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Becoming a Freight Forwarder

The information below is available on the website ( by going to the link for Ocean Transportation Intermediaries (OTI) section (2nd entry on right side column). There is a form and instructions for completing a license application and submitting a bond.  See below for a summary of information on how to become a Freight Forwarder and Non-Vessel Operating Common Carrier (NVOCC).

Is there a test to obtain a license to become an OTI or Freight Forwarder/NVOCC?

There is not a test requirement to obtain a license to become an Ocean Transportation Intermediary, which includes licensing as a Freight Forwarder and/or a Non-Vessel Operating Common Carrier. They are separate and different but an entity can apply for and be licensed as both.  The fee mentioned below is not doubled if an entity applies as both.

What is a Freight Forwarder?

A freight forwarder serves as an agent of the exporter for purposes of arranging cargo transportation and related documentation services needed to accomplish an international shipment.  Their services include, but are not limited to, providing export quotations to potential US shippers or foreign buyers, routing and booking cargo, and arranging transportation from point of origin all the way to the place of ultimate destination. Freight forwarders also prepare or assist in the preparation of the documents needed to accomplish the transportation, advise US government export requirements, and document the shipment for customs clearance into the destination country. Additional services, such as collection of funds under a letter of credit or other means as well as arrangement of marine cargo insurance may also be provided.  All services are dependent on the requirements and agreements with the exporter of record. Note that using a freight forwarder, or any other party, does not relieve the exporter from their responsibility to comply with export regulations. Ocean Freight Forwarders are licensed by the Federal Maritime Commission (46 CFR 515.2) and you can verify a valid licensed Ocean Transportation Intermediary at  Air Freight Forwarders maintain an IATA number and are Indirect Air Carriers regulated by the Transportation Security Administration.

What are the requirements for obtaining a license?

The basic requirements for licensing as an Ocean Transportation Intermediary Freight Forwarder are covered in 46 C.F.R. 515 and the application process is completed by filing a Form FMC-18 in either paper format (typewritten and in duplicate) or electronically.  Upon submission, an application fee of $825.00 is required for paper format.  If filed electronically, currently an application fee of $250 is required.  Once you elect to file electronically, no paper documentation will be permitted, except for the application fee, e.g., check or money order, and an originally signed Part G (Certification) of the application.

Steps to Obtaining a License

The applicant must first determine whether it will be a sole proprietor, partnership or a corporation. If a person desires to be a sole proprietor the license will be issued in his/her name and any trade name they operate under. The ownership and any affiliations must be identified on the form.  This is not related only to foreign commerce but is inclusive of all business activity.

The applicant must identify the Qualifying Individual (QI). This person must be of good character, who has a minimum of 3 years of relative experience in the United States working in the shipping//freight handling/billing/chartering/ cargo handling portion of the Maritime Industry. The QI must be an active officer of the company. The employment history of the QI and the names and contact information of at least 3 non-related references that have first-hand knowledge of the QI's work experience are required to be submitted. If applicable, the articles of incorporation and the state approved identification for a fictitious business or trade name, and a certificate of good standing for an existing corporation must be submitted.

Proof of financial responsibility in the form of a bond, proof of insurance or other surety of $75,000.00 for an NVOCC must be provided.  A person is considered to be "in the United States" if such person is resident in, or incorporated or established under, the laws of the United States.  An NVOCC must publish a tariff containing the actual rates, charges, classification, rules, regulations and practices of a common carrier or a conference of common carriers and file FORM FMC-1 with the Commission.

What may prevent me from obtaining a license?

Prior to the issuance of a license, a person may not perform, or hold out to perform, ocean intermediary services. Proof of financial responsibility in the form of a surety bond for $50,000.00 must be provided.

The regulations concerning OTI licensing requirement may be viewed at the Commission's website

The information needed to complete the application is available on the website There are a series of frequently asked questions and the answers available that will help understand the licensing procedure.

There is information available in 46 CFR Part 500 (to the end) about the maintenance of records.

Unfortunately, the NCBFAA cannot recommend anyone in particular to assist you because of regulations but can tell you that tariff publishing companies, law firms, and maritime consultants can assist you. They have experience in processing applications and know the required information that must be submitted. Most of these firms can be located on the World Wide Web, or in Maritime related periodicals.

NCBFAA cannot specify what the cost of a surety bond will be, because it varies from company to company and applicant to applicant.  The assets, credit history, length of time in the business among other items are all considered by the surety company.  They must be approved by the US Treasury Dept. I would recommend trying a few different companies.

Should you have any further questions, please contact the Office of Transportation Intermediaries by telephone at 202.523.5843 orby telefax at 202.566.0011

Why should exporters use an International Freight Forwarder?

  • For the same reason a company uses an accountant to file their taxes – to utilize the expertise of companies who specialize in their services.
  • General assistance and quotations are normally provided without cost to the exporter
  • Freight forwarders can advise exporters of their responsibilities and liabilities
  • Freight forwarders facilitate each process from door to door by developing the logistical arrangements for the move
  • Freight Forwarders handle the export documentation, assist in the handling of licensable shipments when required, and can offer guidance regarding the importing country requirements.
  • Fees are relatively inexpensive compared to the services provided

Do I need to use a freight forwarder?

If you maintain a consistent staff, who are well trained in export regulations, shipping logistics, and destination country regulations you may not.  Is it worth the risk to try?

How do I choose a freight forwarder?

Ask questions such as:

  • Does the forwarder have an export compliance program?
  • Who will be handling your account and what is their level of experience?
  • Who will be the backup/alternate contact?

Choose companies who keep up with current regulations

  • Ocean Transportation Intermediaries who are licensed by the Federal Maritime Commission
  • Air forwarders who members of the International Air Transport Association (IATA)  
  • Those who maintain continuous education programs including holding proof of knowledge certification such as the Certified Export Specialist
  • Those who are active members of field related associations, such as the National Customs Brokers and Forwarders Association of America, Inc (NCBFAA)

Choose a freight forwarder who will get to know you too

  • Establish documented compliance (important mitigating factor)
  • Ensure all considerations are met prior to the shipment moving

Choose the best value, not necessarily the lowest rate

  • Define the services required for the quoted fees
  • Make sure you compare apples to apples

Choose a company who will work with you to establish the procedures for handling your business

  • Provide the freight forwarder with your expectations
  • Ensure your freight forwarder is aware of your level of experience
  • Establish compliance with export administration regulations together with your forwarder

Do I need to choose a different freight forwarder in each port?

While an exporter can choose as many freight forwarders as necessary, most forwarders maintain a network of agents in each domestic and international port so that exports can be handled from anywhere in the United States to most foreign destinations.

Note:  This information does not address the functions of an NVOCC, which some freight forwarders are also licensed to operate.  For more information, contact the National Customs Broker and Forwarders Association of America, Inc (NCBFAA)