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A Beginners Guide to Documents Needed for Export and Import

A Beginners Guide to Documents Needed for Export and Import
Export and import documents are used to provide information to all parties involved in international trade and ensure that products make a smooth transition into or out of a country. Proper documentation is critical to the import/export process.
December 10, 2021
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Last Modified: October 9, 2023

One of the most important aspects of international trade is having proper documentation. Ensuring that you have the correct documents needed for export and import will determine whether or not the process goes smoothly. So, what exactly are these documents and how do they work?

Export and import documents are used to provide information to all parties involved in international trade and ensure that products make a smooth transition into or out of a country. Some of the most common documents include bills of lading, invoices and licenses. Proper documentation is critical to the import/export process.

Familiarizing yourself with all of the documentation needed for imports and exports can be difficult. Our guide below will provide you with all the information you need to ensure that your goods are properly documented for export and import.

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What are Export and Import Documents?

Import and export documents contain important information that is necessary not only for the buyer and seller but for customs authorities, carriers and foreign governments. Failure to include the proper documentation with your imports and exports can result in fines and even seizure of your goods by customs. 

When you start exporting and importing you will find that specific documents will be needed for certain products. That is why it’s important to research your goods before shipping them.

Essential Export Documents

Essential Export Documents

When you export goods, you’re expected to be familiar with many different documents. Some of the documents are unique to the export process, while others are used to disclose specific information about your goods. 

Common export documents you should be aware of include:

  1. Pro Forma Invoice
  2. Commercial Invoice
  3. Export Packing List
  4. Air Waybill
  5. Bill of Lading
  6. Certificate of Origin
  7. Certificate of Conformity
  8. Export License

Pro Forma Invoice

The first document you should be familiar with is the pro forma invoice. This document is typically used as a negotiation tool between a seller and a potential buyer. The pro forma invoice gives your potential buyer a quote for a shipment of goods. 

Other pieces of information that can be found on a pro forma invoice are:

  • Specifications for the buyer and the seller involved in the transaction
  • Description of the goods
  • The goods’ appropriate HTS classification
  • Cost of the goods 
  • Terms of payment
  • Details of delivery which include the cost of the delivery, where and how the goods will be delivered
  • Currency used for the quote 

Eventually, pro forma will be used to create the commercial invoice.

Commercial Invoice

The commercial invoice lists information about the seller of the goods and the shipment. Once the goods reach the buyer, the commercial invoice can be used to inspect the shipment.

Commercial invoices are used by the government to further assess customs duties and ensure that all of the information is accurate. A government can request that the commercial invoice be written in a specified language and indicate the number of copies they need.

Export Packing List

Export packing lists essentially provide a list of goods inside the package(s) being shipped. They also specify what type of package the goods are being shipped in. Types of packages could include: 

  • Boxes
  • Crates
  • Drums
  • Containers

Packing lists are used for different purposes. For one, both customs officials in the U.S. and customs officials of the country you’re exporting to can use the list to identify goods for inspection. Secondly, freight forwarders use export packing lists to help prepare bills of lading. 

Air Waybill

The air waybill is required on all goods shipped by an international air carrier. The bill includes important information about the freight you are shipping and will allow you to track your shipment during its journey.

Bill of Lading

A bill of lading is another required document you will need if you want to export goods. A bill of lading works as a contract between the exporter and the shipper. The bill of lading contains information about the type of shipment, the number of goods and the destination of the shipment. 

A bill of lading also works like a shipment receipt once the goods are delivered to their destination. Regardless of what products are being shipped and the mode of transportation being used, a bill of lading must always be included with a shipment. 

Lastly, bills of lading require signatures from the carrier, shipper and receiver. 

Certificate of Conformity

Typically, certificates of conformity are required by some countries for specific types of manufactured goods. The certificate of conformity indicates that a product meet all standards of both the country of origin and the country it’s being exported from.

It falls on the exporter to ensure that the goods are tested and meet the standards outlined by the certificate of conformity. 

Certificate of Origin

Some goods require a certificate of origin, which is used by foreign customs agencies to ensure that the exporter in the country of origin complies with tariff regulations. They can either be generic, meaning there are no trade agreements involved, or a Free Trade Agreement certificate of origin, meaning that preferential treatment like free or reduced tariffs may be given.

Export License

Export licenses are usually not required by the U.S. government. About 95 percent of the goods sent from the U.S. to other countries do not require an export license. However, other countries might require you to have one. Depending on the product you’re exporting and the country you plan to export to, you may be required to obtain an export license.

Essential Import Documents

Essential Import Documents

Some documents used for exporting will also be used when you want to import goods. These documents include the bill of lading, airway bill, commercial invoice and a packing list, to name a few. Instead of repeating the information we gave you for those documents, we will start off with documents that are unique to importing.

Those documents are:

  1. Bill of Entry
  2. Certificate of Insurance
  3. Letter of Credit
  4. Import License
  5. Customs Bond

Bill of Entry

Bills of entry can be filed by the importer or by a customs broker working on behalf of the importer. It is a legal document that must be sent before your goods arrive. Once the goods arrive, the necessary assessments will be made by customs officials as part of the clearance process. 

Certificate of Insurance

An insurance certificate is an extremely important document to include when you import. The certificate shows how much protection you have on your goods. 

The certificate of insurance will help determine whether or not insurance is considered in the sale price of the imported goods. This certificate will also indicate other important pieces of information, like the conditions of the insurance coverage and instructions for what to do if the import is damaged or lost.

Letter of Credit

While not required, a letter of credit is a good tool to have when you’re importing goods. Letters of credit are a guarantee from the buyer to a seller that they will receive payment on time. Should the buyer not be able to cover the costs, then the bank of the buyer will pay the amount leftover. 

Import License

When it comes to importing and exporting, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) serves as the main administrative agency. CBP does not require you to have a license to import. However, other federal agencies might require you to have a license when you import goods that they regulate.

Some countries have restricted goods that you cannot freely import. Goods in countries like these will require a license to import. 

Customs Bond

Customs bonds will be required if your import is worth $2500 or more. There are two different customs bonds available. 

  1. A Single-Use Customs Bond: Just like it sounds, a single-use customs bond will cover one import
  2. A Continuous Customs Bond: A continuous use customs bond will cover all imports made during a calendar year

If you need to obtain a customs bond, visit our customs bond page or speak to our team of experts.

Why Do I Need Export and Import Documents?

Whether you’re an importer, exporter or both, having the proper documents needed to ship your goods is crucial. For one, your goods will have to clear customs when arriving into a country. Having the proper documentation will prevent any mishaps like fines or seizure of your goods.

Getting your goods past customs is just as important for exports. Many U.S. federal agencies watch for what goods are leaving the country as well. Additionally, you will have to make sure your exports meet the guidelines of foreign customs agencies. 

Import and export documents also help the shipping process go smoother. Providing all information about the goods being shipped helps establish transparency between the importer and exporter. This is especially helpful since face-to-face interactions are rare in the world of international trade.

How Do I Prepare Export and Import Documents?

How Do I Prepare Export and Import Documents?

Filling out import and export documents is a pretty straightforward process. Most documents will have empty fields where you fill out all necessary information. Some documents can be completed online, while others have to be sent in physical form. 

The process of filling export and import documents can be very time-consuming. Another alternative is getting a customs broker to do it for you. A customs broker knows all relevant documentation needed for imports and exports. They can fill out and submit all the paperwork for you.

Submit Your Export and Import Documents With USA Customs Clearance 

Let our team at USA Customs Clearance, powered by AFC International, handle all of your export and import needs. Our team of professionals has over 100 years of combined experience.

Filing documents takes a long time and we know you have other aspects of your business to worry about. At USA Customs Clearance, we keep up to date with all the regulations from each federal agency. You can count on us to help you fill out your documents properly and submit them on time. 

We also provide many other services. For example, we offer one-on-one consulting sessions that you can schedule on our consulting page. During these sessions, we can answer any questions that you have about importing or exporting. 

If you aren’t sure if you’re ready for a consultation then contact our team. They can help direct you to your next course of action.

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2 comments on “A Beginners Guide to Documents Needed for Export and Import”

  1. I want to understand this with examples.
    Proper formats of these papers.
    Explain this through short examples with proper working inside the formats.

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