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Bill of Lading: A Comprehensive Guide

Bill of Lading image

Bills of Lading are essential documents in the shipping and logistics industry, serving as contracts between shippers and carriers, and outlining all the details of the cargo being transported.

However, a Bill of Lading isn’t merely a receipt of goods — it’s a legally binding document that plays a crucial role in the transportation of goods and the resolution of disputes between each party involved, from international carrier to consignee.

In this comprehensive guide, we will walk you through everything you need to know about Bills of Lading. We will start by defining what a Bill of Lading is and its various types. We will also explore the different elements of Bills of Lading and how to fill them out correctly.

Furthermore, we will examine the role of the Bill of Lading in international trade and its legal significance in resolving disputes.

Whether you’re a shipper, carrier, freight forwarder, or importer/exporter, this guide will provide you with the knowledge and understanding you need to navigate the complexities of Bills of Lading. By the end of this guide, you will have a comprehensive understanding of what is a Bill of Lading, how it works, and why it’s important in shipping and trade.

Here is what you need to know about the Bill of Lading:

What is a bill of lading

A Bill of Lading or a freight bill of lading or a waybill is a legal document that serves as evidence of a contract between the shipper and the carrier for the transportation of goods. It contains a cargo description of goods, quantity, weight, freight classification and destination.

Owing to the complexity and diversity of international trade, there are many types of Bills of Lading. Some are self-explanatory. A paper bill, for example, is obviously a printed bill of lading, while an electronic bill is its digital cousin.

There’s the air waybill, that (you guessed it) accompanies goods by air transport. Inland bills accompany goods travelling within the boundaries of a single country. And so on.

However, there are other bills of lading that aren’t so self-evident — I mean, what on earth is a clean bill?

Fret not. We’ll cover it. So, without further ado, let’s dive into the nitty, gritty details of (arguably) the most important document in international trade.


The Bill of Lading serves several functions, including a receipt of goods, a contract of carriage, and a document of title. It is also used as proof of delivery, and it serves as evidence of the terms of the shipment in case of disputes or claims.

bill of lading document png

Types of Bills of Lading

The type of Bill of Lading issued depends on the terms of the shipment, the state of the cargo, and the needs of each party involved — whether shipper or carrier.

Straight Bill of Lading

Straight Bills of Lading are commonly used for shipments where the buyer has already paid for the goods in advance, or where the goods are being shipped to a company-owned warehouse or distribution centre. It’s also used when there’s no need for the goods to be sold or transferred to another party during transit.

Order Bill of Lading

The order bill of lading is utilised when goods are shipped prior to their payment. It’s typically denoted as "to order of" on the original bill of lading, along with the recipient’s name. This type of bill is considered negotiable, serving as a substitute for payment or a promise to pay. It is often employed when shipping goods under an open account or letter of credit.

Ocean Bill of Lading

An ocean bill of lading, also known as a sea waybill, is a legal document that details the shipment of goods transported by sea, starting from a port of origin to a port of destination.

Through Bill of Lading

A document that covers the transportation of goods across multiple modes of transportation, such as by truck, rail, and sea.

Negotiable Bill of Lading

A document that can be bought, sold, or traded, and which serves as proof of ownership of the goods being transported.

Non-Negotiable Bill of Lading

A document that is not transferable, and a transport document which serves as a receipt of goods and a contract of carriage between the shipper and the carrier.

Claused Bill of Lading

A document that contains notations of damage, shortage, or other issues with the cargo being transported. In the clause of a sea waybill, this is called a dirty bill of lading. This is useful for insurance purposes, particularly for those who ship goods.

Clean Bill of Lading

A document indicating that the goods being transported are in good condition and have been received by the carrier.

Uniform Bill of Lading

A document that follows a standardised format, and is typically used in domestic transportation within a single country.

Why is a Bill of Lading Important? The Importance of Bill of Lading in Shipping and Trade

The Bill of Lading (B/L) plays a crucial role in the shipping industry. It’s an important, legally binding document that serves as evidence of a contract between the shipper and carrier, and enables the transfer of ownership of the goods from the shipper to the consignee. It also provides legal protection and evidence of the terms of the shipment, and it’s used in resolving disputes and claims.

But you want details. You say, Why is the Bill of Lading so important?

Evidence of Contract

The Bill of Lading serves as evidence of the actual contract of carriage between the shipper and the carrier. It outlines the terms of the shipment, including the type of goods, their quantity, the origin and destination of the cargo, and the agreed-upon freight rates.

In case of disputes, the Bill of Lading is used to determine the terms of the agreement and resolve any issues. It outlines the terms and conditions of the shipment and serves as proof of the goods' delivery to the consignee. For example, when a house bill is issued by the freight forwarder to the shipper (exporter), acknowledging receipt of goods.

Document of Title

The Bill of Lading serves as a document of title, which means that it gives the holder the right to take possession of the goods being transported. It’s used by the consignee to claim the cargo upon arrival at the destination port and also serves as proof of ownership and transfer of title of the goods from the shipper to the consignee.

Proof of Delivery

The Bill of Lading serves as proof of delivery of the goods to the carrier, indicating that the carrier has received the goods in good condition and is responsible for their safe delivery to the consignee. In case of loss or damage to the cargo, the Bill of Lading is used to determine the liability of the carrier.

Financing instrument

The Bill of Lading is also used as collateral for financing transactions. Banks and other financial institutions use the Bill of Lading to secure loans and credit facilities for the shipper or consignee.

Risk Management

It helps manage risk in the shipping and trade industry by outlining the responsibilities and liabilities of the shipper and the carrier in case of loss or damage to the goods.

Customs Clearance

It’s a critical document for customs clearance, as it provides information on the type and quantity of goods being transported and the parties involved in the shipment.

Bill of lading Example

Here’s an example of a Bill of Lading:

Bill of Lading Shipper: ABC Trading Co.

Consignee: XYZ Trading Co.

Carrier: XYZ Shipping Lines

Vessel: MV Ocean Queen

Port of Loading: Los Angeles

Port of Discharge: Tokyo Bill of Lading

No.: 123 456

Date of Issue: 01/05/2023

Description of Goods:

Quantity: 100 units

Commodity: Electronics

Weight: 1000 kg

Value: USD 50,000

Freight Charges:

Freight Rate: USD 500 per unit

Total Freight: USD 50,000

Terms of Payment: Prepaid

In this example, the Bill of Lading outlines the shipment of 100 units of electronics from ABC Trading Co. to XYZ Trading Co. via XYZ Shipping Lines' MV Ocean Queen. The Bill of Lading number is 123 456, and the shipment originates from Los Angeles and is destined for Tokyo. The freight charges are prepaid, with a total freight cost of USD 50,000 based on a freight rate of USD 500 per unit. You can see how the Bill of Lading serves as evidence of the contract of carriage and as proof of delivery once the goods reach their destination.

What is a bill of lading vs. an invoice?

While a Bill of Lading (B/L) and an invoice are important documents in the shipping and trade industry, they serve different purposes.

A Bill of Lading is a legal document that serves as evidence of the contract of carriage between the shipper and the carrier, outlining the terms and conditions of the shipment and serving as proof of delivery to the consignee. It’s also a document of title for international shipment, enabling the consignee to take possession of the goods once they arrive at the destination.

An invoice, on the other hand, is a document that provides a detailed list of goods or services sold, along with the prices and terms of sale. It serves as a request for payment and provides the buyer with the information necessary to pay for the goods or services.

Thus, a Bill of Lading is a legal document that outlines the terms and conditions of the shipment and serves as proof of delivery, while an invoice is a legal document issued that provides a detailed list of goods or services sold and serves as a request for payment.

The Role of Bill of Lading in Protecting Your Cargo and Business

The B/L provides essential information about the cargo being shipped, such as its description, weight, and quantity, as well as details about the parties involved in the transaction, including the shipper, consignee, and carrier. It serves as a receipt for the goods being shipped and as proof of delivery to the consignee.

Moreover, the B/L acts as a safeguard for both the shipper and the carrier in case of any disputes that may arise during the shipment process. It ensures that the cargo is loaded and delivered according to the terms agreed upon in the contract of carriage, reducing the risk of loss or damage to the cargo and protecting the interests of both parties.

As we’ve already explained, the B/L serves as a valuable financial tool, allowing shippers to obtain financing from banks or other financial institutions based on the value of their cargo. Moreover, it can be used as collateral for loans or other forms of credit.

The Bill of Lading plays a critical role in protecting your cargo and business during the shipment process. By ensuring the accurate and timely completion of this document and following the best practices for B/L management, businesses can minimise the risks of disputes, loss, or damage to their cargo and ensure a successful and smooth shipping process.

FAQs on Bills of lading

What is a bill of lading in UK law?

Under British law, a B/L can also serve as a document of title, enabling the consignee to take possession of the goods once they arrive at the destination. The B/L can be endorsed or transferred by the consignee to a third party, who can then take possession of the goods.

The UK Carriage of Goods by Sea Act 1992 sets out the legal requirements for a B/L, including the information that must be included in the document and the obligations of the parties involved in the shipment.

Who holds the bill of lading?

A bill of lading is a legal document used when a shipping agent sends a shipment and specifies what is to be transported. These documents must accompany the ship and be signed by an authorised representative of the shipper and the buyer.

Who pays for a bill of lading?

It varies depending on the terms agreed upon in the contract of sale or transportation. In some cases, the seller or shipper may pay for the Bill of Lading, while in other cases, the buyer or consignee may be responsible for this cost. It’s important to review the contract terms to determine who is responsible for paying for the Bill of Lading in a particular transaction.

Streamline your international trade

Bills of Lading play a crucial role in the transportation of goods, acting as a legal document that outlines the terms and conditions of the shipment. Understanding the different types of Bills of Lading and their uses, as well as the importance of accurate and timely completion of this document, is vital for businesses involved in shipping international logistics and trade. By following the guidelines and best practices for Bill of Lading preparation and management, businesses can ensure a smooth and successful shipment process while avoiding costly errors or disputes.

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