Examples of shipping documents include the bill of lading, packing list, commercial invoice, etc. These are used by shipping companies/airlines, customs officials, and other parties involved in the supply chain route to ensure that the shipment is properly identified, tracked, entered and left a country, and delivered to the designated place.

Today’s blog explains shipping documents from the following 4 aspects that are highly concerned by many importers.

What are 10 common international shipping documents?

Bill of lading

The bill of lading, shortened for B/L or BOL, specifies the shipment information such as the type of goods, quantity, departure port, discharge port, etc. This is a core document that can help control international trade and shipping risks.

In most cases, it is issued by freight forwarders to suppliers, who are the owner of goods. As importers, you’ll get the B/L only after you’ve paid for the order. Then, you take the B/L to pick up goods at the destination port.

Commercial invoice

The commercial invoice (CI) is a legal document that includes details about the shipment, such as the product description, quantity, value of the goods, payment terms, shipping details, etc. It is issued by suppliers after you’ve confirmed the information in the proforma invoice and paid the deposit.

As the core document of international business, the commercial invoice serves many purposes:

  • Import-export customs officials use it to assess duties, taxes, and other import fees. Make sure the amount on the invoice is consistent with what you paid.
  • Cargo insurance providers request the CI to know the shipment value and the mode of transportation. It’s also a necessary document in the event of cargo insurance claims.
  • Buyers use it to verify that the goods received match the order.

Packing list

The packing list (P/L), also known as the shipping list and packing slip, is a key shipping document that contains the description of goods, net and gross weight, volume (usually in CBM), quantity, shipping marks, safety measures, packaging type, etc.

All parties involved in international logistics require the packing list to handle cargo correctly and effectively. Specifically,

  • Customs officers need P/L to check and clear a shipment.
  • Freight forwarders need P/L to calculate shipping costs.
  • Banks request P/L as a supporting document presented for payment under the term L/C.
  • Buyers use P/L to check goods at the destination port.

Certificate of origin

The certificate of origin (CO) certifies where the goods are originally manufactured and processed. It’s used for the following purposes:

  • Import customs officials require the CO to verify the origin of the goods and ensure products meet requirements.
  • Buyers use the CO to claim preferential import duty.

Many countries have signed mutual trading agreements, like China–Australia Free Trade Agreements that remit the tariff of most products imported from China. Suppose you import from China to Australia, you need the CO to get preferential tariff treatment.

Cargo insurance certificate

Cargo insurance is an important shipping document because it protects cargo against loss or damage during transit. In case your goods are damaged or lost in shipping, you can use it as evidence to claim compensation according to the insurance coverage you purchase from insurance agencies. In this way, you are not liable for all the losses.

Remember to choose the right insurance according to your cargo type and requirements.

Customs declaration form

As the name suggests, Customs Declaration Form is a mandatory document required by export and import customs. Every country has its own format. For example, the Customs declaration form typically used in the USA is CBP Form 7501.

Despite the different formats, Customs declaration forms include some common elements: importer and exporter’s details, shipment contents such as HS code, quantity, value, etc.

It helps customs officials assess import duties, taxes, and other charges, as well as determine whether the goods comply with customs regulations and restrictions.

Shipping order

A shipping order (S/O) is issued by shipping companies to indicate that the container space has been successfully booked and to inform freight forwarders of loading goods.

This document is needed during the export customs declaration. After checking, customs officers will stamp the S/O. Then, cargo is allowed to be loaded into the vessel and released.

Inspection certificate

Inspection Certificate is a shipping document validating that a batch of shipments meets the buyer’s requirements, including quantity and quality.

There are various types of inspection certificates. For example, the pre-shipment inspection certificate is required by many developing countries like Mexico, Russia, India, etc. In addition, some of the goods that commonly require inspection certificates include perishable items and industrial equipment.

Remember to check the specific requirements of the destination country to determine whether an Inspection Certificate is necessary.


A manifest is a shipping document that lists all shipments and the total quantity of goods loaded on a vessel, aircraft, or other transportation tools, along with detailed info such as weight, destination, and value.

This document serves as a record for customs and border control purposes. Only after the customs authorities audit and approve can your freight forwarder arrange the subsequent customs clearance of the goods.

Arrival notice/notification

The arrival notice is a document used in international shipping to notify the recipient that a shipment is about to arrive at the destination port. The recipient is the same as the notifying party on the B/L, usually the buyer or the designated freight or customs broker. He deals with customs clearance and arranges the pickup of cargo according to the specific arrival date and other key information listed on the arrival notice.

How about export and import licenses? Mandatory?

The import/export license is a document issued by the government that grants permission to individuals or companies to bring in or take out goods from that country. The specific regulations vary depending on the country and the type of goods involved.

For example, in China, an export license is a must for export. The import license is not generally required for most goods entering the United States. But you need to prepare certificates for some special product categories, such as FCC certificates for electronic products and FDA certificates for food products, medical devices, and drugs.

What documents are needed for hazardous goods?

When shipping hazardous goods internationally, there are some key documents required, such as Packing List, Safety Data Sheet (SDS), Dangerous Goods Transport Document, Dangerous Goods Declaration, etc.

Dangerous goods transport document

Also known as the Dangerous Goods Form, it proves that DG cargo has been properly treated, packaged, and labeled in accordance with the safety requirements of international transportation before shipping.

Dangerous goods declaration

This document is used to declare dangerous goods involved in international shipping. It is required by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

Safety data sheet (SDS)

SDS is a necessary document that includes detailed information about hazardous ingredients involved in products as well as information on handling, storage, and emergency response measures. It is required by the United Nations Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals.

Who prepares shipping documents?

Freight forwarders prepare documents required for shipping internationally. As importers, you need to have a good understanding of the essential shipping documents. And you’d better choose an experienced and reliable freight forwarder to arrange shipments for you.

Contact Jingsourcing to get good forwarders. As a leading sourcing company in China, we have helped 4000+ clients at small and large business scales to source and ship goods from China. We not only help you get the most competitive shipping prices from our long-term cooperative freight forwarders but also prepare shipping documents and product certificates in advance and keep you informed.

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