When Should You Refuse to Complete the USMCA Certificate of Origin?

David Noah | June 19, 2019 | Free Trade Agreements
Print this article:

When Should You  Refuse to Complete the USMCA Certificate of Origin? | Shipping SolutionsOn July 1, 2020, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement replaced the the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as the primary instrument to eliminate duties on certain qualifying products traded among the three countries.

While everyone knew this change was coming, the Office of the United States Trade Representative's announcement of the July 1 implementation date caught many exporters off guard. Companies are now rushing to replace their outdated NAFTA Certificates of Origin with the new USMCA Certificate of Origin.

Rather than rushing blindly into preparing the new USMCA Certificates, now may be a good time for exporters to review the benefits of utilizing this free trade agreement.

Because of its complexity and specificity, USMCA can become more burdensome than it is useful for those tasked with computing whether or not their goods are eligible for preferential duty rates. Here are five situations when issuing a USMCA Certificate of Origin can cost you money, cause you headaches, and put you at risk for penalties.

Download a free USMCA Certificate of Origin template.

1. Your Products Are Already Duty-Free

Depending on what you’re exporting, the product may already be duty free. Why take the time and incur the expense of completing the certificate if you don’t have to? To determine the duty status of items, you must know the harmonized code for your product and reference it with Canadian and Mexican tariffs.

With that information, you’ll be able to identify which, if any, of your goods are subject to duties and decide if participating in USMCA makes financial sense. If your exported goods are duty free, or are subject to a very low duty rate, you may realize that the expense and effort of issuing a USMCA Certificate doesn’t offer much, if any, benefit, and you can skip the process completely.

2. You Can’t Verify Your Products Qualify

Completing and signing the Certificate of Origin is more than filling out a document. Don’t take the obligation lightly, and be certain that whomever certifies the document is both knowledgeable of the export and takes responsibility for it.

What’s the risk? Customs authorities will question certification by employees who are neither knowledgeable nor authorized to represent the certifying party. The person signing the certificate risks both civil and criminal penalties for any misclassifications or errors.

For that reason, don’t complete the certificate of origin unless the person completing the certificate is properly trained and understands the qualification process established by the USMCA rules of origin.

3. You Can’t Prove Origin

A product that’s made in the United States doesn’t automatically qualify for USMCA. In order to qualify, the product must comply with USMCA rules of origin, which distinguish between “origin of goods” versus “originating in a North American country.”

The rules of origin specify that goods originate in North America if they are wholly North American. A bicycle made entirely of North American parts and assembled in North America is one example.

Goods containing non-regional materials are also considered to be North American if those materials are sufficiently transformed in the USMCA region—that is, they have been used by North American workers or changed in North America enough to qualify. There are very specific qualifications to reach this classification.

Using our previous example, consider a bicycle with parts made in a non-regional country. The bicycle may qualify for USMCA under the rules of origin if the parts of the bicycle have been transformed sufficiently.

Make sure you're using the right export documents. Download the free Beginner's Guide to Export Forms.

If you claim your goods qualify, you must be able to clearly and precisely prove the parts’ origin using the specific percentages of items that come from the USMCA region. If you can’t, your goods will not qualify, and you may face penalties.

4. Certification Isn’t Worth the Effort

Sometimes, the costs of administrating and maintaining a USMCA program and the training it requires make it too expensive and burdensome. (That may go for all free trade agreements.) Exporters and producers aren’t legally obligated to participate, and for some, the risk of non-compliance outweighs avoiding unnecessary duty payments.

5. Your Products Simply Don’t Qualify

Finally, some companies choose to opt out for another good reason: their products just don’t qualify under the USMCA. Just because their goods qualified under the NAFTA rules of origin don't mean they still do. (See, Here's What's New in the USMCA.)

If your goods don't qualify, you shouldn’t participate. Simple as that!


This article was first published in May 2014 under the name When Should You Refuse to Complete the NAFTA Certificate of Origin? and has been updated to include current information about the USMCA, new links, and subtle formatting changes.

Classifying Your Products for International Trade