Essential Shipping Documents

Know the 6 Essential Shipping Documents

Few of us love completing paperwork. But providing these six essential shipping documents complete, correct and on time is the difference between seamless cross-border trade and a world of pain. Border holds, delayed deliveries, liability disputes, and inflated duty charges may await those who don’t submit the correct information. As with many aspects of international commerce, getting the essential shipping documents right is complex. Licensed customs brokers have the expertise to guide you and your business.

Bill Of Lading / Airway Bill

The Bill of Lading (essentially, Bill of Loading) is one of the most essential shipping documents. The carrier issues the BoL/AWB for sea freight or Air Freight and provides copies to the shipper, the broker and the consignee. While a Bill of Lading is a legal document of title, an Airway Bill is a receipt for goods. Whether you’re importing or exporting, it’s essential to understand it. It shows:

  • who has the goods;
  • where they have come from;
  • where they are going and;
  • what payments are due.

The BOL/AWB Document Includes:

  • Terms of the contract of carriage;
  • Confirmation of the date the goods were loaded onto the vessel or aircraft;
  • Loading and destination ports or airports;
  • Details of goods including numbers, weight, size, and value;
  • Consignee/receiver name and contact information;
  • Any special shipping instructions

Getting the BoL/AWB details correct is essential as it will be a crucial document if the goods incur damage during transit or their ownership is disputed.

A Bill of Lading confirms goods were received in sound condition and are on board a ship ready for delivery. It is a binding contract of carriage between the carrier and cargo owner and serves as proof of ownership of the goods. The primary purposes of the Bill of Lading include:

  • Confirming receipt that goods have been handed over to the carrier and loaded;
  • Outlining the terms of the contract between the cargo owner and shipper and the start/end points of the agreement;
  • Confirming ownership of the goods and entitles that entity to collect the goods at the destination.

Types Of Bills Of Lading

Different types of BoL/AWB are needed to cover all shipping scenarios, including:

  • Ocean – for sea freight (also called a port-to-port bill of lading);
  • Airway – for Air Freight;
  • Inland – for road or rail freight ;
  • Multimodal – where the carriage of cargoes requires more than one mode of transport
  • Originals – when a consignee hasn’t paid the manufacturer for goods, a set of originals is used to ensure the consignee finalises payment before the goods are released;
  • Switch Bill or Triangle – Two Bills of Lading or Airway Bills are produced. – – The Triangle or switch Bill is the second BoL/AWB issued by the carrier. The second BOL/AWB replaces the original Bill issued at the time of shipment. The shipper and consignee’s details from the original Bill are substituted to protect the shipper’s IP.

Commercial Invoice

The commercial invoice is another of the essential shipping documents for all parties involved in cross-border trade – shipper, carrier and consignee, and government authorities such as customs. The invoice, issued by the seller or exporter, details who you are selling to or buying from. It also shows the products in the transaction and their value.

The commercial value determines the duties and GST payable. You also need to include the Incoterms on the invoice. Clarity on the terms means all parties know who is organising and paying for which elements of the shipping.

Packing List

The seller or exporter must also produce a packing list with similar information to the commercial invoice. The packing list mentions the amount, weight, dimensions, description of the cargo and shipping marks. Parties along the supply chain use these international shipping documents to verify what was sent is what was received.

Packing Declaration

The packaging some cargoes travel in can pose a biosecurity risk to Australia. A packing declaration tells the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (or AQIS) which materials were used in the shipment. Some countries use hay, chaff, bamboo and contaminated cardboard.

Australia doesn’t allow these packing materials to enter. AQIS also requires the timber used in pallets and crates to be treated. When timber packaging or wooden articles are shipped, a treatment certificate is also needed.

Certificate Of Origin

The Certificate of Origin (CO) certifies where the goods were produced, grown or manufactured. The CO is the certification by a government authority that the goods listed in the document originated in Australia. It is required when importing from and exporting to certain countries, when a consignee requests customs clearance, or when it’s stipulated in a letter of credit.

Many overseas importers require a CO when dealing with Australian exporters. Likewise, many Australian importers will need a CO when importing from countries holding a trade agreement with Australia. Although obtaining a CO is straightforward, you must follow specific procedures:

  • An Exporters Information Form Update must be forwarded to the issuing body, accompanied by a list of your company’s authorized signatories;
  • Evidence of origin must be supplied before stamping. This may include copies of the invoice, a Bill of Lading, a letter of credit, or a statutory declaration;
  • Exporters must submit a copy of the documents being stamped for Chamber records;
  • Before submission for authentication, the exporter must sign all export documents on the bottom left-hand side under the exporter’s declaration;
  • Notably, Australian Certificate of Origin forms can’t be used for any origin other than Australia;
  • Certificates of Origin must always be typed.

Shipper’s Letter Of Instruction

The Shippers Letter of Instruction (SLI) is one of the essential shipping documents for export shipments for your freight forwarder to follow. While not a legal requirement, it gives your freight forwarder authority to act as your agent and provides written instruction on who needs to do what in the transaction. You can find a template here.

Need More Help With The 6 Essential Shipping Documents?

Our team of freight experts and licensed Customs Brokers can help you with the complexities of preparing all of these six essential shipping documents and other documentation such as preference certificates, certificates of origin, import & export licenses, etc.

Magellan Logistics can also provide advice on export grants, valuation procedures, copyright/trademark issues, GST and tax, quarantine, anti-dumping, bonded warehousing, packaging requirements, fumigation certificates, duty drawback, free trade agreements, landed costings, and Australian Trusted Trader.

For more information on essential shipping documents, get in touch today on 1300 651 888 or email our National Customs Manager, Duncan Graham via

Further Reading

International Shipping Responsibilities: The Ultimate Guide To Mastering Cross-Border Trade Compliance (

Freight Terms Every Importer Should Know – Part One (