpected happens in transit. As for unprecedented disasters like bad weather or sinking ships, make sure that you or your supplier obtain sufficient insurance coverage to offset any damages that might occur while the goods are being transported by the carrier.

Researching documentary requirements and carriers can help you avoid most of the issues that can cause delays in shipment, but hiring a freight forwarder simplifies the process significantly. Their experience and knowledge allows them to advise you in customs compliance and insurance, as well as direct your goods to reliable carriers and well-equipped ports, making delays in shipment as unlikely as possible.

Good luck and happy shipping!

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