What Documents Are Required for International Shipping in 2024?

Whether or not you’re new to shipping your inventories internationally, it can be hard to remember every piece of documentation you need. And you may have already learned the hard way that missing even one document can cause major delays — and even prevent you from leaving the port-of-origin in the first place.

The last thing you need is a significant delay at the port or in U.S. customs clearance because you didn't have all of your documents ready to go

At ATS International, we’ve spent more than 25 years helping customers ship their cargo internationally and understand the challenges that come with it.

To make sure you’re better prepared, we’ve compiled a list of the 10 most common international shipping documents you may need in 2024.

To ensure your cargoes take off on time, and get to their destination according to your schedule, you’ll want to have the following documents for international shipping:

We’ll go into more detail about what each document is and why you need to have them ready when shipping internationally.

#1: Commercial and Proforma Invoices

Used interchangeably — at least within the U.S. — commercial and proforma invoices are preliminary bills of sale. They’re sent to the shipper before the shipment or delivery of goods and serve as a commitment to ship those goods at a specified date and time.

A proforma invoice lists the work included in the commitment, the shipping weight and charges that come with the work.

While proforma invoices don’t carry much legal weight in the U.S., in Europe and South America you may only be able to clear customs by using a proforma invoice. In those cases, the document must clearly state the following to get through the Automated Export System (AES) and clear customs:

  • Who is issuing it (the seller)
  • Who it’s issued to (the buyer)
  • The declared value of the merchandise
  • Full description — preferably with the Harmonized Tariff Schedule (HTS) code

#2: Bills of Lading (BOL)

A bill of lading (BOL) form acts as a receipt for freight services. It’s a contract between a freight forwarder or carrier and a shipper and highlights the mode of transportation and route of a shipment.

In the international shipping industry, there are many types of BOLs:

Overland/Truckers’ Bill of Lading

Overland BOLs, also known as Truckers’ BOLs, are used when transporting freight across land. A common use for an Overland BOL is when transporting goods cross-border to and from Mexico or Canada.

Ocean Bill of Lading

Ocean BOLs are used when, you guessed it, transporting cargo across the ocean. They can be “original” or seaway/express releases.

  • Original Bill of Lading: This version serves three main functions, which are to confirm receipt of the goods being shipped, act as a contract between the shipper and the carrier and provide a document of title.

    The last function is important because it passes the right to possession of the goods from one party to the other. It’s very similar to endorsing a check.

  • Seaway Bill: This is almost identical to the original bill, with the key difference being no document of title. In the case of a seaway bill, the carrier’s responsibility is to deliver the cargo to the receiver. These can only be issued with the shipper’s written consent.

Airway Bill (AWB)

Airway bills (AWB) are used when shipping cargo using air carriers

Multimodal Bill of Lading/Combined Bill of Lading

Multimodal BOLs, or combined BOLs, serve as a single contract that documents cargo moving by more than one mode of transport.

That could be a train and ocean vessel, a semi and plane or any two various methods. However, one of the forms of transportation is typically by sea.

When dealing with multimodal or combined BOLs, two varieties can be used:

  • Straight Bill of Lading: This is issued to a designated consignee, generally the buyer. Typically, a straight BOL is used when the buyer still owes money for all or part of the goods. Because it’s non-negotiable, once issues to the designated party it may not be reassigned to someone else.

    That means the shipper must deliver the goods to the designated consignee and no one else.

    ATS Inc Example Bill of Lading

  • Order Bill of Lading: This is essentially the opposite of the straight BOL when it comes to the non-negotiable part. The BOL is usually written with language that says it’s okay to deliver to whoever has the BOL — so long as it’s endorsed by the designated party.

    This form of BOL is commonly used when the goods are expected to be traded on a mercantile exchange while the shipment is still in transit.

#3: Packing List

A packing list is like a packing slip you’d provide for a domestic shipment, but it’s much more detailed. It should include:

  • What’s inside the shipment (and value)
  • Where the cargo is being shipped
  • The quantity, dimensions and weight of each item
  • Packaging details
  • Extra instructions

When shipping containerized goods, each container must have an individual packing list. The list should show what's loaded in that container and include the container number and seal.

Carriers often use packing lists to create bills of lading. They're also used by banks if you’re paid under a letter of credit and by customs officials to identify items they need to examine

#4: Shipper’s Letter of Instructions (SLI)

The SLI (also referred to as the bill of lading instructions) is an essential document that tells your freight forwarder a few key pieces of information to ensure they move the goods correctly, including: 

  • Name and address of the shipper
  • Name and address of the consignee
  • The cargo’s destination (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

An AES filing is an online method of filing export information, which is usually required for exports valued at over $2,500 per item. Often, 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

Binders with Import and Export on them containing documents

#6: Certificate of Origin (CO)

Depending on your cargo's destination, a CO is an important document. It certifies the goods are wholly obtained, produced, manufactured or processed in a particular country.

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 CO also shows where the material originated from and verifies the cargo meets all necessary trade agreement requirements.

#7: International Commercial Terms (Incoterms)

Incoterms provide a universal set of rules and guidelines that help in the facilitation of international trade. 

The guidelines define the responsibilities of sellers and buyers. More specifically, they identify who’s in charge of paying for and managing the shipment, insurance, documentation, customs clearance and more every step of the way.

International shipping includes many steps or phases and it’s important to identify who's responsible for each leg of a shipment’s journey. 

For example, if the shipper is delivering cargo to their warehouse dock it's referred to as Ex-Works (EXW). If they're delivering the goods to the buyer’s warehouse it's referred to as Delivery at Place (DAP). (See the latest Incoterms rules here.)

#8: Safety Data Sheet (SDS)

An SDS, sometimes referred to as a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), is a document that includes information about the safe handling, use, storage and disposal of potentially hazardous chemicals.

If your shipment contains dangerous goods, you’ll need to prepare an SDS. You’ll also need to follow International Maritime Organization (IMO) regulations.

Currently, the IMO Dangerous Goods Regulations Code (IMDG Code) requires:

  • 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 the information is correct.

Keep in mind, ocean requirements aren't always the same as domestic requirements. Items you’re able to transport over land may not be allowed to ship across international waters.

#9: Operational Instructions

While they're not a form, per see, operational instructions ensure your cargo is handled properly.

For example, can the cargo get loaded and unloaded using a forklift or does it need to be transferred by top lift or a crane? Is the cargo stackable, or should they use a tarp 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 have identification numbers or have codes legibly marked and visible on each unit being shipped.

#10: Shipping Under a Letter of Credit

A bank issues a letter of credit, which serves as a guarantee of payment for the shipper/seller.

Letters of credit have many specific requirements for document preparation. It’s important to comply with them precisely, on time, and present them to the bank with a bank draft and all the requested documents. These documents usually include, but are not limited to:

  • Bill of lading
  • Invoice
  • Packing list
  • Certificate of origin
  • Insurance certificate

Other Documents for International Shipping

If you’re looking to ship goods internationally, make sure they leave the port of origin on time by having the following documents ready:

  • Commercial and Proforma Invoices
  • Bills of Lading
  • Packing List
  • Shipper’s Letter of Instructions (SLI)
  • Automated Export System (AES) Filing
  • Certificate of Origin
  • Incoterms
  • Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS)
  • Operational Instructions
  • Shipping Under a Letter of Credit

It’s important to note, these are not the only documents you may need to ship your cargo internationally. There are extra rules 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.

If you’re looking for a reliable international shipping partner that can help you get proper documentation in place, we’d be happy to help.

Tags: International Shipping, International Shipping Documentation, Customs Clearance

Carl Verdon

Written by Carl Verdon

Carl has been working for ATS International, in various capacities, for more than 13 years. During this time, Carl's dedication to maintaining industry-leading service levels has helped customers move cargos around the world and back again... hundreds of times over. Today, as a customer service and sales manager, Carl enjoys the unique challenge that each international shipment presents as he works with his team to promote the ATS name on a global scale.

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