There are two main types of customs agent who'll act for you - direct or indirect agents. When acting directly for you, an agent isn't liable for any debts of customs duty or VAT once a declaration is accepted. But when they act indirectly for a customer, in their own name, they're jointly liable for all charges. Agents will process customs declarations and can pay your customs duties for you if they're authorised to do so.
If an agent makes a declaration, either electronically or on a Single Administrative Document (SAD), on your behalf then you must ensure they have all the information they need. This will include a copy of your invoice, classification of your goods and support information, such as import or export licences. You should also check the customs procedure code (CPC) of your goods where you may have to pay duty or where you're operating on a simplified or preferential basis.
Customs electronic systems are designed to make declaration processing easier. There are a number of solutions which have been created to allow traders to enter data from their own computers directly to the HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) Customs Handling of Import and Export Freight (CHIEF) system.
A service provider, such as a bureau service or broker, can normally act on your behalf in the capacity of a direct representative. Even if you nominate a third party to prepare and submit your customs declarations, you still remain responsible for ensuring the accuracy and completeness of all the data. Where necessary, HMRC can audit your declarations over the last four years.
When deciding whether to use an agent, bear in mind agents are likely to be experienced in completing the SAD and transposing this information to the various electronic systems. Any mistake you make on your SAD can be costly and may result in you paying the incorrect amount of duty. Duties overpaid to HMRC can be refunded but under payments can also be brought to account. Agents may use their experience to lower your transport costs by processing your goods as part of a larger consignment. If you choose to use an agent, you must give them complete information about your consignments. Agents will be able to give HMRC more information about your goods than if you declared them yourself.
You may also want to use a freight forwarder - many of whom provide direct or indirect agent services. Read more about using brokers and forwarders.