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Your Ultimate Cheat Sheet to 11 Essential Shipping Documents

Time to read: 7 minutes

One of the most crucial—yet challenging—aspects of managing an eCommerce business is shipping. Most online merchants focus on the expenses and potential challenges of shipping their clients’ purchases. But, ensuring that the proper documentation accompanies all customer orders is equally essential. Failing to provide the appropriate shipping documents can lead to significant delays. Even worse, your customers can encounter the dreaded “Package Stuck in Customs” notification for overseas shipments.

Ensuring your items are shipped out with all the required documentation is a proven method to prevent serious shipping problems. 

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Your business can access new markets and exciting growth opportunities through international shipping. Before expanding to other countries, online merchants must know each nation’s export and import laws. With that in mind, you’ll need the appropriate shipping documentation for every order.

Documentation that satisfies the requirements and laws established by the countries of origin and destination is essential to international trade. It’s vital to have comprehensive information on your shipment, company, and the reason for your sending. If required, you will also need to secure the appropriate licensing for your items.

Your forwarder has to receive the shipping papers you offer them, regardless of whether you are exporting or importing. How quickly your shipment arrives at its destination depends on the shipping documentation’s accuracy. Correctly completing documents affects the fees you incur.

Import and export laws are constantly changing. Staying on top of your shipping commitments might be challenging as time passes, but accomplishing them well is key to successful shipping.

The Importance of Shipping Documents

As the name implies, shipping documents are papers required to move objects from one place to another. They consist of relevant documents, paperwork, and certifications that offer details on the shipment. The item’s description, specifications, quantity, price, ship date, delivery address, and shipment method are often included.

Some documentation may be needed depending on the type of products being shipped, the delivery location, and the shipment method. Waybills, business invoices, packing lists, and certificates of origin are needed for most goods.

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These documents ensure that shipments are delivered on schedule and to the correct locations. This can be done as there’s information about the product being transported. They help couriers and delivery teams choose the most effective route and product delivery method. 

These documents are also required for international shipping. It will guarantee that the cargo complies with import laws as it travels through different geographic regions. Ensuring that all the necessary paperwork is supplied with accurate information can expedite the process of clearing customs and facilitate prompt overseas delivery.

Legal Standing

Shipping documents are critical documents in terms of law.

They prove the contractual agreement between the parties engaged in the shipment. These documents will also be the foundation for legal recourse in a dispute.

Efficient Shipping Operations

Complete shipping paperwork increases operational efficiency.  You can accelerate cargo handling and reduce the possibility of delays by having complete documents. Having the proper documents streamlines customs procedures as well.

What are the most common delays in customs? | Preferred Shipping

Faster Financial Transactions

Shipping documents provide evidence of adherence to predetermined conditions. Complete records facilitate faster financial operations. When papers are approved and audited quickly, you can expect prompt payment release after fulfilling contractual duties.

11 Shipping Documents You Need To Know

International shipping documentation comes in a range that may be included with shipments to ensure compliance with destination country laws. The country of origin will also have a different set of papers needed. Finally, other entities that assist in transferring a shipment—such as shipping couriers and logistics companies—may require these shipping documents.

But some are specific to the kind of goods you are transporting and the locations of your origin and destination. Therefore, you know which papers are needed for your package before shipping.

1. Proforma Invoice

All processes in an export transaction often begin with an inquiry regarding one or more of your items. A quote request can be part of such an inquiry.

If the request for a quote originates from a domestic client, you most likely have a standard quotation form to utilize. However, your quote would be a “proforma invoice” for overseas transactions. Your overseas prospect may want a proforma invoice to accomplish several things. These may include financing, initiating a letter of credit, obtaining the necessary import permits, and other processes.

When correctly filled out, a proforma invoice will resemble a commercial invoice. The following are specified in a proforma invoice:

  • Both the seller and the buyer in the deal.
  • A thorough explanation of the products.
  • The goods are categorized under the Harmonized System.
  • Total cost 
  • The payment conditions for the sale are usually represented by an Incoterm currently in use.
  • The specifics of the delivery, such as the cost and the method of delivery of the items
  • The currency used in the quote, whether US dollars or another currency

2. Commercial Invoice

The proof of sale required for all overseas shipments is the commercial invoice. These are often made with the help of an invoice maker. Commercial invoices often include information like the order and PO numbers. But generally, they are very similar to a proforma invoice. 

Standard invoices and commercial invoices are nearly identical. Take note that the former must contain additional information to facilitate customs clearance. 

3. Packing List

An export packing list could be more comprehensive than a packing list or packing slip offered for domestic shipments.

Export packing lists are an itemized inventory of all the commodities in a shipment and all relevant information about each item. Significant documents, like a bill of lading and a letter of credit, may be issued using this document. The packing list is necessary for goods transported overseas to pass customs. A dispute between the shipper and the courier can be used to double-check contract agreements.

4. Certificates of Origin

Several countries require a certificate of origin to determine where the items originated. Typically, an official entity such as a chamber of commerce or a country’s consulate office must sign these certificates of origin. They must be supplied in compliance with the laws and guidelines of the importing nation. Even if your business invoice specifies the country of origin, you may need to provide a separate certificate of origin.

5. Certificate of Free Sale

This document, also known as an export certificate, certifies that the goods being sent are free from limitations in their nation of origin. It also provides legal proof that the items are sold or distributed lawfully on the open market. An export certificate of free sale certifies that the appropriate regulatory bodies have cleared the product.

This paperwork is vital for some products, such as food, medical devices, biologics, and cosmetics.

6. Shipper’s Letter of Instruction

Your freight forwarder manages the shipment of your products with a carrier and assists in ensuring proper logistics on your end. They are among the most important people you will work with during export.

You, the exporter, either engage a freight forwarder to work for you, or the buyer hires a freight forwarder in the event of a routed export transaction. This will depend on your agreed-upon terms of sale.

You must supply a Shipper’s Letter of Instruction (SLI) with all the details required to transport your products correctly, regardless of who hired the forwarder. 

7. Inland Bill of Lading

This is a contract of carriage for the shipment of goods by road, rail, or inland waterway.  It is assigned to the shipping courier rather than the buyer. It indicates the location of the items’ transportation and proves that the products have been picked up. 

8. Ocean Bill of Lading

As its name implies, this document is necessary for shipments that traverse international waterways. It acts as a contract between the exporter or seller and the delivery courier to guarantee that the buyer receives the goods and that the seller is paid.  

9. Air Waybill

This is an agreement between the courier and the seller to carriage items transported by air. It is non-negotiable and functions as a receipt for the goods after they are delivered to the destination airport by the airline courier.

10. Letter of Credit

This is a widely used payment method for purchases made internationally. It is irreversible by default since it is formal and legally binding. The bank pledges to pay the seller on the importer’s or seller’s behalf.   

11. Dangerous Goods Forms

You must send your items with the relevant dangerous goods form if the International Air Transport Association (IATA) or the International Maritime Organization (IMO) classify them as dangerous. It might be challenging to ship hazardous chemicals or items. The right personnel at your business must receive the necessary training before you package, label, and record these shipments correctly.   

A thorough understanding of the shipping documentation procedure can help you deliver your goods faster and avoid shipment delays. Shipping these items internationally may be complicated and time-consuming. This is due to each country’s many policies, rules, taxes, levies, and shipping documentation requirements. Allocate enough time to conduct the appropriate research and look for practical solutions to shipping concerns.

When ready, you must obtain the appropriate shipping documents to export your goods to another country. Prepare all the necessary information to ensure every form is filled out correctly. Even minor differences in your papers cause shipment delays. Planning ahead of time with shipping documents is essential for hassle-free international shipping. 

Preparing your items for international shipping is easier with ZhenHub. Our complete logistics software suite makes it easy for you to track overseas shipments. Get real-time updates on parcels and get connected to our global fulfillment network. Sign up for free and get access to our online dashboard. Still not sure which shipping documents you need? Contact our fulfillment experts to learn more.

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