Management

Basic tips for international shipping documents

*I am writing this post without permission or knowledge of anyone, my current and previous employers included.  Please always check with your international carrier or customs broker for guidance.  This is basic information and is subject to change at any time.*

I work in the international ground freight shipping industry focusing on the U.S.-Canadian border.  As such I, along with my coworkers, see many common mistakes made by shippers and I thought I’d make a guide to try and help shippers get their cargo across the border without issue.

I will only be covering the basics in this post, I will only talk about the Bill of Lading (BOL) and Commercial Invoice (CI) if your shipment requires further documentation, Certificate of Origin, FDA release, etc. I will not be covering those here.  I would recommend contacting your customs broker or international carrier for assistance with any additional documentation you are unsure about.

The bare minimum documents required for shipping freight across the U.S.-Canadian border are the Bill of Lading (BOL) and Commercial Invoice (CI).  The shipper must provide these two documents for every shipment.

The Bill of Lading

A BOL must include the following information, failure to include this information has the potential to cause delays.

  • Shippers name, address, and contact information (phone or email)
  • Consignees name, address, and contact information (phone or email)
  • A descriptive yet brief description of the goods being shipped (see below for words to be avoided in product descriptions)
  • The value of the product being shipped with a total of all lines at the bottom.  The value must be at least $1 USD/CAD, never list any item being shipped as $0.
  • Terms of shipment i.e. who pays for the international shipping cost and whose broker will the documents be sent to.
  • The name of the customs broker.
  • If shipping with an AES/ITN number ensure it is placed on the BOL and is correct.

    Having full contact information name, address, and contact info is important because if the carrier or broker needs to contact you or the consignee. By not having this information there is the potential to cause delays as the carrier or broker is forced to search their records, the internet, or contact one of the parties involved to obtain the needed information.

    A descriptive yet brief description is important because you need to convey what you are shipping so that it can be understood.  I will discuss this in greater detail below.

    Customs agencies require items being shipped across the border to have a value.  If you are shipping a free sample just say its value is $1.00 then total the amount of $1 items you are shipping and put that in the section marked total.  So if you are shipping 10 free samples you would say the value is $1 and the total is $10.

    The terms of shipment is important because the carrier and broker need to know who is paying the shipping and brokerage fees.  Is it the consignee, the shipper, or a third party?

    While you may think just listing the terms of shipment would be enough, it’s not always.  While carriers (who process the documents and send them to the broker) do their best to know customer’s brokers, not every customer’s brokerage is in a given carrier’s database.  This is why it’s so important to list the name of your broker.  On a side note, please list the name of the company, not your contact at the broker.  I assure you that not everyone knows that Michael Hickenbottom works for HBK Brokerage.  So on the line marked “Broker” please only list company names, not individuals.  Also unless the Importer of Record (IOR) clears their own shipments, known as “self-clear”, then do not put the IOR’s name in the brokerage section.

    The AES/ITN number must be correct and legible.  If the carrier processing your documents finds the number has too few or too many digits the shipment will have to be held until the document can be corrected.  If the carrier can not read the AES/ITN number, again the shipment will have to be held until the documents can be corrected.

    The Commercial Invoice

    A CI must include the following information, failure to include this information has the potential to cause delays.

    • Shippers name, address, and contact information (phone or email)
    • Consignees name, address, and contact information (phone or email)
    • A descriptive yet brief description of the goods being shipped (see below for words to be avoided in product descriptions)
    • The value of the product being shipped with a total of all lines at the bottom.  The value must be at least $1 USD/CAD, never list any item being shipped as $0.

      You may include all the information from the BOL on the CI but these are the bare minimums for a CI.  Also adding an HS Code (also known as a UN Code) to the description on your CI can be very helpful when trying to determine what a listed commodity is.  HERE is a link to the U.S. International Trade Commission’s site with a list of HS Codes.

      What NOT to put in your description

      • FAK
      • NOI
      • MISC
      • MISCELLANEOUS
      • PART
      • GENERAL
      • UNKNOWN
      • FOODSTUFF
      • DRUG
      • CHEMICAL
      • VARIOUS
      • FREIGHT
      • PLASTIC ARTICLES

        As stated before, descriptions should be descriptive yet brief.  So let’s go through some hypothetical examples.  These are only hypothetical and you should determine your description based on the products you are shipping.

        • Plastic articles – plastic scoop, plastic container.
        • Part – This is generally used for auto parts, so put what it is, radiator, ball joint, brake pad.
        • FAK – This stands for Freight All Kinds, there is no way of knowing what is in the box, you need to list the items, you don’t have to list everything if the list is long but list a few. 
        • General, Freight, Various, Miscellaneous, Misc, and NOI – this is the same as FAK, you need to list at least a few of the items actually in the box.

          When I worked in air freight the trick I was taught was to think about being in sales and having to walk up to a stranger on the street and try to sell them $100 worth of a product.  Do you think you could get that random person to buy $100 of plastic articles?  No of course not, they would have no idea what they were buying.  Now if you tried to sell them $100 worth of plastic scoops you’d have at least a chance because they would at least know what they were potentially buying.

          When determining your item description, always think of the outsider who has no idea what your business does and try to give them an idea of what you’re shipping.  Sometimes it’s obvious, ABC Pumps probably ships pumps, but P.M. Levesque listing FAK NOI as a description gives no hint at what they are shipping.  Remember the carrier, the broker, and most importantly the customs agent don’t work for your company and review hundreds of shipping documents every day, they need short yet descriptive item descriptions.

          Typing vs. Handwriting documents

          Type them.  One of the biggest pet peeves in the industry is people handwriting documents.  These handwritten documents are difficult to read at best, and completely illegible at worst.  I assure you everyone tries their best to read handwritten documents but sometimes they look like they were written by a hungover doctor after a long weekend bender in Las Vegas

          No one enjoys telling someone their handwriting is bad, it can’t be read, and no one enjoys hearing that about their handwriting, so if you can avoid handwriting a document please do.  Obviously, you may not always be able to avoid handwriting a shipping document, and when that happens just slow down and take the time to make sure it can be read.

          Conclusion

          This is just a very basic guide, and you should always contact professionals at your international carrier or broker for advice.  International shipping is difficult, and you can’t know everything. Don’t feel bad about asking for help, I’ve been in the industry for years and I still have to refer to notes and guides from time to time.  But by following the steps laid out here you can at least avoid the most common issues shippers face.

          And let me just say, don’t be afraid to ask for help from your international carrier or broker, they will appreciate that you are trying to reduce errors and should be grateful for the chance to help eliminate them.

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