HS codes originated in 1988 when the WCO adopted a new tariff classification system called the Harmonized System (HS). According to the WCO, over 98% of the merchandise in international trade is classified using this HS code system in a collective effort to simplify international trade.
Every five years, the WCO releases an amended version of the Harmonized System to account for new innovations and technology. Learn more about the WCO’s most recent 2022 tariff schedule update.
The primary use of HS codes is to determine import duties, collect international trade statistics, identify rules of origin and free trade agreements, comply with customs requirements, collect government revenue, and monitor prohibited and restricted goods.
The universal WCO HS code system consists of 21 sections spanning 97 chapters. These codes represent three HS code hierarchies:
These codes are supported by well-defined rules of interpretation in order to achieve uniform classification across the world.
Country-specific codes can range from 8 to 14 alphanumeric characters but, in most cases, are only numerical. Nearly every country utilizing the WCO’s Harmonized System has its own country-specific system as well. Countries extend the universal codes with their own codes, generally known as HTS codes. For example, in the U.S., the tariff system is known as the HTSUS.
To understand the way HTS codes vary depending on the country of importation, consider the following example of a basketball being imported into the U.S., Germany, and The Bahamas, based on their version of the HS system:
|Country||Code||Version of HS System|
|United States||9506.62.8020||Harmonized Tariff System (HTS)|
|Germany||9506.62.0000||Integrated Tariff of the European Union (TARIC)|
|The Bahamas||9506.62.00||Common External Tariff of the Caribbean (CET)|
As you can see, the first six digits are the same—these six digits are used worldwide—and the last four digits are different based on the country-specific requirements based on the country of importation. This is important to be aware of for international ecommerce in order to avoid over or under-calculating duty or having your shipment rejected or held by customs due to incorrect HS codes. For these reasons, Zonos always recommends classification to the country-specific level.
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What are HS codes?
Discover the basic, need-to-know information about Harmonized System codes.
Harmonized System (HS) codes are internationally recognized numerical representations of physical goods for international shipments. These codes are one of the most basic requirements for international shipments.
The HS nomenclature is multipurpose, has a simple hierarchical structure, and is published in both English and French by the World Customs Organization (WCO). It includes over 7,000 universal HS codes and is used by over 200 countries.
Keep reading to learn about HS codes, their history, and the difference between country-specific vs. universal codes.