The Harmonized Tariff

JORI International Harmonized Tariff

In this post, I’m going to go over the basics of the HS system which is so fundamental to international trade. The World Customs Organizations (WCO) created the harmonized system after World War II, in order to create a standardized classification of global commodities.  The general concept was to create a system where all goods that are traded globally, are classified uniformly across countries. This in turn, makes it easier for countries to trade with one another, and allows countries to apply applicable duty rates to the products that they are importing. HS codes are assigned to all products worldwide, to create this uniformity.

The harmonized tariff system is comprised of 10 digit codes. The first 6 digits of the tariff are the same for all countries worldwide. The last 4 digits are specific to individual countries. The 10 digits are comprised of the following parts:

Example Harmonized Tariff Code: 8421.31.90.10 - Air filter for a motorized vehicle:

84 – Chapter Level

21 – Header Level

31 – Sub header Level

90 – Canadian specific classification number (The duty rate for products coming into Canada is determined from this number. This is the 7th and 8th digit of the 10 digit classification number

10 – These are specific for Canadian statistical purposes. The government uses this trade data.


Step-by-step guide on how to classify a commodity:

Step 1: Find out what chapter the commodity falls into

The best option here is to find a similar description of the commodity in Recap as a starting point. You can also use the ctrl find function and search by the commodity key word in the customs tariff document. Also, keep in mind that the higher the chapter number, the more complicated the commodity is. If the commodity has many component parts, it’s likely a higher chapter number. [1] [2] Use the footnotes indicated below, to access the customs tariff, and start your search on getting to the right chapter header.

Step 2: Read the chapter notes to uncover important details that may pertain to the commodity

Don’t classify your commodity until you have read the notes detailed at the beginning of the chapter you are in. These notes take precedent over the other parts of the tariff. For example: You may think that you can classify a pet toy in chapter 95. Everything can look fine until you read the last note in the chapter!! Although everything else lines up, the notes trump all!

Step 3: Find out what header the commodity falls into

Once you have identified the first 2 digits of the tariff classification, you need to find the next 2 digits. The header looks like the highlighted part below. There are no dashes next to it and it will have the full four digits indicated (84.21).

Step 4: Find out what sub header the commodity falls into

Once you have identified the first 4 digits of the tariff classification, you need to find the next 2 digits. The sub header looks like the highlighted part below. Cream separators, clothes dryers and other, all pertain to 84.21, but are distinctly different.

Step 5: Find out the 7th and 8th digit of the tariff code

Once you have identified the first 6 digits of the tariff classification, you need to find the next 2 digits.

Step 6: Find out the 9th and 10th digit of the tariff code.

Once you have identified the first 8 digits of the tariff classification, you need to find the next 2 digits.

Step 7: Identify the applicable duty rate.

To identify the correct duty rate you need two things. The HS code for the product, and the products country of origin. You need to start by looking at the link below to determine which trade agreements apply for the country of origin of the specific commodity you are classifying.[3] Once you have determined this, you look at the right hand side of the customs tariff to decide what duty rate is applied. For example, if the following example is part of one of the highlighted trade agreements the duty rate is free. Otherwise the importer has to pay 6% duty.

Hurray! You’ve learned the basics on how to classify an item. Now just remember…there are exceptions. Don’t worry we’ll learn about some of those in the next lesson.


Kylie Woods

fresh & nimble, Calgary, Alberta

Kylie is the Principal of fresh and nimble and she's built brands for non-profits, startups and small businesses alike. Her experience has spanned agency, product management and venture capital. 

Kylie's love for "making things" has gone digital! And while the tools in her Make-It box have changed from glue sticks and pipe-cleaner to a laptop and wifi, the drive to create has remained. Kylie is passionate about helping small business owners and entrepreneurs share their authentic online selves through branding. 

She's the founder of Chic Geek, a non-profit building community for women at the intersection of technology and entrepreneurship.