Key Points:

  • A purchase order is the official declaration of receiving an order
  • A commercial invoice includes the complete details of the sales transaction between vendor and buyer, including the shipping terms
  • Certificate of Origin (C/O) is a document declaring the country of origin for manufactured goods, usually certified by the consulate or chamber of commerce

International shipping opens your business to new markets and exciting growth possibilities. However, you need to make sure you understand the rules and regulations of exporting and importing, and crucially, you need the proper shipping documents.

International commerce relies on documentation that fulfills the criterion and regulations set by the country of origin and the destination country. It’s critical to be prepared with detailed information about your shipment, business, and the reason you are shipping. If required, you will need to obtain proper licensing for your products as well.

The documentation process of international shipping is a vitally important part of assuring smooth international transactions. International shipping documents decide the fate of your shipment, if not properly done, which could lead to shipments being delayed or held at the customs.

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The 10 Documents You Need for International Shipping

There are a variety of International shipping documents that can be included in shipments in order to comply with both the U.S export regulations and legal requirements for the destination country. These documents may also be required by different organizations helping the facilitation of movement of a shipment, such as the logistics companies and the shipping couriers.


Below are 10 types of shipping documents you need for international shipping and why they are important

Purchase order

A purchase order is an official declaration of receiving an order. This document contains the details about the transaction, parties taking part in it, the type of products involved, and the date of the transaction.

Why it’s important: A purchase order defines what the vendor will deliver and how much it costs. Consider it the first understanding between the buyer and the seller regarding the order and its delivery.

Commercial Invoice

A commercial invoice includes the complete details of the sales transaction between vendor and buyer, including the shipping terms. It is the official proof of sale. They differ from the purchase order as the previous is the quote or placement of the order and a commercial invoice is a receipt or the purchase. Easyship allows you to easily create a commercial invoice for each order.

Why it’s important: It includes complete details of the transaction, which is required for customs clearance in freight shipping.  

Bill of Lading

A bill of lading (BOL) is the official contract between the shipper or owner of goods and the freight carrier. It’s the document used to confirm receipt of goods for shipment, and can only be signed by an authorized representative of the carrier upon receipt in order for the shipment to be released. A BOL will include detailed information about the shipping destination, the goods included, and how they should be handled.

A non-negotiable BOL must be signed by the parties listed, while a negotiable BOL can be transferred to a specified third party.

Why it’s important: A BOL is the most important shipping document in international shipping and must be included no matter the form of transportation. It’s important to fully understand all the detailed information to be included to assure shipments are legally received.

Export Packing List

A packing list is a shipping document containing an itemized detailed list of the cargo, including weight, dimensions, safety measures, and packaging type. The courier company may use it to create the bill of lading, and banks may also require it to be included in the documents for payment under a letter of credit.

Why it’s important: A packing list is used by freight forwarders in order for a shipment to clear US customers for inspection, and often will be used in disputes between a shipper and carrier.

Air waybill

An air waybill (AWB) is a type of Bill of Lading that is the official contract between a shipper and an airline carrier and contains detailed information of the goods shipped. It’s a non-negotiable shipping document and acts as a receipt of goods for the airline upon arrival at the destination airport.  

Why it’s important: An air waybill is the most important document issued by an airline carrier for shipping, so it’s critically important that all the information is detailed and accurate.

Related guide: The Definitive Guide to International Shipping

Letter of Credit

A Letter of Credit is issued by a creditworthy bank guaranteeing payment on goods sold from a seller to a buyer. If the buyer cannot complete the payment, the bank pays the remaining amount to close the transaction.

Why is it important: International trade is complex due to varying rules and regulations by country, so a Letter of Credit with its monetary guarantee has become one of the safest forms of economic transaction.  

Dock/Warehouse Receipt

A Dock or Warehouse Receipt is a shipping document that proves a shipment of goods has been received by the international carrier and includes all the critical information about the shipment including characteristics, size, dimensions, and weight.

Why is it important: The receipt of the document confirms that the shipment has been received in good condition.

Certificate of Origin

A Certificate of Origin (C/O) is a document declaring the country of origin for manufactured goods, usually certified by the consulate or chamber of commerce. It is required by many treaty agreements for international trade to assure the goods are eligible for export. The exporter is responsible for providing the certificate of origin according to the laws and regulations of the destination country.

Why is it important: Since a rate of duty is determined by the country where the goods originated, it’s critical shippers include this document to guarantee it meets all free trade agreements.  

Insurance Certificate

An Insurance Certificate is issued by an insurance company and certifies that the exporter has purchased an insurance policy for the shipment of goods. It covers liability and in the event of a loss of the goods shipped.

Why is it important: International shipping carries certain risks for exporters so having an insurance policy is critical to avoid monetary losses.  

Export License

This is a legal and official document issued by the government. Exporters need a license to ship certain items in certain quantities. Some countries only need this document under specific conditions while for others, it can be a requirement.

Why is it important: An Export License may be required to export certain goods, so it’s crucial to verify whether it’s required for a shipment.

Ace International Shipping with These Documents

Developing a thorough understanding of the shipping documentation process will save you time in delivering your cargo and eliminate potential delays in your shipments. Every country has unique policies, regulations, taxes, duties, and shipping documentation requirements that can make international shipping complex and time-consuming. Take the time to conduct the proper research and seek out answers to any lingering questions.

Once you're ready, it’s essential to first acquire the proper shipping documents for export to foreign destinations. Make sure you have all the required information to fill out each form as accurately as possible. Even small discrepancies between documents can cause delays in your shipment. Thoroughly preparing ahead of time will assure that your international shipping goes as smoothly as possible.

With over 200 shipping solutions, Easyship is your dedicated shipping partner. Our hybrid solutions unlock international shipping for brands and eCommerce companies, getting your goods across the last mile. We make document generation simple. Our tool generates shipping labels, packing slips, and customs declarations for you. You only print what the courier requires.

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International Shipping Documents FAQ

What are customs documents?

Customs documents are documents that are included in shipments in order to comply with both the U.S export regulations and legal requirements for the destination country.

What are transport documents?

Transport documents are documents that provides shipping information that the shipping carrier need to transport an item.

What is the most important document for shipping internationally?

Commercial invoices, bill of ladings, and export packing lists are among the most important shipping documents for shipping internationally.