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10 Common Export Documents You Should Know About
April 20, 2017 Office of Small Business

Great job! You have secured international sales, and your next step is to prepare for the shipment of goods to your foreign buyer.  Most importantly, including specific terms on how the goods will be shipped is needed in the agreement for the benefit of the various people and organizations that will help facilitate the movement of goods. Exports of physical goods that move between bodies of water can be expensive and risky if not done properly; therefore, in every scenario, the exporter must be aware of the export documents used to ship the goods. Understanding these common documents is crucial to your success abroad: 

The bill of lading is usually the first common document used in international shipment and it is a contract between the owner of the goods and the carrier. It will state what goods are shipping, where they are going, and where the shipment started. In addition, once the shipment is picked up, the bill of lading serves as a receipt issued by the carrier. 

  • Certificate of Manufacturer 

This is a notarized document certifying that the goods have been produced by the manufacturer, fulfills the general product requirements, and is ready for shipment.  

  • Find the HS (Harmonized System) code for your product.  
  • Implement a Quality Management System (QMS) within your manufacturing facility. 
  • Make sure that your manufacturing processes comply with the regulations and standards of the country you are shipping to.  
  • Contact Relevant Authorities: Specific authorities or agencies responsible for exporting and international trade can provide guidance on the specific documentation and certifications required for your export. 
  • Apply for the necessary certifications required for exporting your product. This may include certificates of origin, certificates of free sale, or specific product certifications. 
  • Confirm your products are labeled according to the destination country's requirements. 
  • Consider working with trade associations and organizations that specialize in assisting exporters in your industry. 

This document is prepared by the manufacturer and is certified by a government entity or chamber of commerce. It’s used to identify the country of the manufacturer where the goods were made. For example, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration requires a certificate of origin for every product imported to the US.  

When the international sale is fulfilled and goods are ready to be shipped out, a commercial invoice is the document used to describe the entire export transaction from beginning to end including the shipping terms. It is one of the most important documents because it provides critical information and instructions to all parties involved: buyer, freight forwarder, U.S. and foreign customs, import broker, banks, carriers, etc. Many countries may require specific invoices or licenses, so if not done correctly, U.S. businesses will incur fees or delays in shipments. 

  • Consular Invoice 

A consular invoice is a document that is typically required for international shipments and is processed by the consulate or embassy of the destination country. To obtain a consular invoice, you will generally need to follow these steps: 

  • Get in touch with the consulate or embassy to inquire about their specific requirements for a consular invoice. These requirements can vary from one country to another, so it's essential to be well-informed. 
  • Typically, you will need to provide documentation related to your shipment, such as a commercial invoice, packing list, bill of lading, and any other documents required by the destination country's consulate.  
  • The consular invoice may be used for customs clearance purposes. 
  • You may want to consult with a customs broker or international trade expert to ensure compliance with all necessary documentation for your export. 

The purpose of this receipt is to provide the exporter with proof that the delivery of goods to the international carrier was successful and in good condition. 

  • Inspection Certificate 

These inspections are usually done with industrial equipment, perishable merchandise, and meat products. It certifies the items were received in good condition and that the shipment contained the correct quantity. 

  • Determine whether the country you are exporting to requires an inspection certificate for your goods. 
  • Choose an inspection agency that is recognized and accepted by both the U.S. authorities and the authorities in the destination country. Some countries have specific agencies they prefer to work with. 
  • Be prepared to provide documentation to the inspection agency. This may include the bill of lading, packing list, and commercial invoice. 
  • Send copies of the inspection certificate to your importer. 
  • If you're unfamiliar with export procedures, consider working with freight forwarders or customs brokers who can ensure compliance. 

For export shipments, this document certifies you have bought an insurance policy for cargo on board. Insurance may be purchased to protect against liability and large losses to the exporter. 

A packing list is like a shipping list in that it lists the goods being shipped, information on how it was packed, how the goods are numbered, and weight/height dimensions. Even though it’s not always required, it’s an important document used by freight forwarders to prepare a bill of lading and to understand how much cargo is needed. 

A required government online form for all exports more than $2,500 or ones that require an export license. The EEI must be filed with the U.S. Census Bureau to collect trade statistics and apply export controls. 

Learn More 

If you’re new to the world of shipping and export documents, you can find more information on 


EXIM’s Blog postings are intended to highlight various facets of exporting, but the postings are not legal advice, and are not intended to summarize all legal requirements associated with exporting.