International Shipping Documents: What you Need to Know as an Ecommerce Business

Shipping documents are used for many things, including calculating Singapore shipping tax.

As an ecommerce retailer, there are many things you’ll need to think about to sell and send your goods to customers. You’ll need to set up an online store using a hosting platform like Shopify, source products, and find appropriate fulfillment solutions. If you're shipping internationally to or from Singapore, you'll also need to think about international shipping documents. These are used to calculate Singapore shipping tax or duties in other countries.

Many documents may be required for international shipping, from different bills of lading to invoices, customs declarations, and dangerous goods forms. Couriers may also have their own documents. For example, courier documents for Singapore may include DHL shipping documents and a proforma invoice for FedEx. Providing the proper documents—all accurately filled out—is vital for getting your goods through the local customs checkpoint as quickly and smoothly as possible.

To help you with this, this guide will explain some of the most widely used international shipping documents. Not all ecommerce merchants will need to use all of these documents, but it’s still helpful to understand what they are and how they’re used.

What documents do I need for international shipping?

Customs Declaration

All shipments require a customs declaration, and this will be one of the most crucial courier documents for Singapore shipments. This form contains pertinent details of your shipment that the local customs authority will use to clear your shipment into the country and calculate its Singapore shipping tax. To ensure your shipment clears customs quickly, the information you provide should be as accurate and detailed as possible.

Your customs form will usually include:

  1. Sender’s name, address, and contact details.
  2. Receiver’s name, address, and contact details.
  3. Itemized list of all products in package, including quantity, value, and descriptions.
  4. Package’s weight and size.
  5. Harmonized System code for items in the parcel.
  6. Sent date.
  7. Related invoice number.

Proforma invoice

Many international commercial shipments require a proforma invoice; it’s what most people would consider an international shipping invoice. This is essentially a quote for the sale and delivery of the goods you’re shipping and may be required for financing and import licenses, for example. Like regular commercial invoices, a proforma invoice will include the buyer’s and seller’s details, a description of the goods—including their harmonized system codes–prices, terms of sale, and delivery details. All proforma invoices also include an expiration date.

However, not all shipments require a proforma invoice. For example, domestic sales operate differently and therefore require different styles of sales quotations— proforma invoices are mainly needed for international sales quotations. Similarly, as an ecommerce retailer, you're likely dealing with direct B2C transactions; in this case, your customer would purchase products without quotations, so you probably wouldn't need to provide a proforma invoice.

Commercial Invoice

You’ll need to provide a commercial invoice as one of your courier documents for Singapore. Commercial invoices are very similar to proforma invoices and will include many of the same details. However, it may also include extra information like order numbers or customer reference numbers and payment or insurance details. All ecommerce merchants will need to provide a commercial invoice; it may be used to calculate your shipment’s Singapore shipping tax.

Packing List

Packing lists are an essential part of courier documents for Singapore. This particular document is an itemized list of all the goods in a package and includes information such as weight, size, and special delivery instructions. They may be used in different ways by different stakeholders. For example, a freight forwarder may need a packing list to create a shipment's bill of ladings. Banks may want to see this before they provide a letter of credit, and some customs authorities may need it to clear customs and help evaluate what Singapore shipping tax and duty to impose.

Certificate of Origin

Essentially, this document proves that a product meets the criteria for having originated in a particular country. Traders often use a certificate of origin to prove that their products are allowed to enter the country they're importing to. In some instances—such as when a Free-Trade Agreement is in force—the document may be used to prove that the goods are entitled to preferential tariffs and entry procedures, which may lead to a discounted or waived Singapore shipping tax.

If you need to get a certificate of origin, you’ll need to go to your local Chamber of Commerce or a country’s embassy or consulate. Before providing this with your other courier documents for Singapore, remember that not all countries or goods require this. However, if you’re a Singapore-based merchant exporting to Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Canada, or the UAE, for example, you will need one.

Bill of Lading

This is the term given to the official contract between a shipper and their chosen courier and includes important shipping details such as the destination, the shipment’s contents, and handling instructions. It will also include a bill of lading number, a declared value for the goods, and all freight charges. All shipments will include a bill of lading, as no courier service will accept a shipment without one.

There are, however, different types of bills of lading. You should be aware of them so that you understand which one is most relevant to your shipping needs.

Straight Bill of Lading: This type of bill of lading is very specific, and only the named party can take delivery of the shipment.

Order Bill of Lading: This is the most common type of bill of lading. It is a negotiable document, which means the named receiver can transfer receiving rights to another party to accept delivery of the shipment, as long as they have an original copy of the document.

Ocean Bill of Lading: Also called Port-to-Port, this type of bill of lading assigns responsibility for a shipment to the courier from the loading port to the discharge port.

Combined Bill of Lading: Sometimes referred to as a Multimodal bill of lading, this document gives a carrier responsibility for a shipment across multiple modes of transportation—this is useful for shipments that have to use ocean and rail transport, for example.

Material safety data sheet or Dangerous Good Form

When shipping products that contain dangerous materials, you’ll need to provide a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) or Dangerous Goods Form as part of your courier documents for Singapore.

An MSDS outlines the details of any hazardous material in your products, including chemicals and explosives. The document will contain a specific UN number pertaining to the hazardous material and a letter of instruction that outlines how the goods should be transported. It may also be used in Singapore to determine if the Singapore import tax should include any additional costs for precautions taken to handle this shipment.

Similarly, if your shipment contains goods that might be considered dangerous, it must be accompanied by a Dangerous Goods Form. There are various types, including the International Air Transport Association’s Shipper’s Declaration for Dangerous Goods and a separate one for ocean shipments, for example.

Air Waybill

Technically, an air waybill is another type of bill of lading. But this one applies only in a specific context where a shipper works directly with an airline carrier. In this case the airline carrier takes responsibility for the shipment from the moment it accepts the parcel until it is received at the destination airport. As with all bills of lading, this document contains detailed information about the shipment and specific handling instructions. Notably, air waybills are non-negotiable, which means that only the receiver specified on the document can accept delivery of the shipment.

Letter of Credit

Usually issued by a reliable bank, a letter of credit guarantees that a buyer will pay a seller upon delivery of goods. It's helpful in international shipping as it transcends the complexities of international trade and country-specific regulations—a seller knows they will get paid no matter what. Once a shipment has been sent, the seller can take the letter of credit to his bank for payment; the bank will pay the seller, then contact the buyer's bank for a reimbursement that completes the sale. It also ensures that if the buyer can't make a payment, the bank will complete the payment in their stead.

Other Documentation

There may be other documents you’ll need to provide for international shipments. For example, although there is one customs form used, among other things, to calculate Singapore shipping tax, other countries—including the UK—have different types that must be used under different circumstances.

Below are a few other things to take into consideration:

  • Some countries use an Automated Manifest System declaration, including the US, Canada, and the Philippines.
  • All EU countries require an Entry Summary Declaration.
  • Insurance certificates are useful for high-value shipments.
  • Export or import licenses may be required for certain countries and products.

All couriers require shipping documents, such as a proforma invoice for FedEx shipments.

DHL International Shipping Documents

As with many couriers, DHL shipping documents are a requirement for international shipments. For ecommerce merchants, the company makes it very easy to fill out all the required DHL documents with its DHL eMailShip. This is a PDF tool that allows you to prepare all the paperwork you need quickly—specifically, a shipping form, customs document, and pickup form. The company's Global Express offering also provides a range of customs services, including paperwork; DHL documents available through the service include customs forms and commercial and proforma invoices.

FedEx International Shipping Documents

FedEx also requires numerous documents for shipments they accept, though these can vary depending on the specific shipment. You will undoubtedly need a FedEx commercial invoice for Singapore; you may also need a proforma invoice for FedEx in some instances. Shipments sent by FedEx International Priority or FedEx International First will also need a FedEx air waybill; a FedEx Expanded Service International Air Waybill applies to express freight services for shipments over 68kgs, dangerous goods, and Letters of Credit shipments. You will likely also need to provide a Dangerous Goods Form and a Letter of Credit in these cases.

What shipping documents does Singapore require?

You'll have to submit numerous courier documents in Singapore for any imports and exports. Of course, the most important for imports is the customs form as this may be used by the customs authority to work out the appropriate Singapore shipping tax. For freight, you'll need many of the documents mentioned above, including a proforma invoice, packing list, and the appropriate types of bill of lading.

For ecommerce merchants, customs forms, commercial invoices, and air waybills will be the most critical shipping documents. Bear in mind that when importing goods into Singapore, you must keep all documents for at least five years; Singapore Customs may request to view them at any time during this period.

FAQs about international shipping documents

Do all international shipments need shipping documents?

In a word, yes. If a parcel crosses international borders, you’ll need to provide certain documents. However, the exact types of documents you’ll need to provide will differ depending on what goods you’re shipping and their final destination. For example, courier documents for Singapore may include customs forms, some types of bills of lading, and packing lists. For goods arriving in Singapore, these will be used to calculate the Singapore shipping tax. In addition, if you’re shipping dangerous or hazardous material, you will need a Material Safety Data Sheet or Dangerous Goods Form.

Do all carriers require shipping documents?

Yes. All carriers will require shipping documents for both domestic and international shipments, though the exact paperwork will be different. You may only need to provide basic information about the parcel and its origin and destination for small domestic shipments. However, international shipments will require far more paperwork. If you're moving freight, you’ll likely need to provide courier documents for Singapore, such as a bill of lading, a letter of credit, or a certificate of origin. As such, each carrier has its own list of required paperwork—you'll be able to find the necessary DHL shipping documents or proforma invoices for FedEx, for example, on their websites. Similarly, airline carriers will require an air waybill.

What’s the difference between a commercial invoice and a proforma invoice?

A proforma invoice is essentially a sales quotation that outlines the details of a potential transaction; it is often used to declare a shipment’s value to the relevant customs authorities and is therefore often thought of as an international shipping invoice. Think of this as a commitment from both parties to complete the sale at a future date. A commercial invoice is an accounting instrument that details the finalized sales transaction and must be paid by the buyer.

Which shipping documents are most important for ecommerce merchants?

This depends on how big your business is and how you operate. If you're a new merchant operating in just a few nearby countries and don't deal with too much stock, for example, if you own a dropshipping business, you will mainly deal with customs forms and commercial invoices, air waybills, and perhaps Certificates of Origin. But, if you're a major ecommerce merchant that imports goods to a warehouse and sends goods to customers from there, then you may need to deal with more extensive paperwork. That may include proforma and commercial invoices, different types of Bill of Lading, Material Safety Data Sheets, and Letters of Credit.

Ship Internationally with Confidence

International markets offer many opportunities for retailers, which is why selling globally can be hugely beneficial. Shopify helps merchants reach customers worldwide by offering cross-border tools that allow sites in multiple languages and local domains, prices, and duties. But to ensure your orders reach international customers safely and quickly, you must understand the different international shipping documents you may need.


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