German Customs Clearance: A Complete Guide

February 21, 2024
15 min read

Customs clearance in Germany, serving as the gateway to one of Europe's largest economies, necessitates a comprehensive understanding of the regulatory environment. It requires strict adherence to specific documentation requirements and a keen awareness of the applicable duties and taxes.

Hence, for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) looking to enter or expand their presence in the German market, mastering the customs clearance process is a critical step in streamlining operations, reducing potential delays, and optimising costs. 

This article aims to demystify the process of German customs clearance, providing a detailed overview of the key steps, necessary documents, applicable regulations, and practical tips for smooth clearance. Whether you're dealing with the importation of goods for the first time or looking to refine your existing operations, this guide will serve as a crucial resource.

Understanding German Customs Clearance

The process of customs clearance in Germany is designed to ensure that all goods entering the country comply with local laws and regulations, including safety, health, and environmental standards. The procedure involves several important steps:

  1. Declaration of Goods: Importers must declare their goods to the authorities, providing detailed information about their nature, value, and origin.
  1. Document Submission: Along with the declaration, they must submit all required documents, which may include commercial invoices, packing lists, transport paperwork, and certificates of origin.
  1. Inspection and Assessment: Customs officials may assess the consignment to verify the accuracy of the declaration and documents and assess the applicable duties and taxes.
  1. Payment of Duties and Taxes: Before the items can be released, the importer must pay any duties and taxes assessed by the authorities.
  1. Release of Goods: Once all requirements have been met and payments made, the shipment is released and can be delivered to the importer.

The Role of Zoll (German Customs Authority)

Zoll is responsible for enforcing customs regulations in Germany and overseeing the import and export of goods. Their duties include:

  • Ensuring adherence to customs regulations and international trade agreements.
  • Analysing and gathering duties and taxes on imported goods.
  • Preventing illegal trade practices and smuggling.
  • Providing guidance and information to businesses on customs procedures.

They operate through a network of offices located at borders, airports, and seaports, facilitating the smooth flow of legitimate trade while safeguarding the country's economic interests.

Importance of the EORI Number for Businesses

The economic operators registration and identification (EORI) number is a unique set of digits required for businesses engaged in importing or exporting goods within the European Union (EU). It is used by authorities to monitor and track shipments, ensuring compliance with regulations. Hence, for businesses importing goods into Germany, obtaining the identifier is a prerequisite for customs clearance. 

Key points about the EORI number include:

  • Registration: Businesses must apply for an EORI number through Zoll or the customs authority of any EU member state where they conduct their first business activity.
  • Universal Application: Once assigned, the number is valid throughout the EU, simplifying procedures for businesses operating in multiple countries.
  • Facilitation of Customs Processes: It streamlines the clearance process, enabling faster processing of shipments and reducing potential delays.

Required Documents for Customs Clearance

Providing a complete and accurate set of documents allows Zoll to assess the goods, calculate duties and taxes, and ensure compliance with German and EU regulations. Below is a detailed list of the essential paperwork required for customs clearance in Germany, along with an explanation of the single administrative document (SAD) and considerations for specific types of goods.

Essential Documents for Customs Clearance

Commercial InvoiceThis provides information about the transaction between the seller and buyer, including what the goods are, their value, and the terms of sale. It must be presented in German or English.
Packing ListAccompanying the commercial invoice, this details the contents of each package, including weights and dimensions, which helps in the inspection process.
Bill of Lading (B/L) or Air Waybill (AWB):For sea and air shipments, respectively, these documents serve as a contract between the owner of the merchandise and the carrier. They are essential for tracking and handling the cargo.
Certificate of OriginThis certifies the country in which the goods were manufactured. It may be required for items subject to trade agreements or restrictions.
Import LicenceRequired for certain controlled items, an import licence grants permission to ship in products that are otherwise restricted.
Proof of InsuranceDocument indicating insurance coverage for the shipment during transportation.

Single Administrative Document (SAD)

SAD, also known as Form A8 in Germany, is a key document used in EU customs declarations. It serves multiple purposes, including:

  • Declaration of goods for import, export, or transit
  • Calculation of duties and taxes
  • Statistical reporting

The SAD contains detailed information about the nature, quantity, and movement of goods and is valid across all EU member states. Its comprehensive nature simplifies the process by consolidating multiple forms into a single document, facilitating a more streamlined clearance process.

Duties and Taxes

Customs duties and taxes are enforced on goods imported into Germany to regulate trade, protect domestic industries, and generate revenue. The primary components include:

Customs DutiesThese are charged on the import of cargo and are calculated as a percentage of the value of the goods (ad valorem duties). The rate depends on the type of items and their country of origin, as determined by the Harmonised System (HS) code classification.
Value-Added Tax (VAT)In Germany, the standard VAT rate is 19%, with a reduced rate of 7% for certain goods and services. It is calculated on the total value of the import, including the cost of the goods, shipping, insurance, and customs duties.
Excise TaxesSpecific goods such as fuel, tobacco, and alcohol are subject to excise taxes. These are charged in addition to duties and VAT and vary according to the product category.

Explanation of VAT on Imported Goods

The customs authorities administer VAT on imported goods at the point of entry. Importers must declare the value of their goods, and VAT is assessed based on this, plus any duties and transport costs. 

Importers registered for VAT in Germany can often reclaim the amount paid on imported goods as input tax. For businesses not established in the EU, appointing a fiscal representative in Germany may be necessary to handle VAT registration and reporting obligations.

Duty Exemptions and Preferential Rates

As part of the EU, Germany adheres to the Common Customs Tariff (CCT), which provides for duty exemptions and preferential tariff rates under certain conditions:

  • Duty Exemptions: Certain items may be exempt from duties, including samples of negligible value, goods for specific uses such as educational or scientific purposes, and personal belongings of individuals moving to the EU.
  • Preferential Rates: Items originating from countries with which the EU has Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) or preferential trade arrangements are eligible for reduced or zero customs duties. To qualify, importers must provide proof, typically in the form of a Certificate of Origin or a self-declaration by the exporter.
  • Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP): Developing countries benefit from reduced tariffs under the GSP. Qualifying goods must meet the rules of origin criteria set out in the scheme.

Import Control System (ICS) and Safety Measures

The ICS is part of the EU's customs security initiative, aimed at enhancing the security of goods imported from non-EU countries. It requires carriers to provide authorities with advanced cargo information crucial for risk analysis and security assessments, allowing them to identify and mitigate potential threats.

Key components of the ICS include:

  • Entry Summary Declaration (ENS): Carriers or their representatives must submit an ENS to the customs office of the first entry point in the EU. It includes details about the goods, the consignor, the consignee, and the carrier. The deadline for submission depends on the mode of transport, with earlier deadlines for air cargo compared to sea or land transport.
  • Risk Analysis: Authorities use the information provided in the ENS to conduct security risk analysis. Goods identified as high risk may be subject to further inspections or controls.
  • Import Control System 2 (ICS2): The EU is implementing a new version of the ICS, known as ICS2, which introduces more rigorous data requirements and processes. ICS2 aims to further enhance the supply chain's security and improve the efficiency of customs clearance procedures.

Adhering to ICS requirements is essential for ensuring smooth and uninterrupted cross-border trade. Non-compliance can lead to delays, additional inspections, and potential penalties. To this end, eCommerce businesses must ensure that their logistics partners are fully aware of and comply with these requirements, including timely submission of the ENS.

Special Procedures and Regulations

Germany offers several customs procedures and regulations designed to facilitate international trade while ensuring compliance with EU standards. These can provide significant benefits for businesses involved in importing goods into the country, including cost savings and streamlined processes. 

Let’s explore what they are. 

Inward Processing Relief (IPR)

IPR allows businesses to import non-EU goods for manufacturing, processing, or repair without paying duties and VAT at the time of import. The finished products must either be exported out of the territory or, if released for free circulation within the region, duties and VAT become payable at that stage. This procedure is particularly beneficial for companies that import raw materials or components to produce goods for export.

Outward Processing Relief (OPR)

OPR enables EU goods to be temporarily exported for processing or repair outside the region, with the processed products being re-imported with partial or full relief from customs duties. OPR is designed to support EU businesses in utilising non-EU processing services without incurring unnecessary costs.

ATA Carnet

The ATA Carnet is an international document that permits the duty-free and tax-free temporary import of goods for up to one year. It covers commercial samples, professional equipment, and goods for exhibitions and fairs. It simplifies procedures, reduces costs, and eliminates the need for a customs declaration at each border crossing.

Prohibited and Restricted Goods

Certain goods are outright prohibited from being imported into Germany, aligning with EU and international laws. Prohibited items typically include:

Illegal DrugsThe importation of narcotics and dangerous drugs is strictly prohibited.
Weapons and AmmunitionUnauthorised import of firearms, explosives, and ammunition is banned.
Endangered SpeciesProducts made from endangered species, protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), without the necessary permits, are not allowed.
Counterfeit GoodsItems that infringe intellectual property rights, such as fake brand-name products, are banned.
Obscene MaterialsThe import of materials deemed obscene or offensive, including certain types of pornography, is also prohibited.

Some goods that can be imported into Germany but are subject to restrictions and may require special licences or permits include the following:

Agricultural ProductsImportation of food, plants, and animals may be restricted to prevent the spread of diseases and pests. Sanitary and phytosanitary certificates are often required.
ChemicalsCertain chemicals are subject to restrictions due to environmental or health concerns. Importers may need to comply with the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation, and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) regulations.
Medicines and Medical DevicesPharmaceutical products and medical devices must comply with EU and German regulations. A licence from the Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices may be needed.
Cultural GoodsThe import of cultural goods over a certain age and value may require documentation proving lawful export from the country of origin to protect cultural heritage.
Dual-Use ItemsGoods that can be used for both civilian and military purposes are controlled under the EU Dual-Use Regulation. Importers must obtain the necessary licences for these items.

Tips for Smooth Customs Clearance

Successfully navigating customs clearance in Germany requires careful planning, attention to detail, and an understanding of the regulatory environment. By following best practices and being aware of common pitfalls, businesses can ensure a smoother experience.

Best Practices for Ensuring a Smooth Customs Clearance Process

  • Accurate Documentation: Ensure all required documents are accurately completed and submitted. Inaccuracies or missing information can lead to delays and additional scrutiny from authorities.
  • Understand Tariff Classifications: Properly classify your merchandise according to the Harmonised System (HS) codes. This is important for determining applicable duties and taxes and avoiding misclassification penalties.
  • Stay Informed on Regulations: Keep up-to-date with changes in customs regulations, duty rates, and trade agreements that may affect your imports.
  • Leverage Technology: Utilise customs management software and electronic data interchange (EDI) systems to streamline the submission of documents and track the status of shipments.
  • Plan for Inspections: Be prepared for potential inspections by customs authorities. Ensure that your goods are easily accessible and that you have additional documentation on hand if required.
  • Use Authorised Economic Operators (AEO): Partner with logistics providers and carriers that have AEO status. AEO-certified companies are considered secure and reliable, potentially reducing the number of inspections and facilitating faster clearance.
  • Seek Expert Advice: Consider consulting with customs brokers or logistics experts who specialise in German customs procedures. Their expertise can help navigate complex regulations and expedite the clearance process.

Common Pitfalls to Avoid During Customs Clearance in Germany

  • Underestimating the Importance of Compliance: Non-compliance with regulations can result in fines, seizures, and delays. Ensure that all goods comply with German and EU regulations.
  • Neglecting to Provide a Complete EORI Number: Failure to provide a valid EORI number can prevent your cargo from being cleared through customs.
  • Overlooking Restrictions on Prohibited and Restricted Goods: Attempting to import prohibited or restricted goods without the necessary permits or licences can lead to significant legal and financial repercussions.
  • Failing to Account for All Costs: Be aware of all costs associated with importing goods, including duties, taxes, and additional fees. Underestimating these costs can impact your budget and pricing strategy.
  • Ignoring VAT Implications: Understand the VAT requirements and how they apply to your imports. Incorrect handling of VAT can lead to cash flow issues and potential penalties.

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Navigating the complexities of German customs clearance demands a thorough understanding of the regulatory landscape, meticulous preparation of required documentation, and adherence to specific procedures and regulations. By mastering these elements, SMEs can ensure a smooth, efficient entry into one of Europe's most significant markets. 

Also, Bezos stands ready to support your business in overcoming any logistical hurdles, offering a comprehensive solution that simplifies customs clearance and accelerates your expansion into the German market and beyond. Start saving now.

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