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Understanding Shipping Labels and Forms: Where and How to Use Each Type of Form

If your business ships goods, it’s important to understand when to use what shipping forms. This guide has you covered.


Shipping forms and labels help third-party delivery services route your business shipments accurately. Shipping your own deliveries? Circuit for Teams can help.

If you’re a business owner who sends products domestically or internationally, you want to make sure they reach their intended destination safely and on time. 

Understanding shipping forms and labels can help streamline your business, reducing the risk of delays and loss. 

Supply chain issues are already causing shipping delays of up to six days on average. You don't want to add more days to these existing delays by using the wrong label.

Shipping forms and labels help make sure your packages are properly routed and handled.

Making sure you minimize shipping loss is key to achieving your business goals. Whether you need to send a purchase order, commercial invoice, or bill of lading, knowing the right type of shipping label or form to use is the key. 

This article gives you a quick primer to common shipping forms and labels, so you have the knowledge you need to ship your business goods with confidence.

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What is a shipment form?

what is a shipment form

A shipment form is a document that’s used in the shipping process to help you manage and track the delivery of goods, their handling, and payment.

Many types of shipping forms come into play at various stages of the logistics process.

For example, you complete a bill of lading (BOL) at the start of your shipment’s journey. It is a contract between the person or company shipping the goods and the freight carrier sending them. 

Meanwhile, local Customs officials need an import customs declaration  when shipped goods arrive in a new country from abroad.

Types of shipping forms and when they’re used

Different shipping forms have different purposes. Understanding these differences can help you make sure you aren’t letting any paperwork slip through the cracks when sending items nationally or internationally.

Purchase order

purchase order form

A purchase order (PO) is a document declaring that you have received an order. It includes the date of the expected transaction, the people or companies involved, and the type of transaction. 

In shipping, the purchase order can define a delivery transaction — like who is delivering what goods to what address. 

It serves as an order request and includes a price quote.

Who it’s relevant for: The people or companies involved in the purchase transaction

Examples of when this type of shipping form is used:

  • You’re a restaurant owner expecting a delivery of vegetables from a fresh produce supplier. The PO between you and the vendor defines what they’re delivering (a truckload of 1,000 carrots), where they’re delivering it (your restaurant), and when they’re delivering it (Monday morning). It also lists a price quote.
  • You own an eCommerce shop that ships office supplies like pens. You have a PO between you and your customer detailing how many pens they want (100), where you should deliver the pens (the customer’s business address), and when they will be delivered (one month from now). The PO also gives a quote.
  • You’re a seamstress and order wholesale textiles from an online supplier. They issue a PO that specifies the goods (5 reams of silk), the delivery address (your atelier), and the delivery date (next Tuesday), and a quote for the cost.

Commercial invoice

commercial invoice form

You use a commercial invoice in shipping to describe what’s being shipped, how much of that item is being shipped, and for what purpose. 

It is an official proof of sale (whereas the purchase order is only the shipping order placement and quote). The supplier or vendor and the recipient can refer to the commercial invoice as a legally binding document.

Who it’s relevant for: The people or companies involved in the purchase transaction

Example of when this type of shipping form is used:

  • You sell baseball caps online. A customer completes a PO for 500 caps. Once you’ve accepted the PO, you issue a commercial invoice for the 500 caps. When you dispatch the order, you include a copy of the invoice, so the customer can verify their delivery.
  • You run a hotel and need new pillows. You place a bulk order of 5,000 pillows online. When you receive the order, there’s a commercial invoice included. You can then verify that you’ve received what you paid for. If not, you can dispute the order with the provider (since a commercial invoice is a legal doc).
  • You’re filing annual taxes for your business. One of your biggest expenses is printer ink, as you have monthly shipments of printer ink cartridges sent to your business location. You’ve saved all the commercial invoices from your deliveries, which you can now use to document these purchases — allowing you to write off the ink as a business expense on your taxes.

Packing list

packing list form

A packing list accompanies a shipment from point A to point B, describing what you’re shipping. It describes all the items in the shipment, plus details like their weight, quantity, and physical description. 

Customs officials primarily use the packing list i for foreign cargo inspection in international shipments. Then they can make sure that they don’t transport anything illegal — and determine what tariffs to levy on the import.

Who it’s relevant for: The people or companies involved in the purchase transaction; shipping services; Customs officials

Examples of when this type of shipping form is used:

  • You own an eCommerce clothing boutique and ship 500 boxes of T-shirts to Germany. The German Customs official will review the packing list to know what import duties are due on the T-shirts.
  • Alternatively, let’s say you ship your 500 T-shirts abroad and you forget the packing list. German Customs officials can’t determine what duties are due and will likely hold your shipment at the border until the proper paperwork is completed and any relevant taxes paid.
  • You’re a wholesale retailer sending electronics parts overseas to a computer manufacturer in China. The packing list tells the computer manufacturer what parts you’ve sent and how many. Plus, Chinese Customs officials will view the customs form to see whether taxes or duties are due.

Bill of lading

bill of lading form

The bill of lading (BOL) is a contract between the person shipping the goods and the freight carrier. It confirms that your freight carrier has received the goods for shipment. 

The BOL has details like what you are shipping, where you are shipping it, and handling notes (for example, if the products are fragile).

Who it’s relevant for: The person shipping the goods; the shipping service

Example of when this type of shipping form is used:

  • You own an ice cream company. When you send out pints of ice cream to supermarkets across the country, you complete a BOL. It specifies that your goods need to remain frozen at all times and transported in the appropriate containers. 
  • You’re an artist and are shipping a commissioned piece to a client abroad. You give the shipping company a BOL, specifying the destination and that the artwork needs to be handled with care.
  • You’ve ordered a set of wine glasses from a professional glass blower. When the glasses arrive, they’re broken. You alert the glass blower, who can then talk to the shipping company. They can refer to their BOL, which specifies that the shipment included glass and needed to be handled carefully. The shipper’s insurance may then cover the cost of damages.

Letter of credit

letter of credit

A letter of credit is a document giving you a monetary guarantee from a bank, confirming that your buyer will pay a set amount for your goods. If your buyer cannot fulfill the payment, your bank pays the amount due, concluding the transaction. 

International shipping often uses letters of credit  where banking rules can make direct payments between buyers and sellers tricky.

Who it’s relevant for: The people or companies involved in the purchase transaction

Examples of when this type of shipping form is used:

  • You’re a California wine manufacturer sending bottles to a distributor in Argentina. Due to banking complexities, the distributor asks if they can give you a letter of credit from their bank to assure you that the costs of the transaction will be covered.
  • You sell branded luggage online. When you get a bulk order from a company in South Africa, you request a deposit of 50% upfront. They then give you a letter of credit to cover the remaining 50%, to be paid upon delivery. This acts as a safeguard in case of banking issues.
  • You’re trying to order textiles from a wholesaler in Vietnam. When you try to make a payment, you run into banking fees and red tape. To simplify matters, you ask the Vietnamese wholesaler if you can instead give them a letter of credit from your bank, expediting the order.

Certificate of origin

certificate of origin

The certificate of origin (C/O) specifies what country manufactured goods come from. The local chamber of commerce or consulate must certify it to be valid. 

International trade agreements often need a C/O when shipping. It helps confirm that the shipped goods are eligible for export and import.

Who it’s relevant for: The people or companies exporting or importing goods — in some cases, the importer is responsible for the C/O, and in other cases, the exporter is responsible. Customs officials may also check for the C/O. Find out more.

Examples of when this type of shipping form is used:

  • You’re a restaurant owner expecting a shipment of dates from a company in Jordan. According to U.S. law, the exporter in Jordan must complete a C/O to take advantage of the free trade agreement between the two countries.
  • You’re importing spices from Morocco. To take advantage of the free trade agreement between the U.S. and Morocco, you have to complete the C/O. The FTA between the two countries specifies this as the importer’s responsibility (unlike the case above).
  • Alternatively, let’s say you import spices from Morocco and forget to complete the C/O. The shipment will likely get held up at the border until you have the proper documentation.

Sea, air, or rail waybill

sea air rail waybill

A waybill is a specific type of bill of lading form. It is a contract between you or the company shipping goods and the carrier. 

Like the BOL, it confirms that the relevant carrier has received the goods for shipment. It contains details about what you are shipping and where you are shipping it, plus handling notes. 

Options include an air waybill (AWB), sea waybill, and rail waybill. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has more information about AWB requirements. See a sample rail waybill and sample sea waybill

The U.S. Carriage of Goods by Sea Act also has current terms.

Who it’s relevant for: The person shipping the goods; the shipping company

Examples of when this type of shipping form is used:

  • You’re shipping lumber from your lumberyard in Wisconsin across the country to Virginia. You complete a rail waybill with Amtrak freight services so they know where to send the lumber.
  • You’re sending cookies by air to a bakery in France, which will distribute them for you there. The AWB with FedEx air freight services tells FedEx where to bring the cookies and to handle them with care (no crumbled cookies, please)!
  • You’re shipping a container full of spare auto parts to Algeria. The sea waybill tells the shipping company where the container needs to go and describes what’s being shipped.

Quick pass

quick pass form

The quick pass is actually two business forms in one. It combines the bill of lading and the commercial invoice. 

This saves you to time, money, and hassle, as you can complete two shipping documents in one. 

Here’s an example template of a Canada Quick Pass claim form, combining a Canada customs invoice and BOL.

Who it’s relevant for: The people or companies involved in the purchase transaction; the shipping provider

Examples of when this type of shipping form is used:

  • You’re receiving a shipment of maple syrup from Montreal, Quebec, in Canada. The exporter uses a quick pass form to convey the information usually covered in the BOL and commercial invoice. They note that the syrup should be refrigerated. The shipping company now knows this information.
  • You sell water bottles online. A customer completes a PO for 500 water bottles. Once you’ve accepted the PO, you issue a quick pass, which includes the commercial invoice, for the customer’s reference. When you dispatch the order, you include a copy of the quick pass, so the customer can verify their delivery — and the shipper can view delivery and handling details.
  • You’re a doctor who sends medical samples to a lab. The quick pass serves as an invoice, a contract between you and the lab. It also gives the shipping provider the info they need to handle potentially hazardous materials, for example, by carrying medical samples in HAZMAT trucks.

shipping forms list

Discover how Circuit for Teams can optimize your business delivery process

If you transport your business goods over long distances and are looking for an edge on the competition, understanding shipping forms and labels is a great place to start.

The more streamlined your process is, the fewer chances there are for something to go wrong. And if something does go wrong, it will be much easier to troubleshoot with all of your paperwork in order.

But what if you’re just transporting items locally, within your city or county? You might decide to handle your own last-mile deliveries.

Circuit for Teams can help you manage the process. Our routing software allows you to chart the quickest routes for drivers and assign each driver a set series of steps. You can monitor drivers’ progress in real time, making sure they stay on track with live delivery updates.

Shipping yourself? Try Circuit for Teams

Find out how Circuit saves you time and money

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Published27 July 2022
Updated28 July 2022
AuthorHeather Reinblatt
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About the author

Heather Reinblatt
Heather ReinblattContributor

Heather Reinblatt is a managing editor currently living in St. Louis, Missouri. She spends her free time reading, trying new recipes, and cuddling her cat Paisley. You can find Heather on LinkedIn.


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