Common  Export Documents

There are certain documents that you will need to export your products if you want to sell them or ship them outside the United States. The best place to begin is with your foreign importer or freight forwarder to find out which documents are required for export shipping. You can help your consignee clear their goods quickly with customs in the target country by obtaining the correct information.

Commonly Used Export Documents 

Pro Forma Invoice  

Pro forma invoices are an important document that can be used to negotiate with the buyer and seller before an export shipment. The seller should use this document to provide a quote at the start of an export transaction. It will become the final commercial invoice when the goods have cleared customs in the importing nation. This document includes a description of the goods (e.g. price, weight and other specifications) as well as a statement by the seller that the products or services will be provided to the buyer at the agreed date and price.

Commercial Invoice 

A commercial invoice is a legal document that is signed by the exporter and the buyer (in our case the foreign buyer). It clearly states the goods sold and the amount to be paid. Customs use the commercial invoice to determine customs duties. A commercial invoice is a bill that the goods are purchased from the seller. Governments often use these documents to calculate the true value of goods in order to assess customs duties. To control imports, governments will often use commercial invoices to specify the form, content, number and language of the invoices, as well as other characteristics.

Packing List  

An export packing list is more detailed than a domestic packing list. It lists the seller, buyer and shipper along with the date of shipment and mode of transport. The itemized quantity, description and type of package (e.g. box, drum or carton), total net and gross weight in kilograms, package marks and dimensions. Both freight forwarders and commercial stationers can use packing list forms. A packing list can be used as a conforming document. A packing list is not intended to replace a commercial invoice. The packing list can be used by U.S. or foreign customs officials to inspect the cargo. Therefore, the commercial invoice must reflect the information on the packing lists.

Transportation Documents  

Air Waybill

Air freight shipments require airway invoices. An international air carrier will send an airway bill to accompany goods. This document contains detailed information about the shipment, and allows it be tracked. Air waybills are specific to the shipper and cannot be negotiable (in contrast to “order” bills or lading that are used for vessel shipments).

Bill of Lading

As with domestic shipments, a bill of lading is an agreement between the carrier and the owner of goods. There are two types of bill of lading for ocean shipping: the straight bill, which is non-negotiable and the negotiable or shipper’s bill of lading. These can be used to purchase, sell, or trade goods during transit. To take possession of goods from an ocean carrier, the customer will usually need a original bill of lading.

Export Compliance Documents   

Electronic Export Information Filing is the electronic equivalent of the export data that was previously filed in the Automated Export System. This is the electronic equivalent to the Shipper’s Export Declaration information (SED). The EEI must electronically be filed online via the Automated Export System online. This is a free service provided by Census and Customs. This is required for all shipments exceeding $2,500* in total value or shipments that require an export license.

This excellent guide will help you file electronic export information in the Automated Commerce Environment. Visit  EEI and AESDirect. Log in to the portal at U.S. Customs and Border Protection to sign up and log in directly to the ACE system.

*Notice: Shipments to Puerto Rico, U.S Virgin Islands and former Pacific Trust Territories require an EEI (unless each “Schedule A” item is less than $2,500). These items are not considered exports. Unless an export license is required, shipments to Canada don’t require an EEI. An EEI is required for all third-country shipping that passes through Canada.

 U.S. Principal Party in Interest (USPPI)

The USPPI is a mandatory field in the EEI according to the Foreign Trade Regulations (“FTR”) and the USPPI is the US citizen who receives the primary benefit, monetary, or otherwise, from the export transaction. This article outlines the responsibilities of USPPI and provides a checklist for compliance with U.S. export regulations.

Export Licenses  

Export licenses are government documents that allow the export of certain goods to a specific destination. The document can be required for all or some exports to certain countries, or only in exceptional circumstances. The U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security (dual-use articles), State Department’s Directorate of Defense Trade Controls (defense articles), Nuclear Regulatory Commission (nuclear material), and the  U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (controlled substances and precursor chemicals) are all examples of government bodies that issue export-license certificates.

Destination Control Statement 

For exports from the United States of items on the Commerce Control List (products that do not require a license or are controlled by the International Traffic in Arms Regulations), a Destination Control Statement (DCS) is required. This DCS is found in part 758.6 of the BIS Export Administration Regulations or EAR. To notify foreign parties and the carrier that an item can only be exported to certain destinations, a DCS is required on the commercial invoice, ocean bills of lading or airway bill. Visit the Bureau of Industry and Security website for more information.


You may need to provide additional export documentation depending on the product type, transaction nature, and destination country. You may need to submit additional documentation, such as a FTA or generic certificate of origin, ATA Carnet or letter of credit. For more information, please see Special Documents Used in Export Transactions.

Visit the Country Commercial Guides, which were prepared by U.S. embassies overseas. Each guide has chapters that explain how to do business in a specific country. The chapters include “Selling U.S. Goods and Services” and “Customs Regulations and Standards”, which highlight the documentation and requirements for a country.