What is an Ocean Bill of Lading?

T. Briseno

An ocean bill of lading serves as documentation for the contents of a commercial shipment traveling across international waters. This document, or often set of documents, is included with goods being delivered by sea and essentially certifies that the product is on the boat while also noting value, shipping and receiving dates, and condition of the shipment. Suppliers, transporters, insurers, and receivers of goods can use a bill of lading for triggering terms and agreements related to the goods shipped.

An ocean bill of landing may account for the goods contained in an individual intermodal container.
An ocean bill of landing may account for the goods contained in an individual intermodal container.

This documentation is often legally required for goods crossing a body of water into another country. Part of the importance of such documentation is the value and other declarations that are stated on the bill of lading. These can be used to establish ownership once on land, and assess taxes, fees, and insurance. The details can also determine when the goods have passed from seller to buyer, as the dates and condition of delivery are generally included.

An ocean bill of lading is often legally required for shipments crossing international waters.
An ocean bill of lading is often legally required for shipments crossing international waters.

An ocean bill of lading can also include revenue information for any items crossing international waters, and while contracts for these goods generally outline payment terms and shipment details, the responsibility of representing the product accurately also can be very important. When the items being shipped are in transit, the terms of responsibility and ownership can be less clear to establish.

Other aspects certified by an ocean bill of lading are that the entire product has been shipped, it is not damaged, and it fulfills the terms of the sale or contract with the customer. When a large piece of machinery is being provided for an overseas customer, for example, it may be shipped in parts for assembly by the purchaser at its destination. The documentation can track the condition of each part at various transit points — damage or loss incurred in transit or upon arrival may be assessed through the accompanying documents.

There are many complexities to an ocean bill of lading, and what is stated at the time of shipment becomes part of the record determining the handling of monies attached to the goods. Time and date stamps, value and condition, and country of manufacture of individual components all factor into the preparation of the shipping documentation. It serves as part freight voucher, part inventory checklist, part legal claim, and part invoice for sea-bound products, with added layers of complexity depending on the origination and destination.

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Discussion Comments


What information cannot be put on an Ocian Bill of Lading? Are there specific requirements or does it vary from shipping line to shipping line?


I just wanted to quickly define what a letter of credit is in importing and exporting. A letter of credit states that all goods involved in a transaction will be paid for once all parties have received proper paperwork. Essentially, a letter of credit is a bank issued document that verifies credit and guarantees that the goods will be paid for. The seller or exporter requires this document.


@ GeorgesPlane- An Airway bill of lading, or air waybill, is another type of document required for the export and import of goods. The airway bill of lading is essentially an invoice proving that an air carrier has received and is shipping the goods.

The major difference between an airway bill of lading and an Ocean bill of lading is that an airway bill of lading does not designate or certify ownership of the goods on board. Since it does not designate ownership, the airway bill of lading is non-negotiable. The carrier must account for and deliver everything on the airway bill of lading.

The goods on an airway bill of lading are almost always consigned to the party named in the letter of creditor the bank that issued the credit. The only time an exporter will consign goods in a bill of lading directly to the importer is if there is unshakeable trust among the parties.


There are two main types of bills of lading. A uniform straight bill of lading is only receivable by the person listed on the bill of lading. Straight bills of lading are non-negotiable and certify ownership of the goods.

A to-order bill of lading, on the other hand, is negotiable; making whomever is the holder of the original bill the rightful owner of the goods. These may be required when shipping items on credit.

Whatever type of ocean bill of lading the shipper is using, the exporter requires it from the shipping carrier. They are designed to designate ownership of the goods being shipped. The bill of lading is only one of about five shipping documents that customs, exporters, or importers may require for exporting goods. Other documents might include an export declaration, general export license, validated export license, and an insurance certificate.

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