FedEx + Customs = Nightmare

Tags: Life

Aug 20, 2021

10 min. read

While being situated in Pune, India, I recently did a remote internship with a New York-based company. They shipped me a laptop and peripheral devices via FedEx and what followed was a nightmare.

I had been in India since December last year and completed my last semester of studies remotely. When the company let me know that I can do my internship from India, I was excited. As was with my previous remote internship last year, the company shipped the equipment to the interns' remote locations. While for the majority of interns that would be within the US, it turned out to be quite a big problem for me being outside the US.

A few days before my internship was to start, I received an email from FedEx that asked for documents to allow the entry of the shipment into the country. Before I received the email, I hadn't considered that the shipment would be of quite a high value and that it would need to be cleared by customs. And so the 6-week saga begins.

The email listed some documents that I was not familiar with at all. While I was asked for the usual Indian identification documents, I was also asked for something called an Import Export Code (IEC), a Bank Authorised Dealer code (Bank AD code), and some authorization forms to be filled by the company. It hadn't occurred to me yet that FedEx was considering this as a business import! In a sense it may appear to be true, but it was not, because the company does not have a branch in India.

I ask them to call me so that I can clarify the specifics of my situation, namely that I am not buying anything, and I am handling the shipment as an individual without any financial transaction involved. The lady who called me assured me that the situation can be resolved if I supply a letter from the company indicating everything I had just said. I said I could send that by the next day, considering the fact that going forward anything that FedEx asks for can only be supplied the next working day (because of a timezone difference with New York). The company's HR and Recruiting were really helpful throughout the process, and they immediately provided me with a letter that I then forwarded to FedEx.

I thought that was going to be it, but then entered a new customer support person (one of the most incompetent people I've ever interacted with as you'll see), and SunImpex, a mediator between FedEx and customs for high value shipments. The FedEx customer support person kept asking for the IEC and Bank AD code countless number of times even after explaining the situation thoroughly. This person did not understand until after a phone call and explaining everything once more.

Meanwhile, a SunImpex representative began the process of creating a Bill of Entry (BoE) document for the shipment which listed a customs duty of over 70% of the actual value itself! While I was shocked about that duty amount, the company was ready to pay any amount to get the shipment cleared. Still, things were unfortunately destined to go downhill.

Apparently, customs (or may be SunImpex, we will never know) wasn't just satisfied with the company becoming ready to pay the customs duties and asked for proof of value documents (namely purchase order copies for each item in the shipment or bank remittance copies for each item), and also a "technical write-up", which is basically a good description of the items in the shipment. I was extremely stressed at this point as my internship was to start in just two days, and I didn't know what to do. I wasn't expecting the shipment to get cleared or the company to be able to provide the requested documents. But, the company HR did provide the purchase order documents... the catch being, all the orders were bulk (duh). They also gave me a company letterhead so that I could create any"technical" documents that FedEx/customs was going to ask further.

Soon, my internship began without any of the equipment reaching me. The company's tech support was really helpful and set up VPN login through my personal laptop for as long as required. The process was painful each day as I had to log in with special token codes that sometimes randomly expired, and I also had to face a LOT of latency because of connecting to a Chicago VM through a Tokyo VM (yeah, double latency).

Anyways, on the FedEx/SunImpex/customs front, I had a whole week of radio silence. Finally, they responded with an aggravating message. Remember, how they asked me to either submit purchase orders OR bank remittances? Well, now they want both. The company was nice enough to provide me these as well, although I was expecting their patience also to run out by this point. However, according to SunImpex, customs was still not satisfied with these and wanted the Manufacturer's price lists (what??). To their credit, not all the purchase orders and bank remittances matched up, and they were bulk as well, but come on, how long did they plan on torturing their customer?

Well, this was the limit. The company did not have any way of getting manufacturer's price lists, and SunImpex was not satisfied with the listings on the manufacturer's website. I tried going the Twitter route (as it worked for my cousin before), and also tried calling customer service, both to no avail. SunImpex was stuck on manufacturer's price lists like a broken record while the FedEx customer support person was of no use and just stopped responding to my emails.

After a few days, the FedEx customer support person just told me to visit customs and explain in person. I would literally have to travel from Pune to Mumbai (3.5 hour drive) for explaining the exact same thing that I have been trying to tell them since the start. They refused to give any contact information of the customs official, or at least the customs department itself, stating they were unauthorized to provide that information. I tried scourging the Internet for this information, but as with every other Indian government agency, no phone number worked. The FedEx customer support person gave me the address of the place I had to visit, and this would be the last straw.

Both HR and my manager at the company did not want me to travel during these COVID times just to get a shipment cleared, but I was tired of dealing with FedEx over email and also dealing with the double latency during work hours every day. The shipment was just sitting in Mumbai for 4 weeks since it arrived in India, waiting for clearance. At the end of week 3 of my internship, my dad drove me to Mumbai to the customs location. My morale was low, and this was a desperate attempt at getting something accomplished with FedEx.

Turns out we need a pass per person just to get inside the building. We tried getting passes from an office that was a 7-8 minute walk away, but the person stamping the passes wanted a letter from SunImpex, who, admittedly because of me not informing them of my travel, did not provide me with any letter. Right from there I tried contacting them as well as FedEx, but to no avail. It was the middle of monsoon, was raining on and off all day, and we were waiting outside the building under an umbrella hoping to run into some higher level authority. We got lucky and ran into some FedEx official. He sympathized with our situation and got us a document to show to the pass-issuing person. We finally got passes to enter the building after walking back and forth between the two buildings a couple of times in the rain.

We met with a SunImpex person inside who said he would get us in contact with the customs official. Great! After a long wait, when we finally met the customs official, he understood our situation immediately and asked us why we traveled all the way from Pune! We pointed out that the FedEx and SunImpex people were pretty much incompetent in handling any case that is slightly different from the usual. Anyways, the official just asked for a signed letter from me indicating the remote internship and situation, and assured that the shipment would get cleared by the end of the day.

With that assurance, we drove back to Pune losing the whole day. I was actually surprised when the shipment was cleared the next morning itself. I really was not expecting anything to happen. A couple of days later, I received my equipment. One surprise was that the huge customs duty that I was expecting to pay to the delivery guy was seemingly waived-off by the customs official!

Sadly, that was the only good part... The end of the ordeal was not to be seen yet. I received my equipment in a flimsy cardboard box among a bunch of packing peanuts. This definitely could NOT be the box that the equipment was shipped in as I've never seen such a shoddy job done by FedEx in the US. Turns out the equipment was opened and inspected by customs. From the company's perspective, that is considered tampering. The company is very particular about their security practices. When I informed them that the laptop charger was missing and the laptop's tamper evidence bag was already opened, they told me I couldn't use the laptop. Four and a half weeks of effort just gone, poof.

However, the company was dead set on delivering a laptop to me for a good internship experience. They sent a new shipment within the next two days. At that moment, I was more distressed about dealing with FedEx again than happy about them sending another laptop to improve my experience. Luckily(?), this time a different FedEx representative contacted me even before the shipment entered India instead of the incompetent person from last time. After explaining the whole situation over a long phone call, he assured smooth processing this time around.

Shockingly, I was contacted by SunImpex once again asking the same documents as before (IEC, Bank AD code etc.). I was annoyed at this point; I bombarded them with every single document that I had provided the last time, and I sent a new letter addressing the customs official requesting him to clear this shipment as the previous shipment could not be used because of their deeds. At this point they didn't contact me further, and thankfully the shipment was cleared without any further trouble. I was dreading the day I had to open the shipment to make sure it was not tampered with again...

I finally received the shipment at the end of week 5 of my internship. Customs apparently once again waived-off the duties, and this time the shipment came in what seemed to be its original packaging. This time the laptop's tamper evidence bag was not torn, which meant I could finally use the laptop (Tired Hurray!)

I really have to thank the company's HR for putting up with this whole ordeal till the end and being supportive throughout the process. In all of this, there was something still looming... I had to ship the two laptops back to the company at the end of my internship, through FedEx.

When my internship ended after the 10th week, I visited a local FedEx. After talking with them, I basically figured out that in an individual capacity, it is impossible to ship the laptops out of India through any courier service. This is because the value of each item is more than 25,000INR (roughly 340USD), and stringent Indian Government export rules prohibit that. So, I am stuck with the laptops for now, which honestly, is the best outcome I suppose... I don't have to deal with FedEx and customs again. I have to find a way to send them back to the US, likely taking them with me when I plan on traveling back.

I probably will never use FedEx for international shipping to India in my life after this nightmare...