Trade Compliance

GHY discusses changes to international trade regulations and explores cutting-edge compliance strategies.

Guidelines on Determining ‘Essential Character’

Posted July 05, 2018

In 2002, on the beautiful Clemson University Campus, Milliken Engineers educated us - for 3 days, about fire resistant polyester fibers, carbon fibers and Kermel Aramid fibers; each one a new type of knit or woven fabric that would one day change many industries. Those fabrics, and so many other “new wonders”, are now staple fabrics used in manufacturing garments today.

Recent years have proven to be an been an exciting time in the apparel industry, with designers creating new concepts and fresh designs, made from combinations of these knit and woven fabrics, as well as other specialty fabrics, that 16 years ago, were considered “futuristic” concepts. 

But new concepts and fresh designs often bring challenges in the process of determining the essential character of a garment.  Often a designer considers the attribute, which provides the “essence” of a garment, to be totally different than the Trade Compliance Specialist with a Customs Broker, tasked with determining the correct tariff for the garment, which can complicate the process.

After 22 years of classifying apparel, “essential character” can still stump me upon occasion.  When I get stumped, I pull out my ragged rulings, Informed Compliance Publications and Explanatory Notes, to once again go through the particulars.

Most of the information on essential character listed in the CROSS rulings are based on the April 13, 1989 HQ 084118 ruling, in which John Durant, the Director of Commercial Rulings Division, provided guidance to determine classification when garments are made up of woven and knit fabrics for full body garment and upper or lower body garments.

So when I need to determine the essential character of a garment, I follow the below guidelines.  Utilizing the below information - based on the garment type, I determine if there is an essential character of the garment, and if so, I classify the garment based on the essential character.  If there is not an essential character of the garment, I proceed to GRI 3(b) or 3(c), whichever is applicable.


The classification of a full body garment is based on the visible, upper portion component UNLESS the other component:

(1) provides a significant visual effect (e.g., a substantial amount of lace); or

(2) is over 60% by weight of the garment; or

(3) is valued at more than 2 times the primary component.

To determine the tariff for a full body garment, an analysis must be performed to determine if any one constructed component imparts the essential character of the garment


If a component, of an upper or lower body garments, exceeds 60% of the visible surface area, the classification is based on that component, UNLESS the other component:

(1) forms the entire front of the garment; or

(2) provides a visual and significant decorative effect (e.g. a substantial amount of lace); or

(3) is over 50 percent by weight of the garment; or

(4) is valued at more than 10 times the primary component.

If there is not a component that exceeds 60% of the visible surface and one of the four conditions is present, tariff classification will be determined according to GRI 3(b) or 3(c), as appropriate.


The more complicated the garment construction, the greater the risk factor of misclassification.  Sending a request for a binding ruling is always a good option to mitigate the risk factor.  If, however, you disagree with the results of the binding ruling, you can submit a request for review by CBP Headquarters

The review request needs to detail:

  • the garment specifications;
  • the ruling number;
  • as well as the National Import Specialists' response; an explanation of why you disagree with the findings and a detailed analysis of where you think the garment should be classified and why.

In my years of experience, I have questioned CBP many times over their findings.  And I believe we all should question and submit review requests to CBP if we disagree with their findings.  Plot the path you believe leads to the correct tariff and pull them along the path with your logic, so that hopefully, they will arrive at the same conclusion.

Lynne McGowan - Senior Textile & Apparel Specialist

GHY International | Geo. H. Young & Co. Ltd. | GHY USA, Inc.

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