What is customs?

What is customs? article image

Some may regard customs as a necessary annoyance in the exporting process, but it doesn’t have to be. There’s more to customs than just checking freight. Find out what role border protection plays, how exporterscan benefit and make your Customs and Border Protection experience a breeze. Australian Customs and Border Protection Service manages the security and integrity of Australia's borders and works closely with other government and international agencies to detect and deter the unlawful movement of goods and people across the border. Customs and Border Protection works closely with the exporting and importing industry to manage and facilitate the movement of cargo in and out of Australia. The start of 2009 saw a change in name from ‘Customs’ to ‘Customs and Border Protection’. With this change brings recognition of the increased important border protection responsibilities, including a lead role in ensuring a coordinated response to threats to our border. For exporters, the most pertinent information relates to Customs and Border Protection procedures for cargo clearance, and the regulatory compliance framework surrounding cargo export.

The integrated cargo system

Of particular relevance to Australian exporters is the Integrated Cargo System (ICS). The ICS is a software application that replaced previous import and export reporting and processing computer systems with one integrated IT system. Implemented in October 2004 for exports, and October 2005 for imports, this represented the most significant change to the way the movement of cargo across the Australian border is reported to Customs and Border Protection in the past 100 years. Customs and Border Protection controls the exportation of goods from Australia to places overseas and the ICS ensures that exporters or their agents provide correct information about cargo, while minimising delays in the clearance of goods for export. Unless specified, goods may not be loaded onto a ship or aircraft for export unless they have been entered into the ICS. There are four main clients that use the ICS:

  • Carriers, such as shipping lines and airlines;
  • Cargo handlers, like stevedores, depot and warehouse operators and air cargo terminal operators;
  • Service providers, including brokers, cargo reporters and freight forwarders;
  • Owners, that is, importers and exporters; and
  • Government agencies including Defence, Taxation and Bureau of Statistics.

All clients intending to communicate electronically with Customs and Border Protection through the ICS will need to register, install specifically developed software and purchase one or more digital certificates. The digital certificate allows the user to securely communicate with Customs and Border Protection and acts as both a signature of authenticity and an entry key. Once registered to use the ICS, there are many different functions you can perform such as registering new clients, obtaining status of your consignment in real time, and obtaining the latest ICS information such as technical upgrades and changes. Most commonly, you will use the ICS to lodge your export declaration.

Compliance for cargo

Customs and Border Protection plays a vital role in providing effective border protection for the Australian community. Traders are obliged to support Customs and Border Protection’s ability to do this. Ensuring traders understand and meet their obligations helps to prevent the movement of illegal and harmful goods across the border. Timely and accurate reporting by the exporting community allows Customs and Border Protection to risk assess cargo, ensuring legitimate trade is facilitated via early clearance of goods through the border. Customs and Border Protection uses various methods to risk assess cargo and ensure compliance with legislation, standards and practices. Transaction checks: Real-time and post transaction compliance activities are checks conducted using profile matches and research. Profiles consist of a set of criteria relating to particular aspects of a transaction and are used to identify cargo that requires closer evaluation. The law allows us to examine records for up to five years after a transaction. Cargo examinations: Physical examinations are regularly undertaken at major ports to ensure information is correct, to detect prohibited and harmful goods, as well as checking that clients comply with export controls and safeguards. Monitoring: Monitoring activities are used to gauge the level of compliance in the general exporting community. This enables Customs and Border Protection to measure the results of risk-based activities. Monitoring activities can also be used to pinpoint processes that may need to be reviewed from a user perspective. Audits:Desktop audits are generally used to address a specific risk, such as goods misdescription and misclassification. Focused audits will include a visit from a compliance auditor. These audits examine specific aspects of your interaction with Customs and Border Protection, and are prompted by identified risks. Comprehensive audits are generally used where risks have been identified, or as a response to intentional or continued non-compliance. These audits cover all aspects of your relationship with Customs and Border Protection such as export transactions, depot or warehouse operations, manufacturing or storage operations and systems. The controls within your company might be examined as part of the process.


A failure to comply with Customs and Border Protection legislation could result in an infringement notice being issued. The Infringement Notice Scheme (INS) applies to a range of strict liability offences under customs legislation. There is a range of offences subject to an infringement notice and these relate to:

  • False or misleading statements
  • Unauthorised movement of goods
  • Alteration or interference with goods
  • Loading goods for export without an authority to deal
  • Movement, entering, reporting and handling of goods for export.

Exporters can avoid receiving an infringement notice and reduce their risk of falling into a profile selection through maintaining compliant, timely and accurate reporting and activities. -For more information on Customs and Border Protection and ICS, or to access tutorials, FAQs and updates on technical issues, visit or contact the Customs Information and Support Centre by phoning 1300 558 099 or email


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