How to Study for the Customs Broker Exam Part 3

This week we have been doing a three part series on how to prepare for the Customs Broker License Examination.

Part three is the longest post in the series, but it represents the meat of the content. If you follow these suggestions, you will be well on your way to passing the exam on your first try. So let’s get started!

Open-book... sounds easy

If you’re unfamiliar with the Customs Broker Licensing Exam, you are probably thinking to yourself, “open-book, multiple choice test= piece of cake!” Well…no. The CBP doesn’t make it an open-book test to be nice, it’s out of necessity. The “book” amounts to over 3000 pages to “open”. To give you a better idea, this is what just the HTSUS and 19 CFR look like:

Just kidding. It looks more like this:


With 80 questions to answer in 4 hours, you have about 3 minutes per question. Needless to say, you need to be strategic with how you study for the Customs Broker Exam. Reading through the material cover to cover and retaining the information in your brain is not a possibility (at least not for me). The goal of your study should be to get quick at looking up information in the HTS and 19 CFR.

Set up your Reference material

The first step is to organize yourself and your study materials to get the most out of your time. You should have a highlighting, flagging, and note taking system so that you can access the most salient information quickly.

After you get all of the required materials purchased and delivered, you should organize them into notebooks with each important section flagged with a tab. Here is how Janet Wallett from FCI suggests exam takers set up their notebooks:


Put this info in one small notebook:
Customs and Trade Automated Interface Requirements (CATAIR)

  • Appendix B - Valid Codes
  • Appendix D - Metric Conversion
  • Appendix E - Valid Entry Numbers
  • Appendix G - Common Errors
  • Appendix H - Census Warning Messages
  • Appendix L - Drawback Errors
  • Glossary of Terms

Put this info in one small notebook:

  • Instructions for Preparation of CBP Form 7501 (8-30-2005)

This can go in your reference bible:

  • C-TPAT - Minimum Security Criteria for Customs Brokers (3-20-2007) 
    Submission Changes for Supplemental Information Letters and Post Entry Amendments 

Put this info in one small notebook with divider tabs:


Put this info in one small notebook: 



Here are the tabs for your HTSUS:

  • General Rules of Interpretation
  • General Notes
  • Exemptions
  • GSP Countries GN 4
  • Automotive GN 5
  • Civil Aircraft GN 6
  • CBERA (E*) GN 7
  • Israel Free Trade (IL) GN 8
  • Freely Associated (Z) GN 10
  • Andean Trade (J) ATPA GN 11
  • NAFTA  GN 12
  • NAFTA Goods Wholly Obtained
  • GN 13/14/15 Pharmaceuticals
  • African (AGOA) (D) GN 16
  • Caribbean Basin (E) GN 17
  • Jordon (JO) GN 18
  • Singapore (SG) GN25
  • Chile (CL) GN 26
  • Morocco (MA) GN 27
  • Australia (AU) GN 28
  • DR-CAFTA (P or P+) CN 29
  • Bahrain (BH) GN 30
  • General Statistical Notes
  • Abbreviations
  • Country of Export
  • Cosmetics, Shampoos, Lipsticks
  • Textile Notes
  • Textile Restraints

Here are the tabs for your Reference Bible:

  • Contents 19 CFR 
  • Brokers Exam Notes
  • Customs Forms
  • Key Time Frames
  • Index (19 CFR Index goes here)
  • Classification & GRI's Fact Sheet
  • Classification
  • Valuation & Acronyms
  • Abbreviations & Definitions
  • Incoterms
  • MFG Shipper ID Code (MID)
  • Critical Deadlines
  • J-List
  • Trade Programs
  • Pkg Unit Codes
  • Tax / Fee Codes
  • Other Gov Agency Codes
  • Equip Description Codes
  • Valid Amendment Codes
  • Metric Conversion
  • CATAIR Glossary
  • Other Fee Block 39
  • Bond Type Codes
  • ISO Country & Currency Codes
  • Entry Type Codes
  • Missing Document Codes
  • Mode of Transport
  • Related Document Identifiers
  • Address Examples
  • 7501 Entry Summary
  • Entry/Immediate Delivery Form 3461
  • Customs Bond Form 301
  • Customs Broker 111
  • Entries 141 and 142
  • Valuation 152
  • Prohibited & Restricted 12, 145, 162
  • Recordkeeping 163
  • Fines, Penalties, Forfeitures 171
  • Protests 173 and 174
  • Quotas 132, 131
  • Rules of Origin 102
  • Trademarks Trade Names 133
  • Country of Origin Marking 134
  • Drawback 191
  • Customs Bonds 113
  • Bonded Warehouses 19
  • Foreign Trade Zone 146
  • Articles Free of Duty & TIB 10, Carnet 114
  • Financial & Accounting 24
  • NAFTA 181, 102, GN 12
  • Liquidation 159

Here are some extra tabs you can insert in your 19CFR:

  • TIB
  • Articles for the United States
  • GSP
  • MPF   HMF
  • Drawback Offices +
  • Textile Products COO Determination
  • Fees for Services
  • Liquidated Damages for failure to return
  • Informals
  • Addl. Info on Merchandise ie. footware
  • Liquidated Damages by other Gov Agency
  • Schedule Tares
  • Conversion of Foreign Currency
  • 171 Appendix A Failure to Declare
  • 1592 Sec. 592 171 App. B Commercial
  • 171 App. C  Penalties to Brokers
  • 171 App. D  Drawback Claims
  • Binding Rulings
  • Rules of Origin
  • Rules of Origin Appendix Terms
  • 191 Mfg. Drawback Subpart B
  • 191 Unused Merchandise Drawback Subpart C
  • 191 Rejected Merchandise Subpart D


Have a system for highlighting so that you can quickly scan for important information. Here are a couple of suggestions for how to color code your highlights. 

  • Blue - designates "time"  ie. period of 6 months, 60 days after date of notice, etc.
  • Green - designates "fees" "percents" "payments"  ie. payment of liquidated damages equal to double the estimated duties,  110 percent of estimated duties, $100, 35 percent
  • Pink - penalties
  • Orange - designates "customs forms"  ie.  Customs Form 3495
  • Yellow - Other important notes 

How to study for the exam

I posted a question on the Customs Compliance group on Linkedin asking how to best study for the Customs Broker Exam. They were able to give some great guidance that I would like to share with our readers.

Andrew Barbour of Hyundai Corp. gave the following steps to study for the exam:

  1. Download about five (older) past exams, and thoroughly study the CFR/HTSUS/directive section tested in each question. This will give you an idea of what you need to study GENERALLY for the exam. Put a star next to or highlight the CFR/HTSUS/directive section each time you see it come up in a question.
  2. Practice taking a few more exams at a leisurely pace, looking up answers as you go.
  3. Take the rest of the exams you can find (working forwards chronologically to the present) under timed conditions. Like at least 15 of them.
  4. Practice until your practice scores are consistently in the passing range. If you have already registered for a seat at the exam and you aren’t ready by the time the actual exam rolls around, cancel in advance, get a refund of your test fee and try to get ready for the next test.

Joanne Pack of First Class Cargo Systems, Ltd. added:

  1. Memorized the chapter numbers in the Table of Contents of the Regulations
  2. Have a general idea of how the HTSUS is set up in progression beginning with Ch. 1 Live Animals, progressing to fruits & vegetables, further progressing to processed food items…
  3. If you have a mentor, don’t hesitate to ask questions. The only dumb questions are the ones that are not asked.

How long do you need to study for the Customs Broker Exam?

The obvious answer to this question is: as long as it takes. Depending on the amount of time you have to devote to studying, it could take anywhere from a month to a year. I’m pretty new to the subject material, so when I told people in my network that I was going to try to take the test in April (at the time it was 1 ½ months away) I was advised to shoot for the October exam instead.

The pass rate for the exam is usually in the teens. Needless to say, it would behoove you to put in the necessary time beforehand so that you don't have to repeat.

As Andrew Barour said, if you aren’t ready by the time the actual exam rolls around, cancel in advance, get a refund of your test fee and try to get ready for the next test.

On Test Day

Give yourself plenty of time to get ready and drive to the Examination site. Get there early so that you don't bring additional stress to the process of taking the exam.

Be sure to bring photo ID, proof of registration, and your reference materials. 

When you take the actual exam skip the questions you don't know off the top of your head and answer the ones you know. Remember you have 4 hours; you want to allot as much time as you can to questions you're having problems with. Good Luck. (Charles Walper of Frontera Customs Broker)

Be sure to note your answers on the information you keep, last year there were lots of post test discussions to give testers a good gauge of how they did long before customs let them know. One further advantage to keeping your answers and hearing the commentary following the test is you can gather information that you might need to protest questions where you have a valid response but did not get a favorable score. Knowledge is power and a good protest could mean the difference between passing and failing! (Korrie Thomas, CHB, CCS)


I hope that the preceding suggestions will help you pass the Customs Broker Exam. Many thanks to the Customs Compliance professionals that gave their suggestions on Linkedin and to me personally.

CUSTOMS Info is in the process of creating a practice test application, and other useful exam prep materials. Follow us on any of the major social media outlets or subscribe to our RSS feeds to keep updated. 

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