VACIS (Vehicle and Cargo Inspection System) exams are inspections by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) for cargo imported into the United States. These inspections were introduced in the early 2000s as a proactive measure against potential threats and contraband cargo.

VACIS Exams were introduced following collaborative efforts made by three parties – the US Customs Service, the Department of Defense, as well as the Office of National Drug Control Policy and have since become one of the three main customs inspections, along with Tail Gate and Intensive Customs Exams.

The inspections are non-intrusive and involve using low-energy radiographic images (X-rays) to scan shipping containers, cargo boxes, and freight vehicles entering the United States. 

In this article, we’ll explain the key elements of VACIS Exams, including why it was implemented, when and where they are taken, how much they cost, and how long they typically take to complete.  

Why Was the VACIS Exam Implemented?

The VACIS Exam was introduced as a counter-terrorism measure to stop the entry of weapons, currency, and illegal drugs. After the 9/11 attacks, border and port security became a top priority for US Customs.

Over the next few years, the Department of Homeland Security created an independent US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) unit to develop and implement different initiatives to extend security parameters and enable legitimate trade. 

Where & When Are VACIS Exams Taken?

VACIS Exams are typically conducted at the dock for loose cargo, at port terminals for containerized cargo, and at borders for trucks. The inspection usually takes place 48 hours after the cargo’s arrival or immediately at the borders.

It’s common for the decision to inspect cargo to be made before it reaches the port of discharge by Customs Border Protection. These exams can be at random, based on suspicion, or for those with a history of violations. Any contraband detected by the scanners can lead to intrusive inspections. 

How Much Does a VACIS Exam Cost?

Every customs exam is charged differently, depending on the time taken and the resources involved. Importers are required to pay the VACIS Exam fee to three different parties – the Centralized Examination Station (CES), the transportation company, and the cargo shipping company. 

VACIS exams take place at a Central Examination Station (CES), which is a private and secure facility. It has a dedicated team that manages the process including the logistics and the examination.

Similarly, transportation companies charge a fee for shunting services to move cargo to and from the CES. Many shipping companies also charge importers additional fees since the cargo is held in their containers.

This fee may vary due to various factors such as administrative costs, delays due to additional inspections, and other reasons. Hence, the amount is used to offset the incurred costs and compensate for reduced carrier productivity during the waiting period.

Regardless of the circumstances, paying the VACIS Exam fee is mandatory. Otherwise, the cargo will be held by the United States Customs and Border Protection department, leading to further delays and increased fees. 

In summary, importers can expect to pay around $200 – $350 for a VACIS exam. Shunting and demurrage fees vary according to the distance and number of containers and are paid directly to the shipping line.

How Long Does a VACIS Exam Take?

Various factors determine how long a VACIS Exam can take, including the amount of cargo in the queue, the number of containers needed to be inspected, the complexity of goods imported, and the quality or urgency of connected services (drayage, CEP, etc.). 

If you’re an importer, you should consider a float of 2-3 days. However, the process can take longer, especially if your cargo is selected at random or deemed suspicious for additional or intrusive inspections. 

VACIS Versus Intensive Exam

A VACIS Exam is a non-intrusive inspection that uses radiographic images to scan the contents of a shipping container or cargo truck. On the other hand, an Intensive Customs Exam is much more complex and intrusive, meaning that the container or truck is open and physically inspected.

Depending on the circumstances, an intensive exam can take anywhere between 5 – 7 days, compared to a VACIS exam, which takes about 2 – 3 days (it can even be instantly for trucks entering through borders).

Besides the inspection time, there are also differences in the way the cargo is inspected. A VACIS Exam only requires exterior scanning, whereby Intensive exams are conducted through physical inspection.

Intrusive inspections also require more diligent screening and the presence of a CBP officer, a partnering government agency (PGA) officer, and logistics professionals.  Furthermore, Intensive Customs Exams can cost thousands of dollars.

Therefore, importers are required to do their due diligence and ensure they know about their business partners, possess accurate shipping documents, and are aware of the guidelines set by the CBP.

VACIS Versus CBP Exam

Under the Trade Act of 2002, CBP mandates importers to provide information electronically about the cargo, such as description, origin, and destination to name a few. The purpose of this mandate is to enhance security and quickly identify any high-risk cargo.

Moreover, CBP can employ several methodologies to determine who gets selected for a CBP exam and focuses mostly on cargo representing a greater possibility of threats and contraband. 

In this exam, the officials randomly examine packing lists and invoices to check for unpaid taxes and duties or tax fraud. When it comes to the examination of the goods, their goal is to ensure the cargo complies with licensing agreements and copyright.

In other words, they stop counterfeit products from entering the country. CBP Exams don’t have a fixed timeline. The examination mainly depends on the amount of cargo, port traffic, queue, and the complexity of the paperwork.

In comparison, the VACIS exam is a quicker and simpler process to vet through vehicles and imported goods through scanning.

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Andrew Lin

Co-Founder & Writer
at freightcourse

About the Author

Andrew is a multi-business owner with over 12 years of experience in the fields of logistics, trucking, manufacturing, operations, training, and education.

Being the co-founder of freightcourse has given him the ability to pursue his desire to educate others on manufacturing and supply chain topics.