What documents do you need to export goods overseas

Export documentation needed for international trade
Picture by Christa Dodoo

Documentation for Exporting Goods:

There is a range of documents that you need when sending goods overseas.  Most of these documents are needed for: clarifying the terms of the trade to parties involved; meeting regulatory (customs) requirements of required countries/jurisdictions; assisting with packing and transportation of the goods, and protection in case of a dispute or issues.  With the advent of digitalisation, much of this documentation has become electronic, however, legacy paper-based documentation and processes remain from the pre-computerisation era.

Ask An Expert

Discussion with renowned global trade expert Murdo Beaton and Abdul Mann, creator of the cloud-based export solution EdgeCTP.


Today I’d like to ask, what documents do you need in order to export?


Yes, when you actually talk about exporting and you mention “documents”, this is almost like a red rag to exporters. They actually do NOT like documents, because documents would appear to be what seems to cause most of the problems, i.e. the preparation of the documents and using the correct type of documents.

Now there is no magic or scientific skill about the issue of documents. It should be known at the very early stages of a transaction, even at the stage where negotiations begin, it should be known then to a larger extent the type of documents that will be needed. In most markets, it is already determined the type of documents that are required in order to allow the product(s) to pass through the customs authority of the destination market.

In most cases, and as a minimum, we can always say you’ll need a:

  • Commercial Invoice
  • Packing List
  • Transport Document (copy of)
  • Insurance Certificate (depending on the delivery terms chosen e.g. Incoterms)

Beyond these documents then there could be a range of other documents needed. This would substantially depend on the destination market and the type of goods we are supplying. There are certain documents that are peculiar to particular products when they enter into certain markets. There’s a whole range of them.

Certificates of Origin: There are certain markets will always suggest that you provide a Certificate of Origin as one of your documents. This is a document that evidences the economic origin of the product you supply. Now, this in itself concerns a complex issue to determine, but it is again governed by procedures, which the exporter will no doubt familiarize themselves with before they actually get the stage of having to produce a document. Their initial market research would have told them that if you’re selling widgets into this market then you need a Certificate of Origin.

Other documents: In the food sector, there are certain documents relating to the health position of the product in question. Other products that are used by people on a day to day basis, there is a safety issue.

Labelling documents: Even when we come down to exporting clothing, there is a labelling issue i.e. the information we have to show on the labels. Sometimes we have to provide certain documents to prove what we say on the label is correct. So, there is a wide range of documents that could potentially be used, but in general terms, we will find that a transaction will be wholly satisfied in terms of documentation level by the provision of maybe three, four or five documents.


And you can identify what documents you need if you knew the commodity code of the product, and you can use the internet, and you’ve got Market Access Database tools. We’ve got our tool as well, EdgeCTP that lets you identify for a particular commodity, what documentary requirements you need. However, what you’re saying here, is you don’t need all of these documents ….


You don’t need all of them. However, tools like EdgeCTP is a classic example of a comprehensive resource provider. It allows you to identify the documents you’ll need for any particular product, destined for any particular market.  However, a combination of sensible, minimum documentation policy should be applied, i.e. only produce the minimum you need to a) safeguard the trading parties and b) the customs authorities.  Hence, your customers (in the overseas country) will also be able to advise what documents they need to clear their customs.  You can also ask your local Department of International Trade or Customs authority if you need export clearance or licenses to export the goods, which will lead you to other documents you need.  It’s simple if you ask people for help (for free) and spend a few moments looking at the free information online, such as the EU Market Access Database.


Right, and you touched upon the Certificate of Origin. So the Certificate of Origin IS NOT required all the time. It’s required when the buyer’s market deems it to need a Certificate of Origin. So it’s actually driven from the buyer’s end, not that as soon as you’re sending a widget to an overseas country you think, out of necessity that you just apply, pay and obtain a Certificate of Origin from an approved chamber of commerce, whether you need it or not. It’s better to ask the buyer, what is it that they need in order to get the goods into their country.


Indeed, all of the documents that are required for an export transaction are invariably driven by the destination market. Our own customs authorities at the export leg, as the goods leave our country, are rarely interested in anything beyond the commercial invoice, which would accompany most transactions anyway. But the destination market emphatically dictates the documents that it requires to be made available for inspection by its customs authorities before the goods are allowed to pass into the market.

It’s important that the exporter is absolutely certain as to the number of documents and the type of documents they have to produce for that particular market for their own products. It is so straight forward to find this out. We’ve mentioned some of the tools like MADB and EdgeCTP, it’s so straightforward that there is no excuse to send goods to a destination market, and finding on arrival to that destination market a particularly required document has not been provided.


This comes down to risk reduction. If you do your due diligence and you get your documentation right it’s going to reduce your risk of not completing the trade in good time.


No, I wouldn’t say it’s a risk when I should have known about it, it’s not a risk, it’s a lack of care on the part of the exporter. You know, it just shouldn’t have happened and there is no need for it to happen. Now, would it be possible for me, as an exporter, to produce all of the documents that are needed? Well, my surprise might be when I discover there is one document they are looking for that my product is not capable of producing. That might very well be a document relating to the standard that a product has to attain before it enters the market. But that information should have been available to the business leader when the research was carried out on how to enter the market and engage with the buyer.  This shouldn’t come as a surprise AFTER we’ve shipped the goods.


Yes, so one example was where I looked at a leather product that was going from the UK to the US, and you might have to correct me on this Murdo, it was a cites document that says no endangered species was killed for the leather used in the handbag. So I guess that’s a good example for where these documents are needed.


Correct. These are the sort of things we need to be aware of when we’re exporting. Now, if we don’t do the job right then one would argue, do you deserve to be successful? I know quite often that people are put off the export market because of these things, and they think that with the provision of documents there can be a lot of red-tape. Well, there might be some documents that have that label pinned to them, but there are other documents that most certainly would not have that label pinned to them, such as certificates for food-related products (fit for human consumption). Now, these are products that are going to be consumed by human beings and if we’re supplying these types of product to a destination market we ought to make sure that they’re fit for human consumption. This is what these types of certificates do i.e. prove that they have been tested and are fit for human consumption. Now if we choose to conclude that that is red-tape, yes I would agree at the extremities of free enterprise that would be right, but for potentially endangering life, I would say no that’s not right.


Thanks and that means knowing which documents you need and generating them is relatively simple (especially with tools such as EdgeCTP) so there is NO excuse for not getting the documentation side right for sending goods overseas (exporting).


I hope you enjoyed this. If you’d like more information on international trade, go to www.edgedocs.com.

Combined Trading Platform (CTP)

CTP Makes Trading Nationally and Internationally Simple