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Common Export Documents
When it comes to  selling and shipping your products outside of the United States, there are standard documents used for exporting.

Common Export Documents

To know which  documents  are  needed  for an export shipment, the  best  place to start  is  your foreign  customer/importer or a  freight forwarder.  By obtaining correct information, you are helping your customer  efficiently  clear the goods with customs in the target market. 

Pro Forma Invoice  

A pro forma invoice is an important  document used as a negotiating tool between the seller and the buyer prior to an export shipment. This document should be used  by the seller to quote  at the beginning of an export transaction and it will eventually become the  final  commercial invoice  used when goods are cleared through customs in the  importing  country. The document  contains a description of goods (e.g., quantity, price, weight, kind and other specifications)  and  is a declaration by the seller to provide the products and services to the buyer  at  the specified date and price.   

Commercial Invoice  

The commercial invoice is a legal document between the  exporter  and the  buyer (in this case, the foreign buyer)  that clearly  states the  goods  being sold and the amount  the customer is to pay. The commercial invoice is one of the main documents used by customs in determining customs duties.  A commercial invoice is a bill for the goods from the seller to the buyer. These  documents are often used by governments to determine the true value of goods when assessing customs duties. Governments that use the commercial invoice to control imports will often specify its form, content, number of copies, language to be used and other characteristics.   

Packing List  

Considerably more detailed and informative than a standard domestic packing list, an export packing list lists seller, buyer, shipper, invoice number, date of shipment, mode of transport, carrier, and itemizes quantity, description, the type of package, such as a box, crate, drum, or carton, the quantity of packages, total net and gross weight (in kilograms), package marks and dimensions, if appropriate. Both commercial stationers and freight forwarders carry packing list forms. A packing list may serve as conforming document. It is not a substitute for a commercial invoice. In addition, U.S. and foreign customs officials may use the packing list to check the cargo  so  the commercial invoice  should  reflect the information shown on the packing list.    

Transportation Documents  

Air Waybill  

Air freight shipments require airway bills.  An air way bill accompanies goods shipped by an international air carrier. The document  provides  detailed information about the shipment and allows it to be tracked.  Air waybills are shipper-specific  and are not negotiable documents (as opposed to “order” bills of lading used for vessel shipments).  

Bill of Lading  

A bill of lading is a contract between the owner of the goods and the carrier (as with domestic shipments). For ocean shipments, there are two common types: a straight bill of lading, which is non-negotiable, and a negotiable, or shipper’s order bill of lading. The latter can be used to  buy, sell or trade the goods  while  in transit. The customer usually needs an original  bill of lading  as proof of ownership to take possession of the goods  from the ocean carrier.   

Export Compliance Documents   

Electronic Export Information Filing (EEI)  is the electronic export data as filed in the Automated Export System (AES). This data is the electronic equivalent of the export data formerly collected as Shipper’s Export Declaration (SED) information. The EEI must  be electronically filed via the  Automated Export System online, which is a free service from Census and Customs. It is required for any shipments with items per  Schedule B  number exceeding  $2,500*  in value  and for shipments of any value requiring an export license.    

A complete guide to filing electronic export information in the Automated Commerce Environment (AESDirect) is an excellent resource. See  EEI and AESDirect. To sign up and log into the ACE system directly, visit the portal at U.S. Customs and Border Protection.  

*Note: The EEI is required for shipments to Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the former Pacific Trust Territories (unless each “Schedule B” item in the shipment is under $2,500) even though they are not considered exports. Shipments to Canada do not require an EEI except in cases where an export license is required. (Shipments to third countries passing through Canada do need an EEI.)  

 U.S. Principal Party in Interest (USPPI)  

The USPPI,  a required field in the EEI  as defined in the Foreign Trade Regulations (“FTR”), is the person in the United States that receives the primary benefit, monetary or otherwise, of the export transaction. The attached article describes responsibilities of the USPPI, and offers a  handy checklist to assure compliance with  U.S. export regulations.  

Export Licenses  

An  export license  is a government document that authorizes the export of specific goods in specific quantities to a particular destination for a particular end-use. This document may be required for most or all exports to some countries or for other countries only under special circumstances. Examples of export-license certificates include those issued by the  U.S. Department of Commerce’s  Bureau of Industry and Security  (dual use articles), the  State Department’s Directorate of Defense Trade Controls (defense articles), the  Nuclear Regulatory Commission (nuclear materials), and the  U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (controlled substances and precursor chemicals).   

Destination Control Statement  

A  Destination Control Statement  (DCS found in part 758.6 of the BIS Export Administration Regulations, or EAR) is required for exports from the United States for items on the Commerce Control List that are outside of EAR99 (products for which no license is required) or controlled under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). A DCS appears on the commercial invoice, ocean bill of lading, or airway bill to notify the carrier and all foreign parties that the item can be exported only to certain destinations. For more information, visit the Bureau of Industry and Security website.


Depending on the type of product, nature of  transaction (i.e. standard or temporary shipment), and destination country, you may be required to submit additional export documentation. This could include a generic or FTA certificate of origin, ATA Carnet, letter of credit, or other documentation. For more information, see Special Documents Used in Export Transactions

Also, visit the Country Commercial Guides prepared by our in-country trade exports at U.S. embassies abroad. Each guide includes chapters on how to do business with a particular country. Among the chapters are “Selling U.S. Goods and Services,” and “Customs Regulations and Standards” section which highlights the requirements and documentation for a particular country of interest. See an example for shipment to China.