When it comes to international shipping, most people consider the more obvious logistics activities — such as packing, travel and unpacking. But there’s much more happening behind the scenes.
To make sure your shipments can arrive at their intended destination — or even leave the port-of-origin in the first place — you need to ensure you have all your documentation in order. After all, the last thing you want is to spend a significant amount of time and resources preparing a shipment only to discover one piece of missing paperwork that will stall your entire order.
To make sure you’re prepared, here are 10 international shipping documents you may need.
#1: Commercial and Proforma Invoices
In the U.S., these terms are used interchangeably and not as much emphasis is given to the legal description of each.
Europe and South America, however, have strict definitions for each, and you may clear customs only under a proforma invoice. The document must clearly indicate the following in order to file through the Automated Export System (AES) and clear customs:
- Who is issuing it (the seller)
- Who it’s issued to (the buyer)
- Declared value of the merchandise
- Full description — preferably with the Harmonized Tariff Schedule (HTS) code
#2: Bills of Lading
There are multiple types of international bills of lading:
- Overland/Truckers’ Bill of Lading (For imports/exports by land, such as to Mexico and Canada.)
- Ocean Bill of Lading (For ocean shipments, and can be issued as “Original” or Seaway/Express Release.)
- Airway Bill (For air shipments)
- Multimodal Bill of Lading/Combined Bill of Lading (A document that is evidencing more than one mode of transport, one of which is typically by sea shipment.)
Two basic types apply for all bills of lading:
- A straight bill of lading is one in which the goods are consigned to a designated party.
- An order bill is one in which the goods are consigned to the order of a named party and is “negotiable.”
#3: Packing List
A packing list is similar to a packing slip you’d provide for a domestic shipment, but it’s much more detailed. It should include:
- What’s inside the shipment
- Where the cargo is being shipped
- The quantity, dimensions and weight of each item
For containerized goods, each container must have an individual packing list showing what has been loaded to that specific container and include the container number and seal.
Packing lists are often used by carriers to create bills of lading, by banks if you’re being paid under a letter of credit and by customs officials to identify items they need to examine.
#4: Shipper’s Letter of Instructions (SLI)
This essential document (also referred to as the bill of lading instructions) tells your freight forwarder a few key pieces of information to ensure they move the goods correctly.
This information includes:
- Name and address of the shipper
- Name and address of the consignee
- Where the cargo should be shipped (which may differ from the consignee’s address)
- Description of goods within the shipment
The SLI may also include a limited power of attorney that gives the forwarder permission to act on your behalf.
#5: Automated Export System (AES) Filing
This is an online method of filing export information that's usually required for exports valued over $2,500 (per item). In many cases, the freight forwarder handles AES filing on the shipper’s behalf.
AES filing requires you to submit several pieces of information, including but not limited to:
- Shipper tax ID number
- Importer of record (including contact name and phone number)
- Value of each item
- Harmonized System (HS) code
#6: Certificate of Origin
This document is usually only required when shipping to certain regions or countries. For example, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) requires it, as do many countries in the Middle East. The certificate of origin shows where the material originated and verifies the cargo meets all necessary trade agreement requirements.
International shipping includes many steps or phases and it’s important you identify who's responsible for each leg of a shipment’s journey. For example, if the shipper is delivering cargo only to their own warehouse dock it is called Ex-Works (EXW), if they are delivering the goods to the buyer’s warehouse it is called Delivery at Place (DAP). (See the Incoterms rules for 2020 here.)
#8: Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS)
If your international container shipping contains dangerous goods, you’ll need to prepare a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), as well as follow International Maritime Organization (IMO) regulations.
Currently, the IMO Dangerous Goods Regulations Code (IMDG Code) requires the following:
- A consignor declaration that states the dangerous goods are identified, classified, marked, packaged, placarded and labeled correctly.
- A declaration from the party packing the container verifying it’s been done correctly.
Keep in mind, ocean requirements aren't always the same as domestic requirements, and items you’re able to truck over land may not be allowed to ship across international waters.
#9: Operational Instructions
This isn’t a form, per se, but the shipper needs to provide instructions on how cargo is to be handled. For example, is the cargo forklift-able or must it be transferred by top lift or crane? Is the cargo stackable, or must it be tarped and protected from rain/elements?
For large items, the cargo should have lift points/lash points and a clearly marked center of gravity. All export items should be distinctly identified with ID numbers or codes legibly marked and visible on each individual unit being shipped.
#10: Shipping Under a Letter of Credit
A letter of credit is issued by a bank and serves as a guarantee of payment for the shipper/seller.
Letters of credit have many specific requirements for document preparation and you must comply with them precisely, in a timely manner, and present them to the bank with a bank draft and all the requested documents. These documents usually include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Bill of lading
- Packing list
- Certificate of origin
- Insurance certificate
Keep in mind, these are not the only documents you may need, as there are additional rules and requirements for certain specialty items, like self-propelled equipment and dangerous goods. If you’re unsure of your responsibilities as an exporter, be sure to refer to the International Chamber of Commerce Incoterms. You can also rely on the experts at ATS International by reaching out today.