All Things Shipping | Jan 03, 2023

International Shipping Documents Every Online Seller Should Know

Sarah Gage

International shipping has become a must in today’s modern global economy. Research has identified a correlation between efficient international shipping and positive business growth. One of those main factors is that the average order value of international orders is 17% higher than domestic ones.

To make international delivery a part of your business model, however, you must first understand the international shipping documents associated with it. To that end, here’s an overview of common international shipping documents, major exceptions for certain continents and countries, and the additional fees for which you may be responsible.

Common International Shipping Documents

There are several types of documents you’ll need to ship internationally, though the specific forms required by your shipment can vary depending upon:

  • The types of items you’re sending
  • What mode of transportation you’re using
  • Where you’re sending the items to
  • The specific laws and regulations of the country you’re sending them to

The following are the export documents that are commonly required in most countries: 

Proforma Invoice

This document describes the items being purchased, the weight of the shipment, and associated transport fees. It’s prepared in advance and typically sent to the buyer before the products are shipped. The document’s purpose is to provide the buyer with an exact sales price and to declare the value of your shipment for customs.

Commercial Invoice for Export

As the name implies, a commercial invoice details the items you sell to a buyer. It serves as a legal document between you (the exporter) and the international buyer, letting government organizations know the value of the items enclosed so customs duties can be assessed. The commercial invoice is also commonly used in accounting, allowing both the buyer and seller to keep track of financials.

Note that any shipments to Puerto Rico are considered domestic, so you won’t need to go through customs when mailing to the territory.

Certificates of Origin

“A certificate of origin (CO) is a document declaring in which country a commodity or good was manufactured,” explains Adam Barone of Investopedia. “The certificate of origin contains information regarding the product, its destination, and the country of export.” This document helps determine if additional customs documents are necessary and may impact other duties and taxes (more on this later).

Although not required by all countries, some, such as China and those within the European Union, require a CO. The Trade Information Center is a great resource for verifying whether or not you’ll need one for your shipment.

Export Declaration Form

Any time you send a single item with a value of $2,500 more, you must send an export declaration form – now referred to as the Electronic Export Information form (EEI). Information from the EEI is sent to the US Census Bureau, which in turn, is used when compiling trade statistics.

Note that this only applies to sellers in the US and Puerto Rico.

Bill of Lading

The bill of lading (BOL) is a legal export document between you and the carrier responsible for delivering the goods to the buyer. It outlines the type of products being shipped, the quantity, and the destination, and it also acts as a receipt after the carrier delivers the items.

Air Waybill

An air waybill, commonly referred to as an AWB, is a specific type of bill of lading required for items shipped on a plane. It serves three main purposes:

  • It allows for easy tracking so the buyer can see where the shipment is located at any given time.
  • It provides the airline with a receipt of goods.
  • It serves as a contract between you and your air carrier.

Note that air waybills are carrier-specific; your air waybill for USPS may look different than one for UPS, one for DHL, and so on. Waybills can also come in the form of sea waybills.

Packing List for Export

The packing list for export is one of the more detailed shipping export documents used today, providing a thorough breakdown of what’s being shipped and packaging details. The key information that must be included on a packing list for export may include:

  • Seller and buyer contact information
  • The type of items being shipped
  • A description of the items
  • The quantity of items
  • An invoice number
  • The date the items were shipped
  • How the items are being transported
  • Net and gross weight
  • Package dimensions

Shipper’s Letter of Instruction

This document you give to your carrier includes package transportation instructions and related documentation. It also serves the purpose of providing control and reporting information.

Export License

According to Export.gov, “An export license grants permission to conduct a certain type of export transaction. It is issued by the appropriate licensing agency after a careful review of the facts surrounding the given export transaction.”

According to trade experts, only a small percentage of shipments (roughly 5%) going out of the US require an export license. But it is required for some transactions. Therefore, it’s a good idea to check with the federal department or agency that has jurisdiction over the item you’re shipping internationally to determine whether or not you’ll need one.

Dangerous Goods Form

Dangerous goods are classified as items that create risk for health, safety and/or property during transportation. Some obvious examples include flammable liquids and corrosive materials. But there are a wide range of not-so-obvious items considered dangerous from a shipping perspective, including lithium batteries and even aerosol whipped cream.

No matter what you’re shipping, it’s important to determine whether or not your items meet these criteria. This resource from the Federal Aviation Administration can help.

If you are shipping dangerous goods through the air, you’ll likely need to fill out an International Air Transport Association (IATA) form called the “Shipper’s Declaration for Dangerous Goods” as well. If you’ll be shipping them by sea, you’ll likely need the “Dangerous Goods Declaration” from the International Maritime Organization (IMO).

Also, note that Canada has some fairly strict regulations on what can be imported more than many other countries. Some of their prohibited items include alcohol, furs, and collectible coins. Consult this Shippo guide on shipping to Canada from the US for more on these restrictions.

General Duties and Taxes When Shipping Internationally

Beyond international shipping documents, you should also be aware of additional charges you may incur when shipping across borders.

“Duties and taxes are imposed to generate revenue and protect local industry; almost all shipments crossing international borders are subject to duty and tax assessment by the import country’s government,” writes FedEx. “Customs officials assess duties and taxes based on information provided on the shipping label, the Commercial Invoice, and other relevant documents.”

Duties and taxes are calculated based on several factors, including product value, product description, trade agreements, and the product’s country of manufacture. You’ll often need to pay duties and taxes before your shipment is released to its intended recipient.

Some of the general duties and taxes you may come across (and may be required to pay) include the following:

Note that the US is currently under 14 free trade agreements with 20 continents and/or countries, some of which include Canada, Australia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Israel, Korea and Singapore (see this resource from the International Trade Administration for the full list). If you’re shipping to these countries, you may be eligible for reduced or zero duties rates.

The FedEx International Shipping Assist Calculator offers a simple way to calculate the duties and taxes you may be required to pay.

Carrier-Specific Requirements For International Shipping Paperwork

In addition, each primary carrier has its own unique process for shipping internationally. Familiarize yourself with how to ship internationally with the carrier you plan to use and keep an eye out for any temporary restrictions due to current policies set by the country you plan on shipping to.

Get started with the following links:

Or, for deep discounts on international shipping with these and other carriers, check out Shippo’s global network of carriers.

Getting Your International Shipping Documents in Order

Selling internationally can dramatically boost your profits and increase the size of your customer base. That said, many sellers don’t fully understand the international shipping documents and other requirements associated with the process.

Admittedly, getting started can be overwhelming – especially if you’re new to e-commerce. Having a basic understanding of what documents are required and how they fit into the international shipping framework should help you get your ducks in a row to ship outside the country without unnecessary friction.

Luckily, with Shippo, you can have all necessary documents filled out with a just a few clicks before creating your shipping label. You can also access up to 86% off of UPS international services as well as up to 63% off DHL Express shipping.

Looking to save money and streamline your international shipping? Sign up to Shippo for free and compare rates from a global network of carriers at the lowest possible costs.

Or, to learn more about how international shipping can benefit your e-commerce business, talk to our sales or CS team today.

Sarah Gage is a Michigan-based freelance writer covering business, marketing, and technology topics. She is also the owner of Content Conquered, a B2B-focused content marketing consultancy.

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