Shipping Documents Cheat Sheet: A Quick Guide for Shippers and Consignees

  • June 27, 2024
  • Blog

Navigating the world of shipping documents can be daunting, whether you’re a seasoned logistics professional or new to international trade. This cheat sheet provides concise, essential details about the key documents you’ll encounter in the shipping process.


Air Waybill (AWB)


Serves as a transport document for air cargo.

Key Points

1.Identifies Consignor and Consignee

Lists the sender and recipient.


This cannot be used to transfer ownership.

3.Flight Information

Includes flight route and number.

4.Goods Description

Includes a description of the cargo, quantity of outermost pieces, weights and dimensions, as well as any hazardous cargo information

Arrival Notice


Informs the recipient that a shipment (usually ocean) has arrived at its destination port.

Key Points

1.Timing & Location

Indicates when and where the goods will be available for pickup or delivery.

2.Required Actions

Inbound Vessel Information – where a transshipment has occurred and the cargo has been loaded onto a different vessel, the arrival notice can help to provide the information required for manifest filing to customs.

3.Port of Arrival

Specifies at which terminal at the specific port the cargo will be made available for receipt.

Bill of Entry


Used for customs clearance and documentation for imports.

Key Points

1.Legal Requirement

Necessary for importing goods into a country.

2.Detailed Information

Includes tariff classifications, value, and quantity of goods.

3.Duty Assessment

Helps customs determine applicable duties and taxes.

Bill of Lading (B/L)


The primary transport document for maritime shipping.

Key Points


Serves as a contract of carriage, evidence of receipt of the goods by the carrier, and can also be issued as a negotiable title document.

2.Shipment Details

Includes description, quantity, weight, volume, condition of goods, and any information about hazardous conditions or other handling instructions.

3.Negotiable Instrument

Can be issued as an original, negotiable document to transfer ownership rights between the shipper and consignee. When a Bill of Lading is issued in this way, special care must be taken to ensure that the original copies only pass to those in the intended chain of ownership, as it becomes a bearer instrument.

Certificate of Analysis


Provides a detailed account of product specifications and confirms quality against a specified standard.

Key Points

1.Quality Assurance

Validates that the product meets specified standards.

2.Ingredient Disclosure

This may include a breakdown of components.

3.Regulatory Compliance

Often required by customs or by certain industries.

Certificate of Conformity


Confirms that a product meets regulatory or technical standards – often seen in the manufacturing process of electrical appliances, machinery, and other apparatus that may have an impact on the safety of the operator.

Key Points

1.Compliance Verification

Proves adherence to applicable rules.

2.Safety Confirmation

Validates product safety for use.

3.Market Access

Required for selling goods in certain markets. The conformance standards will be a regulatory instrument issued by a given jurisdiction.

Certificate of Free Sale


Indicates that the exported goods are legally sold in the country of origin.

Key Points

1.Export Legitimacy

Confirms goods are legally sold or distributed.

2.Market Entry

Often required for products like cosmetics and food.

3.Source Verification

Provides traceability to the country of origin.

Certificate of Handling


Details the proper handling procedures for safe transportation of goods.

Key Points

1.Safety Protocols

Outlines how to manage the product during transit.

2.Special Requirements

Specifies unique storage or handling conditions.

3.Compliance Record

This may be required to prove adherence to shipping regulations.

Customs Entry Form


Declares goods being imported, and submitted to customs for processing. In Australia, this is often referred to as an N10.

Key Points

1.Import Information

Describes nature, quantity, and value of goods.

2.Duty Calculation

Used by customs to assess applicable tariffs, duty and tax payable, and any ancillary charges.

3.Regulatory Formality

Mandatory for most international shipments.

Customs Invoice


Provides details about the goods being shipped for customs authorities.

Key Points


1.Valuation Basis

Helps calculate import duties based on value.

2.Exporter and Importer Data

Identifies parties involved.

3.Commodity Details

Includes descriptions, quantities, and tariff codes.

Dangerous Goods Declaration


States the nature and hazard level of dangerous goods. The documentation formats and required information are issued by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and DG classifications follow guidelines outlined by the UNECE. Goods may be considered dangerous but not necessarily hazardous for transport.

Key Points

1.Safety Compliance

Ensures shipment adheres to hazardous materials regulations.

2.Transport Precautions

Indicates required precautions for transport.

3.Carrier Requirement

Mandated by carriers for shipping hazardous items.

Delivery Order


Authorises the release of cargo to the recipient named on the master bill at the port of discharge. The carrier issues a delivery order once all the applicable freight and ancillary charges are settled to them. Note, a delivery order is not proof of customs clearance. Both are required to access the cargo and take delivery.

Key Points

1.Release Authorisation

Enables consignee to take delivery of goods.

2.Details of Handling

Provides instructions on handling conditions.

3.Compliance Record

This may be required to prove adherence to shipping regulations.

Certificate of Inspection


Confirms that goods have been inspected and meet specific criteria.

Key Points

1.Quality Check

Verifies goods meet agreed-upon specifications.

2.Third-Party Validation

Often conducted by an independent body.

3.Facilitates Customs

Can expedite customs clearance in some cases.

Certificate of Origin


Confirms the country where the goods were produced. COOs are issued by an authorised chamber of commerce. Often tailor-made to suit the format required under specific free trade or economic cooperation agreements between nations. Shippers/manufacturers must be able to prove their claims of origin under a COO. There are complex rules that govern the determination of country(ies) of origin. This is a critical document in international trade.

Key Points

1.Trade Agreements

This may enable preferential tariffs under trade agreements.

2.Export Requirement

Necessary for customs clearance.

3.Import Verification

Assists in assessing origin-based duties.

Dock Receipt


Acknowledges that a shipment has been received at the shipping dock for export. A dock receipt is more commonly issued for general (non-containerised) cargo that is being handled by stevedores as break-bulk cargo.

Key Points

1.Receipt of Goods

Verifies goods received by the carrier (or carrier’s appointed stevedore).

2.Pre-shipment Record

Documents condition and quantity of goods.

3.Transitional Document

No legal implication of title transfer. A dock receipt is not a negotiable instrument.

Export Declaration


Notifies customs about goods being exported out of a country.

Key Points

1.Export Control

Required for tracking outbound shipments.

2.Data Compilation

Helps collect export statistics.

3.Customs Procedure

Mandatory for outbound shipments.

House Bill of Lading


Issued by a freight forwarder for shipments consolidated from multiple shippers.

Key Points


Used for shipments part of the larger consolidated cargo.


Issued by the forwarder to the individual shipper.

3.Not usually a Title Document

Unless specifically organised by the shipper, most HBLs are not issued as title documents (although they can be).

Import License


Permission granted by a country to import certain goods or quantities. Licenses may be required under law by any number of government or law-enforcement agencies. For example, quarantine agencies often require permits for dealing in biological agents; importers may need permits from policing or military oversight bodies to import weapons, etc.

Key Points

1.Import Control

Regulates inflow of certain products.

2.Issuing Authority

Provided by a governmental or regulatory body.


This may be subject to quotas or restrictions.

Inspection Certificate


Confirms goods have been inspected and meet quality and quantity criteria.

Key Points

1.Quality and Quantity

Verifies goods adhere to contractual standards.

2.Third-Party Verification

Often carried out by an independent entity.


Necessary for regulatory or customer requirements.

Intermodal Bill of Lading


Issued to cover the multi-leg transport of cargo where individual legs are carried out using more than one method, such as truck and ship or rail and ship or rail and truck.

Key Points

1.Multimodal Transport

Issued for goods transported where different legs in the transport are on different modes of conveyance.

2.Contract Terms

Outlines responsibilities and liabilities across different modes.

3.Seamless Transition

Aids in smooth transfer between transport methods.

Letter of Credit


A form of bank guarantee used in international trade. An LC reduces counterparty risk between shippers (the “beneficiaries” that receive payment) and consignees (the “applicants” that make payment) that do not have trading history or where trustworthiness is a concern. Payment will be made to the seller once the conditions laid out in the LC are met.

Key Points

1.Payment Assurance

Provides seller security for receiving payment. Under the LC if the shipper produces documentation in the manner instructed under the LC, free from errors, then they can be confident that their bank will receive payment for them from the consignee’s bank.


Issued by a bank on behalf of the buyer.


Payment upon fulfilling specific terms, often including document presentation, proof of shipment and completion of export procedures, and any other combination of documents listed in this guide.

Marine Insurance Policy


Outlines terms under which a shipment is covered for losses at sea, and the various types of losses insured against, as well as the underwriter of that policy.

Key Points

1.Risk Mitigation

Provides financial protection against maritime risks.

2.Coverage Details

Specifies what is and isn’t covered.

3.Claim Procedures

Outlines how to file a claim for loss or damage.

Bill of Sale


Confirms the transfer of ownership from a seller to a buyer. Not to be confused with a commercial invoice that displays market/dutiable value of cargo in a consignment.

Key Points

1.Legal Proof

Acts as a legal document to verify ownership transition; the production of which is often required under contract.

2.Transaction Details

Lists information such as sale price and item description.

3.Required for Registration

Needed to register certain goods like vehicles.

Bonded Warehouse Receipt


This document indicates items are received in good order for storage at a customs-controlled facility. While in bond, the goods are not available for home consumption. To remove them from bond, any applicable duties, taxes and statutory fees will need to be settled by the importer.

Key Points

1.Duty Deferment

Enables deferred payment of import duties and (usually) sales tax.

2.Controlled Environment

Ensures secure, often climate-controlled storage.

3.Inventory Control

Tracks stored items and their conditions.

Cargo Manifest


Documents the total cargo carried within a shipping container or vehicle. When a freight forwarder issues a single master bill for a freight consolidation to their counterparty and cuts multiple house bills under that master, the manifest links the house and master bills so that the receiving forwarder knows which customers’ cargo is in the consolidation.

Key Points

1.Legal Requirement

Some but not all jurisdictions require a manifest for customs clearance and inspections.

2.Comprehensive List

Includes a complete list of all goods in the consolidation.

3.Location Data

May include packing data.

Certificate of Weight


Provides the official weight of the shipment, usually required for freight shipping.

Key Points

1.Weight Accuracy

Verified by an authorized entity.

2.Freight Calculation

Used to determine shipping costs.

3.Regulatory Compliance

Required to comply with shipping regulations.

Clean Report of Findings


Indicates goods have been inspected and found to meet contract terms and regulations.

Key Points

1.Quality Assurance

Verifies conformity to contract specifications.

2.Customs Facilitation

May expedite customs procedures.

3.Importer Confidence

Assures the buyer of shipment quality.

Commercial Invoice


Details the goods in the shipment and is crucial for customs clearance.

Key Points

1.Customs Requirement

Used for assessing duties and taxes.

2.Item Descriptions

Lists details such as quantity, value, and Harmonised System codes.

3.Proof of Sale

Validates financial terms between buyer and seller.

Export License


Permits the export of specific goods under certain conditions.

Key Points


Ensures export adheres to national and international laws.

2.Restricted Goods

Required for controlled or sensitive items.

3.Issuing Authority

Granted by a governmental or regulatory body.

Forwarder’s Certificate of Receipt


Confirms a forwarder has received goods and accepted responsibility.

Key Points

1.Forwarder Accountability

Holds the forwarder responsible for the goods.


Issued before the Bill of Lading.

3.Transport Details

Includes shipping routes and logistics information.

Freight Bill


Provides details on charges applicable for transporting goods.

Key Points

1.Cost Breakdown

Lists all shipment-related charges.

2.Billing Parties

Identifies who is responsible for payment.

3.Payment Terms

Specifies when and how payment should be made.

Packing List


Provides details about the contents, dimensions, and weight of a shipment.

Key Points

1.Inventory Management

Aids in tracking shipment items.

2.Customs Requirement

Used by customs for inspection and verification.

3.Handling Guidance

Includes instructions for safe handling.

Pro Forma (Commercial) Invoice


An initial invoice sent before shipment or delivery of goods.

Key Points


Provides estimated costs for proposed delivery.


Sent before the actual Commercial Invoice.

3.Payment Planning

Helps buyers arrange for finances or credit.

Shipper’s Letter of Instruction


The Shipper’s Letter of Instruction (SLI) is a formal instruction from a shipper to their forwarder or carrier to undertake a shipment on their behalf. It also includes instructions on how to lay out documents.

Key Points

1.Formal Instruction to Convey Goods

The SLI is a formal (usually signed and dated) instruction from a shipper to their appointed forwarder or carrier to undertake transport of goods.

2.Details Cargo and Transport Particulars

Verifies quantities and nature of goods, port of load/discharge, weights, volumes and any hazardous handling instructions. For containerised freight it will mark the quantity, type and size of container(s) required.


A carrier/forwarder acting under a signed SLI can be confident that their client authorises the shipment of goods and that they are acting in accordance with that client’s express instructions.

Consular Invoice


Verified or certified by the consul of the importing country.

Key Points

1.Import Regulation

Required by some countries to control imports.

2.Certified Details

Verifies quantities, values, and nature of goods.


Adds scrutiny to regular invoices.

House Air Waybill


Issued by a freight forwarder for consolidated air cargo shipments.

Key Points

1.Consolidation Management

Used for part of larger console shipments.

2.Not a Title Document

Unlike the master air waybill, not a document of title.


Issued by forwarder to individual shipper.

Shipper’s Export Declaration


Provides export statistics, often required for controlled or high-value shipments.

Key Points

1.Regulatory Compliance

Used by governments to track export activities.

2.High-Value Goods

Mandatory for high-value shipments.

3.Export Controls

Includes details on licenses or export restrictions.


Understanding these documents is crucial for smooth international trade operations. Use this cheat sheet to ensure you have the right paperwork ready, helping you confidently navigate the complex world of shipping.