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Understanding Export Documentation

By BNET Editorial
published on 5/02/2007

For the small business exporter, managing the required documentation can seem daunting. But
having the correct information for your documents and knowing where, when, and to whom to
send them speeds up the processing of individual transactions and inspires the confidence of your
customers. Indeed, where letters of credit are involved, correct documentation is essential for you to
receive payment.

What You Need to Know

Why is export documentation necessary?
Documentation is used to keep shipment and delivery on schedule, to describe cargo, for customs
clearance, to indicate the ownership of goods for collection purposes or in the event of dispute, and to
obtain payment.

What are Incoterms?

Incoterms are standard, internationally recognized trade terms used in sales contracts to help traders
in different countries understand one another. Export documentation requirements often depend on
the Incoterms used.

Where can I get help with export documentation?

Export documentation is subject to frequent change and amendment, and requirements vary from
country to country. For accurate, up to date information, you can contact the International Chamber of
Commerce, International Trade Association, Trade Information Center, Export Assistance Centers, or
an embassy or consulate of the country to which youre exporting goods.
Freight forwarders usually offer assistance with packing and documentation along with their services
for physical transportation of goods. You may also wish to consult a professional export counselor.


What to Do
Understand the Different Types of Documentation
The following documents are commonly used in exporting, but which of them are necessary in a
particular transaction depends on the product being shipped as well as the requirements of the U.S.
government and the government of the importing country. Always check with the U.S. Government
Export Portal or other reliable sources to determine which documents you need.
Bill of Lading. A contract between the owner of the goods and the carrier (as with domestic
shipments). For vessels, there are two types: a straight bill of lading, which is non-negotiable, and
a negotiable or shippers order bill of lading, which can be bought, sold, or traded while the goods
are in transit. The customer usually needs an original bill of lading as proof of ownership to take
possession of the goods.
Air (or Ocean) Waybill. Issued by an airline (or ocean shipper) when goods are received for
transport; the waybill travels with the cargo. It is similar to a bill of lading, but cannot serve as a
document of title.
Shippers Export Declaration. Available from the U.S. Government Printing Office and
commercial outlets.
Commercial Invoice. A bill for the goods from the seller to the buyer. These invoices are often
used by governments to determine the true value of goods when assessing customs duties.
Governments that use the commercial invoice to control imports will often specify its form, content,
number of copies, language to be used, and other requirements.
Certificate of Origin. Required by some countries. In many cases, a statement of origin printed
on company letterhead will suffice. Special certificates are needed for countries with which the
U.S. has special trade agreements, such as Mexico, Canada, and Israel. For example, a NAFTA
Certificate of Origin is needed for shipments to Mexico and Canada.
CE Mark. Designates goods that have met the requirements to be marketed throughout the
European Union (EU). Once a manufacturer has earned a CE mark for its product, it may affix the
mark to the product, and then the product may be marketed throughout the EU without having to
undergo further procedures in each EU member country.
Insurance Certificate. Assures the consignee that insurance will cover the loss of or damage to
the cargo during transit. This certificate can be obtained from the freight forwarder.
Export Packing List. Itemizes the material in each individual package and indicates the type of
package, such as a box, crate, drum, or carton. Both commercial stationers and freight forwarders
carry packing list forms.
Import License. Must be obtained by the importer. Including a copy with the rest of your export
documentation, however, can sometimes prevent problems with customs in the destination


Consular Invoice. Required in some countries. It describes the shipment of goods and shows
information such as the consignor, consignee, and value of the shipment. Forms may be obtained
from the destination countrys embassy or consulate in the U.S.
Inspection Certification. Required by some purchasers and countries to attest to the
specifications of the goods shipped. Inspection is usually performed by a third party, often an
independent testing organization.
Dock Receipt and Warehouse Receipt. Used to transfer accountability when the export item is
moved by the domestic carrier to the port of embarkation and left with the shipping line for export.
Destination Control Statement. Appears on the invoice and waybill to notify the carrier and all
foreign parties that the item can be exported only to certain destinations.
Export License. Required by the U.S. government for dual use exports (commercial items that
could have military applications) or exports to embargoed countries. Most export transactions
do not require specific approval from the U.S. Government. Before shipping your product, make
sure you understand the concept of dual use and how U.S. export regulations may affect your

Know the Best Way to Send Documentation

Electronic Data Interchange is increasingly important to the international exchange of commercial
information, replacing much paperwork transfer. EDI greatly reduces the time required for document
exchange and increases accuracy by eliminating transcription errors. EDI systems use international
conventions and standards of formatting for data, so that documents such as invoices and orders can
be exchanged between trading partners in different countries.
EDI requires a computer with a modem and communications software (to provide data translation) at
either end of a telephone line.
The Internet can also be used to send documentation. Benefits include speed, accuracy, and the
ability to send to a large number of recipients using one system. Disadvantages include the challenge
of adequately securing data and the potential risk of dealing with unknown parties placing orders.

What to Avoid
You Fail to Do it Right from the Start
Make sure your documentation is correct and complete before you submit it the first time. If you
submit incomplete or incorrect documents, you may experience shipping delays affecting your cash
flow, as well as penalty payments.


You Neglect to Research Whats Needed

Before you begin your documentation, get as much information as possible from government
agencies, freight forwarders, or other experienced parties, professional export counselors, and others,
to make sure you have all the information you need.

Where to Learn More

Cook, Thomas A., Rennie Alston, and Kelly Raia. Mastering Import and Export Management.
AMACOM, 2004.
Nelson, Carl A. Import/Export: How to Get Started in International Trade. 3rd ed. McGraw-Hill, 2000.
Reynolds, Frank. Managing Exports. Wiley, 2003.

Web Sites:
International Chamber of Commerce:
National Customs Brokers and Forwarders Association of America:
Office of the U.S. Trade Representative:
U.S. Department of Commerce:
U.S. Government Export Portal:
U.S. International Trade Administration:

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