Shipping documents essentials: comprehensive guide

Shipping documents required for the transportation of cargo

Farrah Thompson
by Farrah Thompson

Editorial Manager


One of the most crucial — yet challenging — aspects of managing an internet business is shipping. In addition to thinking about the expenses and logistics of shipping your clients' orders, you also need to make sure that their orders are accompanied with the appropriate documentation. If not, you can experience significant delays or, in the case of overseas shipments, the dreaded «Package Stuck in Customs» message. 

Make sure your items are shipped with all the required documentation, since this is the best method to prevent serious shipping problems. 

What shipping documentation means

A shipment's documentation and records are what go with the items when they are being transported and delivered. In addition to verifying the ownership of the products, these documents also provide information about the cargo, ease customs clearance, ensure compliance with legal and regulatory requirements, and facilitate efficient logistics and delivery procedures in both domestic and international trade. Bills of lading, invoices, packing lists, certificates of origin, insurance certificates, and customs declarations are a few common types of shipping documents. These records are essential for tracking and controlling the flow of goods, as well as for settling conflicts and guaranteeing that shipments are handled correctly. 

It is crucial that your shipping documentation are accurate when sending products abroad. You want the shipment to travel smoothly and on schedule from the point of origin to the destination. Shipping paperwork mistakes or omissions could unnecessarily delay your shipment. 

Shipping documents essentials: comprehensive guide

What makes shipping documentation crucial? 

International trade cannot take place without the use of shipping documents for a number of reasons. Legally, both the import and export procedures necessitate having shipping documentation. They facilitate the amicable settlement of conflicts and act as proof of ownership. They contain details that are necessary for tracking and logistics. To get finance and make a payment, certain documents are needed. The customs officers use them for the purposes of taxation and clearance. They are necessary if you want to file an insurance claim after a loss or damage. 

The norms and regulations governing import and export of goods vary from nation to nation, dictating the shipping documentation required. Therefore, there are basic shipping paperwork that you will probably face on most import or export routes, even though the specific documentation you will require will vary on your route and the products being shipped. 

Documentation is organized into four main sections: 

  • Details regarding the goods that were shipped 
  • The legitimate transportation agreement between all parties 
  • The documents and licenses needed for export 
  • The licenses and declarations needed for import 

In summary, shipping documentation have a direct impact on the legality, effectiveness, and transparency of international trade and shipping activities.

13 Crucial paperwork for international shipping 

Draft invoice 

A pro forma invoice indicating the true value of the products must be sent if they are not being sent for resale, are being sent as a gift, or any another similar transaction. As a result, declaring a zero value for products is prohibited. Therefore, the pro forma invoice needs to be prepared just like the commercial invoice, but it might not need to be paid for duties and VAT. 

For the following instances, a pro forma invoice must be submitted in place of a commercial invoice:

  • Presents 
  • Samples of products 
  • Promoting 
  • Replies 
  • Replacement of the items 

Business invoice 

You will need to submit a proforma invoice, commercial invoice, or additional declarations (CN22/CN23) depending on who is sending the goods. In order to clear customs, the sender of commercial products must prepare a commercial invoice together with the other shipping documentation needed. Customs officials can use this document to calculate the applicable taxes and duties on the shipment. 

Each and every detail pertaining to that deal, including: For example: 

  • The item description in detail (instead of just writing «shirts», use «cotton shirts size M»), 
  • sort of export (temporary, re-export following repair, permanent), 
  • value of the items (i.e., what is the item's value less VAT), 
  • total amount of each item, 
  • the shipment's overall weight, 
  • the item's country of origin (the location of manufacture), 
  • the export's purpose (gift, sample, repair, or commercial), 
  • harmonized System (HS) codes are used to categorize products. 

Bill of Lading, often known as a Waybill 

By issuing a bill of lading (BL), the shipping company attests to the fact that it has taken possession of the cargo on board their ship after purchasing it from the original vendor. A carriage contract has been established between the shipping line and the vendor. 

The ownership of the shipment can be proven with the help of a Bill of Lading. In most cases, the terms of a bill of lading are up to negotiation. To put it another way, it may be sold or transferred to a third party with the permission of the seller. 

A seaway bill is a contract of transport that is made between the shipping line and the seller. It is quite similar to the bill of lading in its function. In spite of this, the shipping company is bound by this non-negotiable contract to deliver the merchandise only to the person or company that has been specified as the consignee. 

It is not possible to assign a seaway charge to another person. 

The seaway bill and the bill of lading are official legal papers. 

Rail or Air Waybill

Depending on how you want to travel, you will either receive an Air or Rail Waybill. Another term for a bill of lading is an AWB. But compared to a bill of lading, an AWB offers less security because it is non-negotiable. The AWB serves as a receipt for the shipper, or consignor. The destination address of the package together with the consignor and consignee's contact details are included in this document. 

On the other hand, a document used for railway goods is the Rail Waybill. The shipping agent or railroad can put up this paperwork after getting the shipper's instructions.

Packing List for exports 

The packing list is used by shippers, transporters, and customs officers to arrange cargo space and reconcile actual freight. The contents of the cargo and the packaging, such as the type (such as carton, box, or drum), quantity of packages, and total weight, are listed in the packing list. 

The packing list, which includes all the information on the overseas transaction, is a crucial document that is delivered with the items. This shipping document is typically used as proof of the waybill's preparation rather than for customs purposes. It includes facts on the sender and recipient, the contents of each container, the weight and size of the containers, the amount, specific characters and numbers, and any other pertinent extra information. 

During inspection or receipt, a packing list makes it easier for customs, the shipping company, and the recipient to identify each specific shipment.

Authentication Document 

The nation of origin of a product or service can be determined by referring to a legal document called a «Certificate of Origin». It is essential at all times. This file contains information regarding the item, the country from which it was exported, and the country to which it is destined. It is a significant document since it establishes both whether or not a product falls under the purview of the act and whether or not it can be imported. 

Generally speaking, a certificate of origin will be issued by the country's Chamber of Commerce. It is a declaration that the products were manufactured in the country in compliance with the particular statutory requirements that apply. 

Whether or not a buyer is required to pay import taxes is frequently determined by the presence of a certificate of origin. 

Export certificate 

This document, which is also known as an export certificate, certifies that the goods being sent are free from restrictions in their nation of origin and are being sold or distributed lawfully on the open market. An export certificate of free sale certifies that the product has been cleared by the appropriate regulatory bodies. 

For some products, such as food, medical devices, biologics, and cosmetics, this paperwork is usually required. 

Licenses for Import and Export 

Any business entity that needs to import or export products must register with the local licensing body. Typically, the organization is granted authorization by the licensing body through the issuance of an Import Export Code (IEC). 

Only after verifying that the company satisfies all legal requirements and is qualified to import or export is this authorization granted. 

An official authorization or permit granted by a government body to people or enterprises to engage in the exportation or importing of particular items, commodities, or products is known as an export/import license, or simply an export license or import license. These licenses fulfill a number of significant functions and are an essential component of global trade. 

The particular procedures for acquiring export/import permits can differ significantly between nations and are influenced by things including the kind of commodities being transferred, where they are going, and the nature of the trading relationships between the participating nations. To ensure legal and seamless cross-border transactions, businesses involved in international trade must thoroughly investigate and abide by the licensing requirements of all relevant authorities. Trade operations may be disrupted, and legal fines may arise from failure to secure the required licenses. 

Certificate of Phytosanitary or Health 

Plants and plant products are guaranteed to be pest-free with a phytosanitary certificate. It also states that the consignment meets the phytosanitary requirements of the nation of import. 

A phytosanitary or health certificate from the exporting country's appropriate authorities is required for the export of edible goods. 

This is necessary in order for such products to be cleared at the port of destination. It attests to the fact that the products being exported are safe and fit for human consumption. 

Plants or plant products are typically exported with a phytosanitary certificate.

Insurance Document 

Insurance coverage in the case of an accident resulting in cargo damage is guaranteed by an insurance certificate or policy taken out on the items being shipped. 

It will include information about the liability of the carrier and any other third party involved in the contract to transport the goods, in addition to the terms and value of the insurance coverage. 

Instructions letter from the shipper 

You can effectively transport overseas shipments by following the directions in this document. This document, which is typically given to freight forwarders, contains information such as: 

  • Name and contact details of the exporter/shipper 
  • Name and freight forwarder's contact details 
  • Information regarding the goods being shipped 
  • Product weight and measurements 
  • Kind of packaging 
  • Particular criteria for managing 
  • Export limitations (if applicable) 
  • Kind of cargo 
  • Insurance details 
  • Records that were shipped with the package 
  • Special directives for the freight forwarder or carrier 

Letter of credit 

A letter of credit is an essential means of payment in business dealings involving international commerce. This document is a promise made by the bank to the buyer (who is the importer) on behalf of the seller (who is the exporter) to provide a particular amount of money in the currency that has been agreed upon. In addition, it mandates that the vendor must hand over all of the essential documentation by a particular day and time. In addition to that, it provides particulars such as the technical description, the quantity of items, the documentation needs, and the description. 

The three most important shipping documentation for domestic shipments 

When it comes to matters of domestic transportation, the presence of a number of important shipping documents is required to ensure the effective and trouble-free movement of goods inside a country. The three shipping documents listed below are absolutely necessary for domestic shipping: 

The Bill of Lading, also known as the BOL

The bill of lading is a document that is necessary for any kind of domestic shipping. In addition to its role as a receipt for the items being transported, it performs the roles of a contract between the shipper (the seller) and the carrier (often a trucking firm). The bill of lading (BOL) contains a variety of details, including the sort and quantity of the products, the names and addresses of the shipper and consignee, the locations of the pickup and delivery, and the terms of the shipment. In addition to this, it serves as evidence of ownership, which enables the recipient to accept the goods as soon as they are delivered to them. 

List of Packing 

It is a document that, as the name implies, contains information about how the items are packed for shipment. The description of the goods, their individual and collective packing, measurements, weights, and marks will all be displayed in a packing list. Despite having a similar appearance to the invoice, it does not take the place of the proforma or the commercial invoice. 

During inspection or receipt, a packing list makes it easier for customs, the shipping company, and the recipient to identify each specific shipment.

Commercial Invoice 

Content: Detailed information regarding the sale of commodities is included in a commercial invoice. It contains information about the buyer and vendor, including names, addresses, and phone numbers. A breakdown of the products being sold is also included, together with information on their descriptions, unit prices, quantities, total value, conditions of payment, and any applicable taxes or discounts. 

A commercial invoice's main function is to enable international trade by acting as a legitimate document for taxation, customs clearance, and payment needs. It offers a comprehensive account of the business deal between the vendor and the customer. 

Use: A vital part of international shipping are commercial invoices. In order to determine tariffs and taxes, confirm the value of the commodities, and guarantee conformity with trade laws, they are submitted to customs officials in both the exporting and importing nations. 

In domestic transportation, these three shipping documents contribute to accountability, openness, and legal compliance. They facilitate correct billing and payment, give a clear record of the shipment's details, and are crucial points of reference in the event that there are any disputes or problems during transit. 

Shipping documents essentials: comprehensive guide

Shipping paperwork for bulky or hazardous shipments 

Hazardous Substances Disclosure 

The International Maritime Dangerous products Code (IMDG), a division of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), lays out guidelines that shippers must adhere to when shipping dangerous products. Hazardous cargo packaging, segregation, and storage are all covered by the IMDG. 

This declaration attests to the seller's compliance with applicable requirements regarding the consignment's packing, labeling, and declaration. 

A dangerous goods declaration is a document that the shipper or manufacturer issues in the required format and attaches to other shipping paperwork. It attests to the accurate classification, packaging, and labeling of the hazardous materials being transported in compliance with IMDG guidelines. It will also include guidelines for the proper handling, storage, and division of the products. 

Information on emergency reaction 

This document outlines what has to be done in the event of a hazardous material shipment emergency. It ought to have the following information: 

  • The material's technical designation and a brief description 
  • Immediate risks to health 
  • Fire and explosion risks 
  • Quick actions to take in case of an incident or accident 
  • Quick action to put out fires 
  • Process for dealing with leaks and spills 
  • Guidelines for initial first aid interventions 

In conclusion

Shipping documents are crucial elements of international and domestic trade, ensuring the smooth movement of goods and compliance with legal requirements. These documents facilitate customs clearance, ownership confirmation, and efficient logistics, reducing the risk of delays and disputes. Shipping documents such as commercial invoices, bills of lading, and certificates of origin serve as essential tools in international trade, promoting transparency and adherence to regulations. For dangerous or heavy cargoes, specialized documents like the Dangerous Goods Declaration and Emergency Response Information provide critical guidance and safety measures. To navigate the complex world of shipping successfully, understanding the importance of shipping documents and their required characteristics is paramount for businesses engaged in global trade.


What are shipping documents or bill of lading?

A shipping document, commonly known as a Bill of Lading (B/L), is a legal document issued by a carrier or shipping company to acknowledge the receipt of goods for shipment. It serves as a contract of carriage, a receipt of goods, and a document of title. The Bill of Lading contains essential information about the goods being shipped, their destination, and the terms of the transportation contract. It plays a crucial role in international trade and domestic transportation.

What is the importance of shipping documents?

Shipping documents are crucial in logistics and transportation for legal compliance, accountability, customs clearance, risk management, record-keeping, trade finance, and facilitating smooth cargo movement.

What are the required characteristics for information on a shipping document?

Shipping documents should include accurate details of the shipper and consignee, a clear description of goods, origin, destination, carrier information, terms of shipment, dates, signatures, document number, references, and relevant clauses to ensure the integrity of the transportation process.

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