NAFTA Certificate of Origin: Basic Guidance

Source: Trade Information Center, U.S. Department of Commerce

The Trade Information Center helps businesses answer questions on the export process, but final determination of NAFTA requirements rests with customs authorities.


1. Question. When should a North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) Certificate of Origin be completed?

Answer. A NAFTA Certificate of Origin should only be completed for products exported to Canada or Mexico that meet the NAFTA rules of origin for production in the NAFTA countries. Inclusion of products which do not qualify is illegal and subject to fines and penalties.

Elimination of Canadian and Mexican duties on U.S. products is one of the major NAFTA benefits for U.S. suppliers. To ensure that the benefits of tariff removal accrue to the NAFTA products, and not to Non-NAFTA products, NAFTA includes tough rules of origin. Only products that meet the NAFTA rules of origin are eligible for the preferential NAFTA duty rate.

NAFTA provides for zero duties on U.S.-Canada trade that meet the NAFTA rules of origin and lower or zero tariffs on U.S.-Mexico NAFTA trade. Exemption from duties means U.S. qualifying products are more price-competitive and therefore more attractive to the Mexican and Canadian importers and consumers. U.S. qualifying products can only benefit from the preferential tariff if the importer has a NAFTA Certificate from the exporter.

By filling out a NAFTA Certificate of Origin, an exporter is certifying that the covered goods meet the rules of origin and, therefore, qualifies for preferential rates.

If the product does not qualify for NAFTA tariff preference, the Certificate must not be completed, as the product is usually subject to the Most-Favored-Nation (MFN) tariff rate, rather than the NAFTA rate.


2. Question. Is a NAFTA Certificate of Origin required for shipments to Canada and Mexico?

Answer. No, a NAFTA Certificate of Origin is not required for shipments to Mexico or Canada. Goods will clear Customs without a NAFTA Certificate. A NAFTA Certificate should only be prepared by the exporter if the product qualifies for preferential tariff treatment under the NAFTA rules of origin. If the Certificate is not available, the higher MFN tariff will usually be applied. The MFN rate applies to goods produced in most countries that do not qualify for the NAFTA preferential rate.

A NAFTA Certificate of Origin is also not required for commercial importation of a good into Canada or Mexico whose value does not exceed US$1000 or its equivalent amount in the country’s currency. However, for such goods to qualify for NAFTA preferential duty, the invoice accompanying the commercial importation must include a statement certifying that the good qualifies as an originating good under the NAFTA rule of origin. The statement should be attached to, or handwritten, stamped or typed on the commercial invoice.

This exception is valid as long as the shipment does not form part of a series of importations that may be reasonably considered to have been undertaken or arranged for the purpose of avoiding the Certification requirement.

3. Question. When and how do I submit a NAFTA Certificate of Origin?

Answer. Once an exporter determines that the exported good will meet the NAFTA rules of origin, a NAFTA Certificate of Origin must be completed accurately and legibly. The exporter must then send the Certificate to the importer. While the Certificate does not have to accompany the shipment, the importer must have a copy of the Certificate in hand before claiming the NAFTA tariff preference when the goods clear customs. Certificates of Origin may, at the discretion of the exporter, cover a single importation of goods or multiple importations of identical goods.

In some cases an exporter may not have the Certificate of Origin ready at the time of export. However, the importer may still make a post-importation claim for NAFTA tariff preference once the importer receives a completed NAFTA Certificate of Origin. The importer can then apply to their customs authority for a refund of duties paid. The claim may be made up to one year after the importation of a good.

4. Question. Where do I obtain the NAFTA Certificate of Origin form?

Answer. The NAFTA Certificate of Origin is available on the Trade Information Center (TIC) website at http://www.trade.gov/td/tic by clicking on NAFTA. It is also available on the website of the U. S. Customs Service at http://www.customs.treas.gov. Click on forms and then on CBP form 434.

5. Question. Who is responsible for determining if the product qualifies under NAFTA and for completing the Certificate?

Answer. The Certificate of Origin must be completed and signed by the exporter of the goods. Where the exporter is not the producer, the exporter may complete the Certificate on the basis of: knowledge that the good originates; reasonable reliance on the producer’s written representation that the good originates; or a completed and signed Certificate of Origin for the good voluntarily provided to the exporter by the producer.

Exporters who are not producers often request that their producers or distributors provide them with a Certificate of Origin as documentation that a good they sell to Mexico or Canada meets the rule of origin, or that an input used in a good produced by the exporter meets a NAFTA rule of origin. The NAFTA does not obligate a producer who is not an exporter to provide the ultimate exporter with a NAFTA Certificate of Origin. However, if the non-exporting producer does complete the NAFTA Certificate of Origin, the producer is subject to the same obligations regarding record keeping, etc., as the exporter. Even so, it is the exporter's Certificate, and not the non-exporting producer's Certificate, that must be provided to the importer. The producer’s statement should be kept in the files of the exporter as backup for the exporter’s Certificate.

A distributor does not complete a Certificate of Origin for qualifying goods unless the distributor is the exporter. A distributor, may, however, forward a producer's Certificate of Origin to an exporter.

6. Question. What is the process for determining if a NAFTA Certificate of Origin should be completed?

Answer. The NAFTA Certificate of Origin is a legal document and determining origin can be a complex process. Completion of a NAFTA Certificate of Origin is an affirmation that the party signing the document has researched the terms of the NAFTA Agreement and has determined that the goods covered by the Certificate of Origin are “originating goods” as defined by the Agreement. Preparation of a NAFTA Certificate of Origin imposes certain legal rights, obligations and liabilities on the party signing the document and should be based on a careful inquiry into the terms of the text of NAFTA Agreement and other relevant United States regulations.

A product does not automatically qualify for NAFTA tariff treatment just because the product was manufactured in the United States or purchased from a U.S. company. The product must meet the specific NAFTA rule of origin, and the exporter must complete the NAFTA Certificate of Origin before the importer can claim the NAFTA tariff rate.

Follow these steps to determine if a NAFTA Certificate of Origin should be completed:

Step 1. Determine the Harmonized System (H S) Number for the product to be exported.

The NAFTA rules of origin are organized under the Harmonized System (HS). The HS numbers are standardized classification numbers assigned to identify a specific type of product in international trade. The HS number is used by Customs authorities to apply duties and taxes. These numbers are typically 6 to 10 digits long. The first 6 digits are standardized worldwide, while additional numbers are used by some governments to further distinguish products in a certain category. In the United States, HS numbers are also called “Schedule B” numbers. To obtain tariff information, the HS number up to the 6-digit level is required.

The U.S. Census Bureau's Foreign Trade Division website can be used to obtain HS numbers. The address is http://www.census.gov/foreign-trade/www From this site, click on Schedule B Keyword Search. If you have trouble classifying your product and need assistance, call the Census Bureau at 301-763-3484. In addition, the Schedule B: Statistical Classification of Domestic and Foreign Commodities Exported from the United States can be ordered from the Government Printing Office by calling 202-512-1800. The stock number is 903-009-00000-4, and the cost of the book is $135. The CD-ROM version can also be purchased from the Census Bureau for $50 by calling 301-763-4636.

Step 2. Determine the Canadian/Mexican MFN tariff for the product. If the MFN rate is zero, no NAFTA Certificate is needed.

Tariff information is available from a number of sources, including your customs broker, freight forwarder, the customs authorities of Canada and Mexico. You can also call the TIC at 1-800-USA-TRAD(E) for tariff rates.

Step 3. If the MFN rate is not zero, use the HS number to find the applicable the rule of origin in the NAFTA Agreement and determine if the product qualifies for a NAFTA tariff rate.

When products meet the rules of origin and therefore qualify for NAFTA tariff benefits, they are said to "originate." Article 401 of the NAFTA Agreement established which goods originate and precludes goods from other countries from obtaining those benefits by merely passing through Canada, Mexico or the United States. Thus, not all goods made in Canada, Mexico and the United States qualify for NAFTA benefits.

Chapter 4 of the NAFTA sets out most of the principles governing origin determination. The NAFTA Rules of Origin (Annex 401) are located in the text of the NAFTA Agreement on the website of the Organization of American States at http://www.sice.oas.org/trade/nafta/Anx401a1.asp or on the NAFTA Customs website at http://www.cbp.gov/nafta/nafta_new.htm. (Select NAFTA Topics, then Annex 401). For updates click on General Note 12(t). General Note 12(t) NAFTA Rules of Origin are available at the following website: http://www.cbp.gov/nafta/docs/us/gn12t1-29.html

These updates are as interpreted for goods entering the United States. Final interpretations for goods entering the other two NAFTA partners rest with representative customs authorities in Canada (613-991-0537) and Mexico (52-55-228-3437).

Exporters must carefully research the terms of the Agreement to determine whether their goods are entitled to NAFTA benefits. They should not assume that the goods are entitled to NAFTA benefits merely because they were made in a NAFTA country.

For assistance call the TIC at 1-800-USA-TRAD(E) for non-agricultural products.

Step 4. If the product meets the NAFTA rule of origin, complete the NAFTA Certificate of Origin. If the product does not meet the rule of origin, do not complete the Certificate.

7. Question. How long should copies of the Certificate of Origin be retained?

Answer. In the United States, the exporter is required to retain a copy of the Certificate (or the Original) for five years from the date of signature. The importer is required to retain the Certificate and all other documentation relating to the importation of the goods for 5 years after the importation of the goods. The facts asserted in the Certificate must be supported by adequate records relating to the goods, their materials and production.

In Mexico, Mexican exporters must maintain a copy of the Certificate for 10 years.

In Canada, Canadian importers and exporters are required to keep the Certificate for six years from the time of the transaction for the importer and six years from the date of signing for the Canadian exporter.

8. Question. What language should be used to complete the NAFTA Certificate of Origin?

Answer. A uniform Certificate of Origin is used in all three countries and is printed in English, French or Spanish. The Certificate shall be completed in the language of the country of export or the language of the importing country, at the exporter’s discretion. Importers must submit a translation of the Certificate to their own customs administration when requested.

The U.S. Department of Commerce, Trade Information Center maintains information on the NAFTA rules of origin/certificate, including a link to the rules of origin, on its website: http://www.trade.gov/td/tic Click on Country Information and then click on NAFTA: Canada and Mexico and then on NAFTA Certificate of Origin. TIC NAFTA specialists are also available to answer individual questions on the process. The TIC’s telephone number is 1-800-USA-TRAD(E).

There are many regulations that may affect the completion of the NAFTA Certificate of Origin. Some include U.S. export and customs regulations. In addition to the text of the Agreement information on how to address these regulations can be found in the U.S. Customs Service’s publication NAFTA: A Guide to Customs Procedures, which is available on the NAFTA Customs website at http://www.cbp.gov/nafta/nafta_new.htm.

Information Source: Trade Information Center