Document List

*The information below relates to the most common documents required for international freight shipments. Other documents may also be necessary, depending on the origin and destination countries of your shipment, and the type of goods you are shipping.

Commercial Invoice

The commercial invoice is the document created by a party who is selling goods, to request payment from the party who will buy the goods. Border-control authorities typically use the commercial invoice to establish the value of a shipment and calculate the duty payable. Because commercial invoices are used for duty assessment, governments often require them to comply with form, content, language, and other specifications, such as the number of copies to be presented.

Airway Bill

Airway bills are required for shipments made using air freight. These documents do not follow a universal format, so for example, FedEx UPS, DHL, and other air freight companies each have their own specific airway bills.

Generic Certificate of Origin

Requirements for Certificates of Origin (CO) vary by country. Some countries require all products to be accompanied by a CO. Others may only apply the requirement to certain products or product types. In some cases, the CO can simply comprise a statement of origin printed with your business letterhead.

If you are the exporter, you should verify if a CO is necessary. Your consignee may be able to tell you, but otherwise, you should check with an experienced shipping company, freight forwarding agent, or relevant trade organization.

Shipper’s Letter of Instruction

If you are an exporter, you will need to issue a Shipper’s Letter of Instruction to your freight forwarding agent. This document simply provides shipping instructions for your air or ocean freight.

Export Packing List

The Export Packing List contains details about the items you are shipping and the packaging used to contain them. Information to be provided in a packing list includes:

  • Seller’s details
  • Buyer’s details
  • Shipper’s details
  • Mode of transportation
  • Shipment date
  • Invoice number
  • Carrier’s details

The packing list must also provide itemized information about the contents of the shipment. This information includes:

  • Item quantities
  • Item descriptions
  • Package quantities
  • Types of packaging used to contain the items (carton, drum, crate, etc.)
  • Total gross weight (in kgs)
  • Total net weight (in kgs)
  • Package marks
  • Package dimensions

While an Export Packing List might qualify as a conforming document, you cannot use it in place of the commercial invoice. Customs officials often use the packing list as a reference when checking imported cargo. You should be able to obtain packing list forms from your freight forwarder or any good commercial stationery supplier.

Bill of Lading

The bill of lading constitutes a written agreement between the party who owns a consignment of goods and the party responsible for carriage of those goods. For ocean freight, there are two variants of this document: They are…

  1. A non-negotiable, straight bill of lading;
  2. A “shipper's order” or negotiable bill of lading. This type of contract enables the goods to be transferred, while in transit, to a third party. The consignee will usually need to possess the original bill of lading to prove ownership and take receipt of the goods.

Dangerous Goods Certificate

If you are exporting items classified as “dangerous goods” via air freight, your shipment must be accompanied by a Shipper’s Declaration for Dangerous Goods. This document is a necessary condition for carriage, as stipulated by the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

If you are the exporter, you are responsible for the accuracy of information provided in the document, as well as for meeting IATA requirements, such as those relating to packaging and marking of dangerous goods.

Proforma Invoice

A pro forma invoice is an invoice prepared by the exporter before shipping the goods. Its primary purpose is to inform the buyer of the goods to be sent, their value, and other key specifications. It may also be used as an offer of sale or a price quotation.

Export Licenses

An export license is a legal document, issued by government agencies, to permit exportation of specific quantities, of specific goods, to a specific destination. Each country has its own laws stating which goods require an export license. In some countries, licensing applies to a wide range of exports—or perhaps even all exports. In others, a license may be needed for certain items only when particular circumstances apply.

Import License

Importers are the parties responsible for compliance with import licensing. Licensing protocols can vary depending upon the products being imported and their destination. However, if you an exporter of goods subject to import licensing in your consignee’s country, it might be a good idea to include a copy of the import license with your other shipment documents—just to lessen the risk of difficulties at the border.

Material Safety Data Sheet

A Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) is a document containing information about the potential hazards presented by a product or material. It also contains information on the usage, storage, handling, and emergency procedures relevant to the product. The purpose of the MSDS is to ensure that anyone handling or working with a hazardous product knows…

  • The precise nature of hazards associated with the product;
  • How to use the product safely;
  • The consequences of incorrect handling or use;
  • What to do in the event of an incident or accident involving the product;
  • How to recognize symptoms of exposure/overexposure to the product;
  • What to do if somebody is exposed/overexposed.