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Overview of Shipping Documents used in the Import/Export process
Overview of Shipping Documents used in the Import/Export process

Learn the documents sent between buyers and sellers.

Ben Thompson avatar
Written by Ben Thompson
Updated over a week ago

The different types of sales and shipping documents used throughout the Import/Export process can seem confusing at first.  You need to understand the process, which party is responsible for creating each document and when they need to be sent to each party in the supply chain process.  IncoDocs makes it easy for Importers, Exporters and Freight Companies to connect and share important shipping information and documentation.

We've put together this infographic to show a typical example of the types of documents created and exchanged between parties involved in the Import/Export supply chain.  Below the infographic is an explanation of the process and the shipping documents involved.


The sales process always starts with the buyer enquiring about the seller's product details and pricing.  Some Importers and Exporters find each other on trade websites such as Alibaba and GlobalSources to send messages enquiring about specific products.


Detailed Quote for products offered, details including product description, pricing, currency, overall packing sizes, Incoterm, payment details, port of loading, port of discharge, type of shipment (FCL, LCL, Breakbulk, Air, Courier).


Purchase Order

The buyer will send an official Purchase Order document confirming all product and pricing details, generally as stated in the supplier's Quotation.

Proforma Invoice

The Seller will send an official Proforma Invoice document to reconfirm the order details.

Note - Both parties will have to counter sign each document as they represent a legally binding agreement between the buyer and seller.  If there are any disputes relating to the order, these documents will be referred to in a court of law.  Using IncoDocs buyers and sellers can easily issue and digitally counter-sign these documents.

Order Confirmation

In some cases the supplier may also issue an Order Confirmation document to confirm the order details.


The exporter will have to create some documentation before the products can be shipped.

Shipper's Letter of Instruction (SLI)

A Shipper’s Letter of Instruction (SLI) or Interim Receipt is an important legal document the exporter will send to the Freight company that is organising the export and logistics of the shipment.  It is a detailed document which gives the freight company all specific instructions relating to the export of goods so the freight company can correctly arrange the export and logistics of the cargo.

Verified Gross Mass (VGM)

This document is only required if the export shipment is by full container.  It is a very important documents that states the total gross mass of the shipment, to ensure containers are not overloaded and cause problems along the supply chain.  The exporter can create and issue this declaration themselves as a statement of total gross mass.  The exporter can also request the Freight company to arrange to get this Certificate at an additional cost.  In this case the freight company will arrange for the truck and container to be weighed at a weighbridge before entering the port.  Using IncoDocs exporters can easily create their own VGM declaration.

As soon as the products have been shipped the exporter will have to create and send shipping documents to the importer.  The importer will check these documents and pass on to their freight company that is handling the import clearance of their shipment.

Bill of Lading - Abbreviated B/L or BoL

This is the most important document involved in the supply chain.  It is a legal transport document issued by the carrier of the goods, sent to the shipper of goods.  So when the goods are loaded on board the vessel of export the shipping line will issue a Bill of Lading to the shipper (exporter) to confirm proof of shipment.  The shipper will send a copy of the Bill of Lading and shipping documents to the importer.

Commercial Invoice

The Commercial Invoice displays all shipper and consignee's details, product information, pricing, currency and IncoTerm.

Packing List

The Packing List is a detailed document stating how all of the products have been packaged inside the shipment including details of types and quantities of pallets, cartons, crates and dunnages used.

Packing Declaration

The export packing declaration states the type of packing materials that are used to pack the goods inside the shipment.  It is to ensure that any timber packaging used are ISPM15 compliant to protect the spread of insects and diseases that can be hiding away in timber packing materials such as pallets, crates and dunnages.

Certificate of Origin (COO)

This document is only required if the country of export and country of import have Free Trade Agreements in place.  If so the exporter will get a Certificate of Origin issued (usually by their local Chamber of Commerce) that will be sent to the importer.  The importer will use this in the customs clearance process to reduce or eliminate import duties applied to the imported shipment


As the shipment is arriving the Shipping company will create and send Customs documents, arrival notices and freight invoices (freight is payable by the consignee/importer for Freight Collect/FOB shipments).

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