Key Freight Documents Explained

Freight documents for importers and exporters

You’re a shipper and you want to import freight sized cargo. The paperwork entailed can seem daunting, even for seasoned shippers.
Unbelievably, there are over one hundred documents that play a role in freight shipping. Fortunately, most of them apply to specialised shipping, like for instance a special form if you are importing vicuña fiber from Peru.

This article focusses on the key freight documents intrinsic to nearly all shipments you make: how it relates to you, and what you need to be across.

Freight Documents

Freight Quote

Packing List

Commercial Invoice


Material Data Safety Sheet

Shipper’s Letter of Instruction

Booking Confirmation

Bill of Lading / Air Waybill

Letter of Credit

Freight Quote

How does this key freight document relate to you?

  • This one barely needs explaining, it works like any other business quote, say from your car mechanic, or an item in your Amazon shopping cart.
  • Just researching costs? No need to request a quote, check out this Freight Rate Calculator, and Amazon FBA Sellers should use this calculator.

What’s in a Freight Quote that you need to know?

The whole process kicks off with your freight quote request, which could be via email, phone call, or increasingly on online form. Based on information you provide, your forwarder prepares a freight quote (again  in a number of formats), breaking down the individual legs of a shipment including surcharges:

  • Routing information – where the cargo is the being shipped to and from.
  • The transport mode and equipment (e.g. by ocean on pallets).
  • The shipment details, including the dimensions, weight and a description of the goods, such as whether they are hazardous.

Most quotations have an expiration date, which will indicate for how long the price is valid.

Packing List

How does this key freight document relate to you?

  • You will need this doc before you request a quote, to get the shipment’s weights and dimensions.  Next time you’ll use it is when you sign for receipt of goods.
  • It is only required when shipped goods are packed into larger units, like a container or an aircraft console, and are therefore difficult to check.
  • The exporter usually completes this form, although the forwarder will complete the form, if the goods are re-packed at their warehouse.

What’s in a Packing List that you need to know?

It shows how the goods were packed for inspection and shipping purposes; is attached as a pouch on the goods; is also emailed ahead; and includes:

  • Shipper/Consignee
  • Equipment / Skid / Crate
  • Packing details
  • Goods descriptions
  • Hazardous information

Once you confirm a quote you must promptly provide your forwarder these freight documents:

  • Shipper’s Letter of Instruction (mandatory)
  • Commercial Invoice (mandatory)
  • Material Data Safety Sheet (mandatory for hazardous products, otherwise not required)
  • Certificate of Origin (if required, it is usually requested with SLI, but must be provided before departure)

Shipper’s Letter of Instruction (SLI)

How does this key freight document relate to you?

  • With the above forms ready to go, this document kicks off the shipping process.
  • It is your order form, proof that you are purchasing from the forwarder.
  • You must have this ready before pickup.

What’s in a Shipper’s Letter of Instruction that you need to know?

Each forwarder has their own form, but they all request the same details:

  • Consignor (exporter) /Consignee (importer) /Principal (the arranging party) and their contact information. The principal is usually either the consignor or consignee: but, for instance, may be a parent company in intra-company trading.
  • Routing information.
  • Incoterms (which determines who is paying, insuring, and arranging customs clearance)
  • Transport mode and equipment (eg by ocean, on two pallets).
  • Shipment details like dimensions and weights, goods description -(which can help determine, for instance, whether a refrigerated container (reefer) is required, and UN number, if the goods are hazardous.
  • HS Codes.

Commercial Invoice

How does this key freight document relate to you?

  • Suppliers selling to importers will issue a Commercial Invoice. Like other invoices, it is a proof of sale, and it includes the same information included on a standard invoice.
  • What makes it different is that it also includes freight-related information required by Customs for Customs Clearance.

What’s in a Commercial Invoice that you need to know?

  • Buyer and Seller details.
  • Consignee details, that is, to whom and where the shipment will be delivered. Buyer and consignee details are often the same.
  • Notifying Parties, people who need to be “notified” about the transaction, such as customs agents.
  • Description of the goods, including the quantity and, in most cases, the HS code. Most countries (180 of them) customs agencies work to this international classification of traded products. The first 8 digits of HS Codes are standardized around the world, while some countries add additional digits to specify sub-categories. To find out more, check out our HS Code Lookup.
  • Value of the goods, from which the customs duties will eventually be levied.

Certificate of Origin (COO)

How does this key freight document relate to you?

  • Ask your exporter to prepare this, in conjunction with their chamber of commerce.
  • Most countries need this document for customs clearance, to determine what duties may be relevant, and for advance cargo reporting (e.g. for government import statistics). The same COO can be used for repeat shipments.
  • Most forwarders insist that it is provided with the SLI, just in case the goods are banned from import or additional documentation will be required (like leather goods, which require wildlife certification).

What’s in a COO that you need to know?

Each good will require its own COO. It requires standard information, like the Exporter, Consignee, shipment routing, and goods description, and includes two additional sections peculiar to this document:

  • Exporter Declaration, in which the Exporter vouches to the inspector, the product’s details, and the country of manufacture.
  • Inspector Certification, which is completed by a state employee, or an outsourced agency.

Material Data Safety Sheet

How does this key freight document relate to you?

  • This document is usually provided by the exporter (via the manufacturer), and only applies to hazardous goods.
  • Hazardous goods will almost always incur additional shipping costs.
  • Forwarders usually insist that this document is provided with the SLI (below).

What’s in a Material Data Safety Sheet that you need to know?

  • Product name, and how used.
  • Which hazardous ingredients are included in the goods. The UN number should be included. If not, ask your exporter to provide.
  • Physical data about the goods (liquid, vaporization pressure, etc).
  • Fire and explosion data, which is used to ensure vessel safe cargo limits are not breached. Some products are surprisingly hazardous, like table tennis balls which contain gas.
  • Reactivity data.

Booking Confirmation

How does this key freight document relate to you?

  • It’s your receipt for the main shipment leg (ocean or air). Each carrier provides this to your forwarder, who will forward it on to you.
  • It may also be the shipment tracking number – some forwarder’s include the tracking number on the B/L (see below), or provide separately.
  • It usually doesn’t cover truck pickup and drop-off legs. These are usually confirmed by emails.

What’s in a Booking Confirmation that you need to know?

  • Booking number (which you will use later when tracking the shipment)
  • Equipment (e.g. size and numbers of pallets)
  • Transport plan (origin, destination, estimated times of departure and arrival).
  • Load itinerary, with the cut-off time of arrival at port, that ensures the good will be loaded.
  • Some larger forwarders act as an NVOCC. In this case, instead of providing each carrier’s booking confirmation, they will create a consolidated booking confirmation, including details of each shipment leg, but may not include carrier details.

Bill of Lading/ Air Waybill

How does this key freight document relate to you?

  • This is contract of carriage for the main leg, and like any other contract has terms and conditions. The conditions limit forwarder and carrier liability. Your forwarder prepares this for you.
  • It also provides proof of ownership of the goods (as defined by the incoterm) when the goods arrive at the destination port, or in case of damage, theft or loss. Your country of departure’s forwarder office, or your forwarder’s agent, express delivers a copy to the import agent (forwarder office at your country).

What’s in a Bill of Lading that you need to know?

  • It’s called a Bill of Lading (B/L) for ocean freight, and an Air Waybill (AWB) for air freight.
  • There are actually two rounds of documents. The contract between yourself and the forwarder is the House B/L or AWB. It is based on the contract between your forwarder and the carrier (the Master B/L or AWB). There are several differences between the two: conditions of contract, governing legislation, and which party is defined as the consignee. On the House contract, you are the consignee , but on the Master document, the forwarder, or a cargo consolidator, is defined as the consignee.
  • Negotiability. Only if you are shipping in-house, or within the same group of companies, should the B/L or AWB be “express” (non-negotiable). Otherwise it should be “original” (negotiable). Negotiable means that the ownership of goods can be transferred while in transit.

Bills of Lading include:

  • Shipper / Consignee / Notifying Party
  • Carrier
  • Shipment details
  • Charges (between agents)
  • It may also include the shipment tracking number – some forwarder’s include the tracking number on the Commercial Invoice (see above), or provide separately.

Letter of Credit

How does this key freight document relate to you?

  • There is normally a substantial delay between an international trade deal, and receipt of goods and therefore payment. To show good intention to the seller, buyers often use a bank tool called a letter of credit.
  • It is an instruction in advance by your bank to an overseas bank to pay the seller once certain delivery conditions have been met. Your bank guarantees to pay the outstanding amount, even if you are unable to make payment.
  • It includes a checklist of forms required to determine payment after delivery.
  • You should consider whether a Letter of Credit is required before requesting a freight quote.

What’s in a Letter of Credit that you need to know?

  • It is not required for incoterms where the goods are in not in your possession during shipment.
  • Banks charge interest for providing this service.
  • As the buyer, you set a list of conditions for purchase and shipment, including description of the goods, documentation required (e.g. bill of lading, commercial invoice, etc), and latest date of shipment. After shipment, the seller provides documentation to his bank, who checks, then pays the seller. The buyer’s bank also checks before reimbursing the seller’s bank, and then requests reimbursement from the buyer.

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