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A Shipper’s Guide to Air Cargo Documentation

Understand The Requirements for Your Goods to Avoid Delays and Fines 


Air cargo documentation is complex – and even minor errors can result in delayed or failed shipments, higher storage fees, and even fines. This article provides high-level guidance to the many variables that come with air cargo documentation – especially different requirements depending on the type of goods and the shipment origin and destination.

Why Is Documentation Important?


handing documents

Countries require air cargo documentation to monitor the goods leaving or entering by air freight.

In addition, documentation plays a key role in international transactions. Sellers and buyers need documents for bookkeeping, accounting, taxation, and export and import formalities. They also require documents for making payments using letters of credit and other documentary payment methods. And freight forwarders and airlines need these documents too for regulatory compliance

What Makes a Good Docket?

Consistency among the documents is key. So consistency must be prioritized when preparing, presenting, and verifying all types of air cargo documentation. 

Mandatory Documents (and Who Provides Them)


As a shipper, you are responsible for preparing three mandatory documents and you need to provide them to your freight forwarder. In addition, there are several mandatory documents that must be prepared by your freight forwarder directly. 

Shipper’s Letter of Instruction (SLI)

Also known as the shipper’s export declaration, it is an authorization document that is issued by the exporter to its agents or freight forwarders. The SLI document mainly contains details about the shipping terms, allowing the transport company to issue an air rwaybill on the exporter’s behalf. It also lays out directions for the carrier on how to handle, store, load and unload the shipment effectively or without any physical damage to the products. 

Apart from providing transportation and documentation instructions, an SLI also facilitates export control. A complete SLI facilitates export . shipments and grants permission to a forwarder to act as the authorized forwarding agent for export control and customs-related processes. 

 

This document is the responsibility of the shipper.

Commercial Invoice

This mandatory document describes the commercial transaction between the seller (shipper) and the buyer (the importer). As such is it a key accounting document, providing the core of what’s needed for export compliance and the customs clearance process. This invoice will be required by your freight forwarder and by customs.

This document is the responsibility of the shipper

Packing List

This mandatory document provides a detailed description of your air cargo – the types and quantities of each item, telling how the shipment has been packed as well as which marks and numbers are noted on the exterior of the shipment packaging. It is more detailed than the commercial invoice, but it does not contain any price information. It is not a substitute for the commercial invoice. This packing list will be required by your freight forwarder and may be required by customs.

This document is the responsibility of the shipper.

Air Waybills

An air waybill is a type of contract used for air cargo transportation. It is a non-negotiable transport document that covers the transport of cargo from airport to airport. It is specific to named organizations (the freight forwarder and the shipper/airline) and cannot be transferred to other parties.  

There are two different air waybills: the house air waybill (HAWB), which is a contract of carriage between the shipper and the freight forwarder, and the master air waybill (MAWB), which is issued by the airlines as a contract of carriage between the freight forwarder and the airline. When the shipment is booked, the airline issues a MAWB to the forwarder, who in turn issues their own house air waybill to their customer 

In both cases, the air waybill serves as an evidence about the receipt of goods, the conditions on which the transportation is made, and the agreement to deliver the goods at destination. This means that the air waybill is both a merchandise receipt and a delivery contract.  

Your freight forwarder assists to create both types of air waybill and accompanying air cargo labels. For purposes of freight consolidation, HAWBs from multiple shippers may be combined in one MAWB. Both the air waybills are required during customs clearance. 

This document is the responsibility of the freight forwarder.

Cargo Manifest

Prepared by your freight forwarder, this document lists all the goods in your air cargo. It describes the particulars of these items – such as transport document numbers, consignors, consignees, marks and numbers, number and types of packages, descriptions, and quantities – but does not list the freight charges. Your freight forwarder will use this document to build pallets and prepare consolidation of loose goods prior to air transportation. The cargo manifest will be required by the airline and may also be required by customs. 

This document is the responsibility of the freight forwarder.

Billing Invoice

Prepared by your freight forwarder, this is the freight forwarder’s invoice to you, the shipper.

This document is the responsibility of the freight forwarder.

Shipper’s Letter of Instruction (SLI)

Also known as the shipper’s export declaration, it is an authorization document that is issued by the exporter to its agents or freight forwarders. The SLI document mainly contains details about the shipping terms, allowing the transport company to issue an air rwaybill on the exporter’s behalf. It also lays out directions for the carrier on how to handle, store, load and unload the shipment effectively or without any physical damage to the products. 

Apart from providing transportation and documentation instructions, an SLI also facilitates export control. A complete SLI facilitates export . shipments and grants permission to a forwarder to act as the authorized forwarding agent for export control and customs-related processes. 

 

This document is the responsibility of the shipper.

shipper's letter of instructions

Commercial Invoice

This mandatory document describes the commercial transaction between the seller (shipper) and the buyer (the importer). As such is it a key accounting document, providing the core of what’s needed for export compliance and the customs clearance process. This invoice will be required by your freight forwarder and by customs.

This document is the responsibility of the shipper

commercial invoice

Packing List

This mandatory document provides a detailed description of your air cargo – the types and quantities of each item, telling how the shipment has been packed as well as which marks and numbers are noted on the exterior of the shipment packaging. It is more detailed than the commercial invoice, but it does not contain any price information. It is not a substitute for the commercial invoice. This packing list will be required by your freight forwarder and may be required by customs.

This document is the responsibility of the shipper.

check list

Air Waybills

An air waybill is a type of contract used for air cargo transportation. It is a non-negotiable transport document that covers the transport of cargo from airport to airport. It is specific to named organizations (the freight forwarder and the shipper/airline) and cannot be transferred to other parties.  

There are two different air waybills: the house air waybill (HAWB), which is a contract of carriage between the shipper and the freight forwarder, and the master air waybill (MAWB), which is issued by the airlines as a contract of carriage between the freight forwarder and the airline. When the shipment is booked, the airline issues a MAWB to the forwarder, who in turn issues their own house air waybill to their customer 

In both cases, the air waybill serves as an evidence about the receipt of goods, the conditions on which the transportation is made, and the agreement to deliver the goods at destination. This means that the air waybill is both a merchandise receipt and a delivery contract.  

Your freight forwarder assists to create both types of air waybill and accompanying air cargo labels. For purposes of freight consolidation, HAWBs from multiple shippers may be combined in one MAWB. Both the air waybills are required during customs clearance. 

This document is the responsibility of the freight forwarder.

air waybill

Cargo Manifest

Prepared by your freight forwarder, this document lists all the goods in your air cargo. It describes the particulars of these items – such as transport document numbers, consignors, consignees, marks and numbers, number and types of packages, descriptions, and quantities – but does not list the freight charges. Your freight forwarder will use this document to build pallets and prepare consolidation of loose goods prior to air transportation. The cargo manifest will be required by the airline and may also be required by customs. 

This document is the responsibility of the freight forwarder.

cargo manifest

Billing Invoice

Prepared by your freight forwarder, this is the freight forwarder’s invoice to you, the shipper.

This document is the responsibility of the freight forwarder.

invoice

Additional Documents for Air Freight Shipping


There are a number of additional documents that may be needed, depending on the type of goods and the origin and destination of your air cargo. Some are your responsibility to prepare as a shipper, but you may be able to commission your freight forwarder to prepare some of them on your behalf; others you can expect your freight forwarder to prepare. 

Certificate of Origin

This document states the country of origin of your goods – in other words, where they were manufactured. It is needed on an occasional basis to decide whether your items are eligible for import, and it may be essential to obtaining reduced tariff rates for imports from countries listed as regional program beneficiaries. 

Containing information about your products, the destination, and the country of export, this certificate of origin will be required by your freight forwarder and by customs.

Apart from providing transportation and documentation instructions, an SLI also facilitates export control. A complete SLI facilitates export. shipments and grants permission to a forwarder to act as the authorized forwarding agent for export control and customs-related processes. 

This document is the responsibility of the shipper.

Payment Instructions

Prepared by shipper, and also known as a letter of credit or documentary credit, this is a primary means of payment in an international trade transaction. It is a written promise by a bank, undertaken on behalf of the buyer (the importer), to pay you, the seller (the exporter) a specified sum in an agreed currency.  

This payment is conditional on you submitting documents on time and complying with the stated terms and conditions. This letter of credit will be required by your freight forwarder and by customs. 

Power of Attorney

Prepared by shipper, this document is only required if you ask your freight forwarder to obtain customs clearance for your air cargo. It’s your written authorization for the freight forwarder to represent you and act on your behalf with a customs authority. It may be required by customs.

Export/Import License

You may need an export/import license to move products by air out of/into a country. Determining whether your items of air cargo require a license involves careful research, and applications must be made through the appropriate government agency. If required, you can ask your freight forwarder for help with licenses. This document will be required by customs. 

Your freight forwarder assists to create both types of air waybill and accompanying air cargo labels. For purposes of freight consolidation, HAWBs from multiple shippers may be combined in one MAWB. Both the air waybills are required during customs clearance. 

This document is the responsibility of the shipper, but your freight forwarder can support you.

Dangerous Goods Declaration/Certificate

This document confirms that any dangerous goods in your air cargo are properly classified, packed, and labeled in accordance with IATA Dangerous Goods regulations. Depending on your items, you may also need a material safety data sheet (MSDS). Both documents will be required by your freight forwarder and by the airline. 

This document is the responsibility of the shipper, but your freight forwarder can support you.

Export/Import Customs Declaration

Prepared by your freight forwarder when handling customs clearance on your behalf in certain locations, this document specifies the goods exported with their quantities, weights, values, and destination. It is used during customs clearance to calculate the duties and taxes applicable to your air cargo and is prepared using your mandatory commercial invoice and packing list.  

There is considerable variation in customs declarations from country to country, as each can have differing customs regulations. This document will be required by customs.

Lithium Battery Declaration

Prepared by your freight forwarder when your air cargo includes lithium batteries, this document confirms compliance with all regulatory requirements for air transportation of the type of dangerous goods. This declaration will be required by the airline. 

Certificate of Origin

This document states the country of origin of your goods – in other words, where they were manufactured. It is needed on an occasional basis to decide whether your items are eligible for import, and it may be essential to obtaining reduced tariff rates for imports from countries listed as regional program beneficiaries. 

Containing information about your products, the destination, and the country of export, this certificate of origin will be required by your freight forwarder and by customs.

Apart from providing transportation and documentation instructions, an SLI also facilitates export control. A complete SLI facilitates export. shipments and grants permission to a forwarder to act as the authorized forwarding agent for export control and customs-related processes. 

This document is the responsibility of the shipper.

certificate

Payment Instructions

Prepared by shipper, and also known as a letter of credit or documentary credit, this is a primary means of payment in an international trade transaction. It is a written promise by a bank, undertaken on behalf of the buyer (the importer), to pay you, the seller (the exporter) a specified sum in an agreed currency.  

This payment is conditional on you submitting documents on time and complying with the stated terms and conditions. This letter of credit will be required by your freight forwarder and by customs. 

payment

Power of Attorney

Prepared by shipper, this document is only required if you ask your freight forwarder to obtain customs clearance for your air cargo. It’s your written authorization for the freight forwarder to represent you and act on your behalf with a customs authority. It may be required by customs.

power of attorney

Export/Import License

You may need an export/import license to move products by air out of/into a country. Determining whether your items of air cargo require a license involves careful research, and applications must be made through the appropriate government agency. If required, you can ask your freight forwarder for help with licenses. This document will be required by customs. 

Your freight forwarder assists to create both types of air waybill and accompanying air cargo labels. For purposes of freight consolidation, HAWBs from multiple shippers may be combined in one MAWB. Both the air waybills are required during customs clearance. 

This document is the responsibility of the shipper, but your freight forwarder can support you.

license

Dangerous Goods Declaration/Certificate

This document confirms that any dangerous goods in your air cargo are properly classified, packed, and labeled in accordance with IATA Dangerous Goods regulations. Depending on your items, you may also need a material safety data sheet (MSDS). Both documents will be required by your freight forwarder and by the airline. 

This document is the responsibility of the shipper, but your freight forwarder can support you.

dangerous goods

Export/Import Customs Declaration

Prepared by your freight forwarder when handling customs clearance on your behalf in certain locations, this document specifies the goods exported with their quantities, weights, values, and destination. It is used during customs clearance to calculate the duties and taxes applicable to your air cargo and is prepared using your mandatory commercial invoice and packing list.  

There is considerable variation in customs declarations from country to country, as each can have differing customs regulations. This document will be required by customs.

custom declaration

Lithium Battery Declaration

Prepared by your freight forwarder when your air cargo includes lithium batteries, this document confirms compliance with all regulatory requirements for air transportation of the type of dangerous goods. This declaration will be required by the airline. 

lithium-battery

You may need additional documentary declarations. For example, an airline may require you to comply with a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) directive.  

It hasn’t been possible to list every document that may be required. For example, this section has not covered insurance policy and protection plan documentation. But at least it provides an overview of the mandatory and most common documents that accompany air cargo.

Simplifying Air Freight Documentation


If you repeatedly ship the same type of goods from the same origin to the same destination, there will be fewer changes required in your documentation. So on that basis, the first set of documents will be your most challenging but thereafter things should get easier!  

The best way to simplify air cargo documentation is to go fully digital. All relevant electronic documents can be filed together in the same system, accessible 24/7 by all authorized parties. For example, DHL Global Forwarding offers the myDHLi platform, which is all about fewer steps and greater functionality. It integrates all your most important online shipping services – including air cargo documentation – into one incredibly powerful tool with one password.

Discover myDHLi