Bill of Lading

Bill of Lading (BoL)

What is a Bill of Lading?

A bill of lading (BoL) is a legal document that serves as a contract between the owner of the goods and the carrier detailing the type, quantity, and destination of the goods being shipped. It also acts as a receipt issued by the carrier once the cargo is loaded onto the shipping vessel. 

Bills of lading are essential for the smooth functioning of trade and commerce. They ensure that carriers and shippers have a clear record of the agreement and state of the goods transported.

The bill of lading has several key functions:

  • Evidence of goods – where goods are collected, what is being transported, and the destinations 
  • Receipt of goods – acknowledges goods are received in satisfactory condition 
  • Title of goods – who claims ownership of the cargo 

Why is a Bill of Lading Important in Global Trade? 

A bill of lading is the legal document of title, allowing the person holding it to claim ownership of the cargo. It is also evidence of a carriage contract, which details the carrier’s responsibilities to the parties involved in transporting the cargo.

A bill of lading is crucial for international trade for several key reasons:

1. Contract of carriage: the bill of lading serves as a contract between the shipper and the carrier, outlining the terms under which goods are transported. It specifies the obligations and responsibilities of both parties, ensuring clarity and legal grounding for the movement of goods across international borders.

2. Receipt of goods: as a receipt, the bill of lading provides proof that the carrier has received the goods from the shipper in the condition agreed upon, and in the quantity specified. This is essential for verifying that the goods being shipped match the order and the contract terms.

3. Document of title: the bill of lading acts as a document of title, meaning it provides proof of ownership of the goods described therein. In international trade, where goods may change hands multiple times before reaching the final destination, the bill of lading allows the title of the goods to be transferred by endorsing the document. This feature is particularly important in transactions involving letters of credit, or other forms of trade finance.

4. Security for credit: banks and financial institutions often require a bill of lading when financing trade transactions, such as issuing letters of credit. The bill of lading assures the bank that the goods have been shipped as per the agreed-upon terms, which is a precondition for the release of funds to the seller. This security is vital in managing the risks associated with the provision of credit in international trade.

5. Legal protection: the bill of lading provides a legal basis for addressing disputes over the carriage, delivery, or condition of goods. It details the condition of the goods at the time of shipment, which can be critical in resolving claims related to damage or loss during transit.

6. Customs clearance: a bill of lading is necessary for goods to move through customs in both the exporting and importing countries. It provides customs authorities with details about the shipment, such as the origin, destination, and contents, which are essential for assessing duties and ensuring compliance with various trade regulations.

7. Risk management: in the complex environment of international logistics, where goods pass through multiple jurisdictions and handling points, the bill of lading plays a crucial role in managing the risks associated with transportation and logistical errors. It ensures that all parties have a common understanding of the terms of shipment and handling of the goods.

The bill of lading is indispensable in international trade. It is a foundational document that supports the efficient and secure movement of goods across borders. It facilitates trade, minimizes disputes, and enhances trust among trade partners.

Bill of Lading

Who Does the Bill of Lading Protect?

The bill of lading is designed to protect several parties involved in the shipping and transportation of goods. Here’s how it provides protection:

  • Shipper: the bill of lading assures the shipper that their goods will be transported to the destination according to the terms agreed upon with the carrier. It serves as proof that the carrier has received the goods as described, providing a legal basis for claims against the carrier in case of loss, damage, or discrepancies.
  • Carrier: it protects the carrier by providing a detailed description of the goods received, thus limiting liability to the conditions noted at the time of loading. The bill of lading also specifies the terms of the carriage, which the carrier can use as a defense in disputes over service terms, or cargo handling.
  • Consignee/Receiver: the bill of lading is crucial for the consignee, as it is used to claim the goods at the destination. It acts as proof that the consignee has the right to take possession of the cargo. Also, since it documents the condition and quantity of the shipped goods, it supports claims the consignee might make for damaged or incomplete shipments.
  • Banks: in international trade, where transactions often involve letters of credit, the bill of lading serves as a key document to fulfill banking requirements before payment is released to the shipper. It assures the bank that goods have been shipped per the buyer’s conditions, protecting the bank’s financial interests and those of the buyer.

How is a Bill of Lading Different from an Invoice?

While a bill of lading might seem like just an elaborate invoice, it actually functions much differently than a freight bill, or invoice. It is an official, legally-binding document between an issuer, usually the carriers, and a cosigner, usually the shippers, that reflects the title of goods throughout their partnership. 

Unlike an accounting document, a bill of lading can be used in litigation if a dispute between parties arises, so great effort is put into ensuring the accuracy of the document. A bill of lading also allows for the appointment of duties vital to the internal control structure to prevent theft, and shipments can be tracked with a bill of lading. 

Different Types of Bills of Lading

There are five common types of bills of lading, and knowing which type to use for a certain shipment improves the document’s accuracy and compliance. 

Type of Bill of LadingDescription
Order Bill of LadingA negotiable document is used when shipment details are still open, or payment isn’t made in advance. It is considered the original copy of the agreement.
Straight Bill of LadingA non-negotiable document also referred to as a consignment bill of lading. It’s used when goods have already been paid for and are assigned to a specific consignee.
Seaway Bill of LadingA non-negotiable document similar to the straight bill, it is used primarily when quick release of goods is required at the destination, without the need for the physical surrender of the bill.
Through Bill of LadingIssued for goods transported using multiple modes of transport, it covers the entire journey, from origin to destination, under a single contract, simplifying logistics and documentation.
Clean Bill of LadingIssued when the shipped goods are loaded on board in apparent good condition without any defects or damages. It assures that the goods are in good order when handed over for shipment.

How Many Bills of Lading are Needed for a Single Shipment? 

While there is no limit to the number of bills of lading issued for one shipment, usually three are used:

  1. Shipper
  2. Cosigner
  3. Bank 

Sometimes, multiple shipping entities are used for one shipment, and that’s where a combined bill of lading provides a single contract for at least two different modes of shipping. 

When is a Bill of Lading Signed? 

For the bill of lading to serve as a contract along the shipment lifecycle, it must be accounted for and signed at different times of transfer: 

  • At the start: by the shipper or seller of the goods
  • During the transfer of cargo: by the carrier that the goods were accepted and loaded onto their shipping vessel
  • At final transfer: by the recipient, when the goods are delivered 

Each entity should always double-check and confirm the freight containers are accurate before signing the bill of lading. A signature confirms that all the details in the bill of lading are correct at the time of transfer and identifies who is to blame if goods are damaged or different from the bill of lading. The final signature of the document serves as proof of delivery. 

Who Regulates the Bill of Lading? 

The departments and ministries of transportation issue the rules regarding freight operations and the requirements of the bill of lading documentation. Government legislative rules prevent payment failures between cosigners of a bill of lading and block “double-brokering” tricks. The guidelines set by the United States Federal Maritime Commission outline the allowed and illegal actions in the partnership between carriers and shippers, and ensure that the same bill of lading is binding, from the beginning to the end of a shipment lifecycle.

What Information is Included in a Bill of Lading? 

The bill of lading must include the following information: 

  • The name and address of the shipper
  • The name and address of the consignee
  • A description of the goods being shipped
  • The quantity of the goods 
  • The method of transportation
  • The date of shipment

Bill of Lading Example

Here’s an example of a simplified bill of lading format typically used in international shipping to document the details of the cargo, the terms of transportation, and the parties involved in the shipment:

Bill of Lading Number: 123456789


Acme Exporters  

123 Trade Street  

New York, NY, 10001  



Global Importers Ltd.  

456 Commerce Blvd.  

London, EC3N 2EX  

United Kingdom  

Notify Party:  

Same as Consignee  

Vessel Name: MV Ocean Carrier  

Voyage Number: OC123  

Port of Loading: Port of New York  

Port of Discharge: Port of London  

Description of Goods:  

  • Item 1: 50 cartons of designer clothing  
  • Weight: 500 kg  
  • Measurements: 2 CBM  
  • HS Code: 620342  
  • Item 2: 30 cartons of electronic accessories  
  • Weight: 300 kg  
  • Measurements: 1.2 CBM  
  • HS Code: 850440  

Total Number of Packages: 80 cartons  

Gross Weight: 800 kg  

Measurement: 3.2 CBM  

Freight & Charges: 

Freight prepaid  

Additional insurance required by consignee  

Special Instructions:  

  • Handle with care, fragile
  • Temperature control required for electronics  

Declared Value for Carriage: $20,000  

Declared Value for Customs: $20,000  

Place and Date of Issue: New York, April 14, 2024  

Signature of Carrier: [Carrier’s Authorized Signature]  

This document serves as a contract of carriage, a receipt of goods, and a document of title (if negotiable). It ensures that all parties have agreed to the terms and conditions under which the goods are transported and provides a clear record of the transaction for both regulatory and operational purposes.