Trade Documents for Exports

What documents do I need to export?

The documents that are required for export vary based on the destination market as well as the mode of transportation. Before trading, it is very important to review what documents are required by the transporter and customs authority to ensure your shipment is released upon delivery. Trade documents, sometimes also referred to as customs documents, frequently include the following:

  • Commercial invoice: This is a document requesting payment for the goods from the buyer to the seller. It serves both as a formal request for payment and may also be used by customs officials to clear the goods in certain countries. It can be used as supporting document for insurance claims and may be required for the release of funds from the buyer to the seller or for reimbursement of a letter of credit by banks. 
    • UN/CEFACT has developed a cross-industry invoice (CII) to support electronic invoicing and standardize the information shared between buyers and sellers, especially when used in conjunction with Incoterms (see guide on Incoterms). For more information on UN/CEFACT’s initiative and whether it could be helpful to your business, see here.
    • Commercial invoices are prepared after purchase orders are submitted by a buyer to a seller detailing the requested item, amount, and purchase price to be paid. A purchase order generally contains more detail than a commercial invoice, listing each item purchased, the unit information, and both buyer and seller information. 
  • Bill of exchange: This document details the goods in a transaction, the amount due for payment, when the payment is due, and all necessary banking information. Bills of exchange can be issued directly from a bank (referred to as a bank draft) or from an individual (called a trade draft) and are negotiable, meaning the bearer can sell this document on the market for cash.
  • Packing list: This document, sometimes referred to as a weight list, is used to record the precise contents of a shipment, sometimes including details like the product’s weight. Although the price may be listed in the packing list, it is different from a commercial invoice because it is not a request for payment. Rather, its purpose is for record keeping.
  • Insurance documents: These are used if you are insured (see guide on Trade Insurance).
  • Letter of credit: These documents can be used by the importer to finance its purchase from the exporter, essentially certifying payment by the importer’s bank to the exporter’s bank once the goods are received (see guide on Trade Finance).
  • Transportation documents: These can include bills of lading or waybills (see guide on Bills of Lading). 
  • Export compliance documents: These documents can involve export declarations, licenses, permits, or certificate (see guide on Basics of Exporting). 
  • Certificate of origin: These documents certify where the goods come from. This information is required in order to apply appropriate tariffs, as well as to determine if the goods are allowed to enter the destination country (see Rules of Origin).
  • Sustainability certifications: Many new standards and certifications are being created to provide consumers with information about a product’s sustainability, environmental or social impact. Some of these are provided by governments, such as “organic” labels for consumables, while others are through non-profits like the Forest Stewardship Council.