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Download a Quick Guide to Import & Export Documents

    Which U.S. Government Agencies Regulate Imports and Exports?

    1. Customs and Border Protection (CBP)
    2. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
    3. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
    4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
    5. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS)
    6. The International Trade Administration (ITA)

    The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is the parent agency of the CBP. Visit DHS’s site to find more critical information required for importing and the necessary forms to fill out for each step.

    What Documents are required to Import or Export?

    Various documents are needed depending on the type of goods and the desired delivery methods.

    Essential Export Documents:

    Pro Forma Invoice – Negotiation tool between seller and buyer. It is eventually used to create the commercial invoice.

    Commercial Invoice – Lists information about the seller and the shipment. The government also uses it to assess customs duties and inspect shipments.

    Export Packing List – Provides a list of goods as well as the type of packaging they are being shipped in. (Crate, Box, Drum, Container)

    Air Waybill – Includes all the essential information about the shipment and allows tracking of the package’s journey to its destination.

    Bill of Lading – Needs to have the description of goods, quantity, weight, name and address of the recipient, and terms of sale.

    Certificate of Conformity – This is required for specific types of manufactured goods. It confirms that the product meets all standards for the country of origin and its destination country. The exporter is responsible for ensuring all the goods are tested and meets the standards outlined.

    Certificate of Origin – Foreign customs agencies use this to ensure the exporter complies with tariff regulations. (No trade agreement or Free Trade Agreement)

    Export License – Typically not required by the U.S. government, other countries may require one depending on the product and country.

    Essential Import Documents:

    Bill of Entry – These can be filed by the importer or by your customs broker completing it on behalf of the exporter. This legal document must be sent before the goods arrive.

    Certificate of Insurance -This document shows the protection value placed on the goods. It helps determine if insurance is considered in the sale price of imported goods. The certificate also states the condition of the coverage and instructions to follow if the package becomes damaged or lost.

    Letter of Credit – This is essentially a guarantee from the buyer to a seller that they make payment on time. If the buyer can’t cover the costs, their bank will pay the leftover amount.

    Import License – Customers and Border Protection does not require you to have a license to import, but some other federal agencies might depend on what goods they regulate.

    Customs Bond – This is required if your import is worth $2,500 or more. There are two types of customs bonds available.

    1. A Single-Use Customs Bond: Just like it sounds, a single-use customs bond will cover one import.
    2. A Continuous Customs Bond: A continuous-use customs bond will cover all imports made during the calendar year.

    The two documents absolutely required for all importing and exporting are the Bill of Lading and the Commercial Invoice/Packing List. The BOL is a vital document that both the importer and exporter must sign. A BOL works like a contract between the exporter and the shipper. It also serves as a receipt once the goods have been delivered.

    BOL Information:

    • Description of Goods
    • Quantity of Goods
    • Weight of Goods
    • Name of Recipient
    • Address of Recipient
    • Terms of Sale

    The packing list and commercial invoice are generally the same. However, the packing list requires a more detailed summary of the goods. The information on these documents must not be conflicting. Otherwise, it will cause delays and overall confusion.

    Commercial invoice information:

    • Name and address of both the seller (exporter) and the buyer (importer)
    • Value of goods
    • Quantity of goods
    • Description of goods

    Packing list information:

    • Description of the goods
    • Quantity and weight (gross and net) of the goods
    • Number of packages
    • Type of packaging
    • Important marks or numbers used to identify pieces of cargo
    • The ship name of the carrier
    • Date the goods are exported
    • Export license number
    • Letter of Credit number


    Lee, J. (2022, November 7). The Complete Beginners Guide to importing and exporting. USA Customs Clearance.