Monday, March 10, 2014

Reverse engineering the customs process

I admit that I don't have much experience with the procedures of international customs.  During previous projects, it was clear that navigating the importation of goods is quite complicated.  Back at USC, I spent much time maintaining and upgrading our beloved seismic equipment.  When it was clear that the trip to Timor Leste was on, I put together the shipping invoice and international shipping documents.  For a county under development such as Timor Leste, the resources online are not exactly complete.  I found that our shipment would be exempt from import tax if our project was associated with a government entity, and is meant for scientific research.  Great, so then there should be not problem, right?  Fellow postdoc Rob Porritt and Ph.D. student Cooper Harris packed the equipment onto the FedEx truck while I was on my way to the airport.  Things were on their way.

The equipment leaving USC, geophysicists for scale.
I arrived in Dili on the 26th of February and the equipment was scheduled to arrive 2 days later.  Those 2 days came, and the shipment was still in Singapore.  Not yet time for panic.  Monday came around, and we found that the equipment had arrived in Dili.  We went to the airport to the FedEx office, and they redirected us to the Timor Leste partner, SDV Logistics, who handles the import.  We made it to the SDV office to find out that the equipment is being held and we were given two options: pay a 10% import tax (on the declared $50,000 value) and get the equipment in 3 days, or wait a week to have the equipment released without charge.  I don't think the second option was actually available, and the first was certainly not in our budget.  Arrrrgh.

So we continue on with the process, first by obtaining a letter from IPG's administration declaring that the shipment was meant for a government-hosted scientific research project.  That took a few days to get a hold of.  We delivered this letter to the customs office to get things moving.  At this point, we left Dili for the aforementioned field days.  Once we made it back to Dili and revisited the customs office, it was clear that no further progress was made.  I urged Eugenio to push on them to make this happen, and he did.  The letter we delivered was sent back and forth between divisions within customs, and was finally on the desk of "Mr. Alex," who is responsible for judging the application of customs procedural process.  I felt sure that if we didn't visit the office and give some push, nothing would've happened.  It was judged that our shipment was indeed exempt from import tax, and our paperwork was ushered on to the next level.  At this stage, we were one level from the top of the customs ministry.  They needed to write a final endorsement before sending it on to the minister of customs.  The next day, Eugenio visited the customs office and found that the letter was delivered to the customs minister.  This gave us the proper documentation to visit the SDV Logistics office again to demonstrate that things were in order.  After a long conversation with the importing agent, we were assured that the equipment will be released within 24 hours. 

So it is clear in hindsight - we should have obtained the government endorsement prior to shipping and included this with the import.  But we could not get the endorsement letter without having our MoU signed.  I proceeded in exactly the opposite order, ship equipment, then have letter written, then sign MoU. Reverse engineering at its finest!

Update coming soon...

The sign for the Customs and Import office.  I hope to never see this again.

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