The Importance of Import/Export Documentation

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January 19, 2022
Author: Lorman Education

One of the most crucial components of a successful international business transaction is the accurate completion of required export and import documentation. Failure to produce such documentation can hinder the dispatch of products by a manufacturer or supplier and can ultimately impede the timely receipt of goods by the customer. In more severe cases, business owners can be subject to fines or incarceration for failing to comply with import or export documentation requirements. 

There are three common documents that businesses typically need to produce in order to ship products outside the United States or to receive goods from another country.

  1. Commercial invoice: This document contains a formal list of each product purchased, their price, and the total quantity. It also includes the full name and address of the shipper and designated recipient, the signature of the supplier, and a statement indicating the nature of the products. The commercial invoice is perhaps the most important piece of import/export tax documentation because it serves as an official record of the financial transaction between the exporter and importer.
  2. Packing list: The packing list also contains the name and address of both the supplier and consignee, but focuses more on the contents of the shipment as opposed to pricing. It provides a detailed list of the components of the shipment and often contains information pertaining to the total number of boxes and cartons supplied with the shipment.
  3. Certificate of Origin (C/O or COO): This is completed by the exporter and indicates the specific country where the goods were originally manufactured. Such documentation is particularly important because businesses may be forbidden to ship to or receive goods from a particular country. For instance, business owners in the United States are prohibited from shipping goods to Cuba and Iran due to longstanding trade embargoes. Attempts to ship to or receive goods from embargoed countries could result in serious penalties.

In addition to the three common documents listed above, there are other less commonly requested items that may be required in order to engage in international trade. Examples include a certificate of free sale, the shipping airway bill, or a copy of the exporter's FDA registration. The airway bill indicates the date of dispatch and expected date of arrival and is often requested by customers who must travel to their local airport or customs office to retrieve goods. 

For more on import/export law compliance, browse dozens of live and ondemand courses on documentation, valuation, tariffs and fees, and more. 


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