Do My Goods Need a Passport? How About a Visa? – Part 1: Documentation Requirements

Companies both small and large  have a strong desire to export their products abroad.  Viable markets, proper infrastructure, product support needs, and ensuring payment are all incredibly important considerations, however once the decision has been made to ship, the question becomes how to ensure the product gets out the door and to its destination. It is here that shipping goods abroad can be complicated and frustrating, and can expose the company (as well as individuals inside the company) to civil—and even criminal—liability. This article identifies the very first things you must be aware of, as an exporter based in the USA: the commercial invoice, the shipping list, and the certificate of origin.

The commercial invoice is critical to exporting goods, as it will tag along with your goods throughout its travels, and will be used by customs agents to assess duties and clear the goods for shipment. In practice, it looks similar to a standard invoice you may already have at your company, however it must be signed by your company, and it must contain the following pieces of information: (1) your company’s name, address, and phone number; (2) the receiving party’s name, address and phone number; (3) the number of pieces being sent; (4) the total weight of the shipment; (5) a specific description of the contents, including the goods’ harmonized system code; (6) the correct value of the goods; and (7) any terms and conditions related to the contract.

The shipping list is also important, as this will allow the receiving country’s customs officials to match your goods to the clearance documentation, and to confirm what goods you are sending. The shipping list needs to include the identification information from items 1 and 2 above, as well as a per-carton breakdown of items 3 (number) and 4 (weight). In addition, the shipping list needs to contain any marks, order numbers, and item numbers used to identify the product, as well as the type of packaging and dimensions thereof. It does not include customer pricing information. Don’t forget to add a shipping list in addition to a commercial invoice, as that helps inform transport agencies, government authorities, and customers about the contents of the package.

The certificate of origin (“CO”), as you might expect, tells everyone from where the goods were made. CO’s are not always required, and this depends on the receiving country, the nature of the goods, and the parties involved in exporting. You should always check  whether a “CO”  is required. The CO needs to contain the identification information of the packing list and commercial invoice, as well as a complete description of the goods—this includes markings, piece count, and weight. The most unique aspect of the CO is that it must be signed by the exporter, often verified by a recognized chamber of commerce, and occasionally has additional requirements.

The information above is not exhaustive, and there are many specific requirements, exceptions, and risks not included here, but if your company has an opportunity to increase sales by exporting goods it is critical to get informed on your product, your destination country’s requirements, and US Customs requirements, before attempting to send your goods abroad. Hopefully this has given you a jump-start on how to get going. Stay tuned for Part Two of getting your goods abroad: Denied Party and Embargoed Country Screening.

Attorney Matthew D. Resch