Bill Of Lading in Shipping: Importance, Purpose, And Types

A bill of lading is the DNA of your shipping process, detailing everything from cargo description to special instructions.

Bill of Lading Definition

A Bill of Lading (BOL) is a legally binding document issued by a transportation company. It serves as a receipt for goods and acts as the actual contract between the shipper and the carrier. In layman's terms, it's the DNA of your shipping process, detailing everything from cargo description to special instructions. Understanding this lading document is crucial for everyone involved in the shipping line, both the shipper and the carrier.

What is the purpose of a Bill of Lading?

The purpose of a Bill of Lading goes beyond being a mere freight bill. It serves multiple main functions:

  • As a Receipt for Goods: Once the freight carrier picks up your shipment, a Bill of Lading is issued as a receipt.
  • Legal Document: The BOL is a legal document issued to confirm the transportation of goods. It contains all the details of the shipment and is legally binding.
  • Document of Title: Beyond being a receipt issued for the actual goods, it also serves as a title document. This means it provides proof of ownership of the goods in transit.

Why is the Bill of Lading Important?

It's a Receipt for Your Goods and Guarantees You Are Properly Insured

Understanding the importance of a Bill of Lading (BOL) starts with its role as a crucial receipt for your goods. When a shipment is picked up by a carrier, a BOL is generated, serving as an official shipment bill. This billing of lading is not just a bureaucratic formality; it's an important document that carries a lot of weight in the logistics and transportation industry.

The BOL outlines every detail about the cargo, from its basic description to more specialized information, like transportation hazardous material designation. If your shipment involves hazardous materials, the BOL will contain special codes that inform carriers and handlers about the precautions they need to take. This ensures that you are properly insured for the exact nature of the goods being shipped.

Moreover, the BOL serves as a paper trail that can be essential for reconciling shipping invoices. If any discrepancies arise between what was shipped and what was billed, the original bill serves as a reliable document to reconcile any differences.

A well-organized and accurate BOL is essential for both the shipper and the transportation company to avoid any future litigation or claims issues.

A bill of lading helps ensure your shipments aren't delayed

It Ensures Your Shipments Aren't Delayed

The Bill of Lading is more than just a piece of paper; it's a tool for efficiency. A well-drafted BOL, often referred to as a "clean bill," ensures that your shipments move through various touchpoints—like distribution centers and rail hubs—without delays. The BOL carries specific instructions for the carrier, such as the route to take, any special handling requirements, and even delivery notifications to be sent out upon arrival.

In contrast, a poorly drafted BOL, often referred to as a "dirty bill," can lead to significant delays. If there's a lack of clarity or incorrect information, the freight may be held up for inspections, or additional verifications may be needed, slowing down the entire supply chain process.

The BOL is also crucial when goods are transferred from one carrier to another, known as "intermodal" shipping. For instance, goods might be transferred from a sea waybill to inland bills for trucking.

The BOL provides all the necessary instructions and endorsements (endorsed order bills) to ensure that these transitions happen seamlessly. This document is especially crucial in international trade, where a negotiable bill can be used to transfer title of the goods to a new owner (or "lawful holder") while the goods are still in transit.

In summary, the Bill of Lading is an indispensable tool for ensuring the smooth, efficient, and legally compliant operation of modern shipping and logistics. It serves as a multifunctional document that facilitates not just the transfer of goods, but also the transfer of ownership, while providing all parties with the information and legal protection they need to operate effectively.

Who Issues the Bill of Lading and How Is It Issued?

The Bill of Lading (BOL) is typically issued by a transportation company or a freight carrier. In some cases, a freight forwarder may also issue what is known as a "house bill of lading."

The BOL serves as a crucial transport document, a contract issued between the shipper and the carrier outlining the terms of the freight shipment. While the process may begin at the distribution center, the BOL is often officially issued at a specific location like a port or rail yard where the goods are handed over for transportation.

When a shipper has goods to be transported, a purchase order is usually the first document that is generated. This outlines what needs to be shipped. However, a purchase order alone isn't enough for shipping. The Bill of Lading must be issued to provide legally binding terms for the shipment.

It's essential that the issuer of the BOL and the shipper ensure that all the information on this document is accurate and complete. A single mistake could lead to issues ranging from delayed shipments to legal complications.

A bill of lading ready to be issued

How Is a BOL Issued?

Issuing a Bill of Lading is a straightforward, yet critically important process that involves multiple parties. The shipper, or a freight forwarder acting on behalf of the shipper, usually initiates the process. They prepare a draft BOL, sometimes referred to as an "open bill," which contains all the requisite details that will guide the entire shipment process. This draft is then submitted to the carrier for review and approval.

Here are some of the key details that a BOL typically contains:

Names and Addresses of Involved Parties: This includes the shipper, the consignee (the person holding the shipment upon arrival), and sometimes a third-party like a bank or broker.

Date of Shipment: The date when the goods are expected to begin their journey. This is critical for tracking and insurance purposes.

Type of Packaging: The form in which the goods are packed (e.g., cartons, pallets, crates) is noted. This is important for both freight classification and for the handlers at various touchpoints like ports or distribution centers.

Description of Items: A detailed account of the goods being shipped, often required for customs and inspections. For insurance purposes, the description often includes the condition of the goods, to ensure that any claims of broken cargo can be substantiated.

NMFC Freight Class of the Items: The National Motor Freight Classification (NMFC) class is indicated, which helps in calculating the freight rates.

Special Instructions or Clauses: Sometimes, there are special handling instructions or contractual clauses included in the BOL. For instance, a "claused bill" may indicate that the goods are being shipped "as is," or a "bearer bill" may specify who has the right to claim the shipment upon arrival.

Type of Bill: There are several types of bills of lading, including negotiable and non-negotiable bills. A negotiable bill acts as a negotiable instrument, allowing title of the goods to be transferred while in transit.

After both parties review and agree upon the details, the finalized BOL is printed and signed. This "paper bill" then serves as the official receipt and contract for the shipment. In some cases, an electronic bill may be used, but that often requires a telex release, a type of electronic code, to confirm its validity.

A bill of lading will help ensure all your freight is present

In summary, issuing a BOL is an essential step in freight shipment that involves meticulous attention to detail. Properly issued bills help avoid complications and assist in streamlining the shipment process, from the point of departure to the point of arrival. Importantly, they also serve as a key tool for parties to reconcile shipping invoices, should discrepancies arise.

When and Where Do I Use a Specific Bill of Lading Form?

The type of Bill of Lading form used often depends on the nature of the shipment. For domestic borders, an Inland Bill of Lading is usually appropriate, whereas international shipment requires an Ocean Bill of Lading or air waybill for air transport. The BOL is typically issued at the shipping dock, rail yard, or any other point where the goods are handed over for transportation.

How Many Types of Bill of Lading Are There – and When is the Bill of Lading Required?

There are various types of Bill of Lading, each serving a specific purpose. The requirement for a BOL is essentially universal across the shipping industry, but the type can vary depending on several factors like the shipping method, terms of delivery, and the parties involved.

Why Are There Three Bills of Lading?

In international trade, it's common to have three Bills of Lading, usually for the shipper, the consignee, and a bank broker or another third party. This is often referred to as "to order" Bills of Lading and is a common form of payment in international trade. These Bills have to be printed with the bill number on the document. Their importance as a document of title cannot be overstated.

Freight being removed from truck via forklift

Bill of Lading Information – How to Read a BOL

Knowing how to read a Bill of Lading is crucial for both the shipper and the consignee. Here's what you need to look out for:

Names and Addresses: The Bill identifies both the shipper and the consignee.

Purchase Orders or Special References: Special instructions for the benefit of the carrier or freight forwarder.

Date of Shipment: Date upon which the goods are handed over for transportation.

Type of Packaging: Could be in cartons, pallets, or any other form of packaged freight.

Based on Method of Operation

Straight Bill of Lading

A straight bill of lading, often referred to as a "straight bill," is a specific type of Bill of Lading that is non-negotiable. This means that it's a document specifying that the goods are consigned directly to a named person, and they can only be released to that individual or entity. This type of bill is used when the goods have been pre-paid for or don't require payment upon delivery.

Unlike an "order bill," which is negotiable and can be transferred to a different consignee, a straight bill of lading locks the shipment to a single, designated receiver. It's imperative to understand the non-negotiable nature of this document, as it has legal implications for all parties involved.

Master Bill of Lading

The Master Bill of Lading, or "master bill," is a comprehensive document issued by the primary carrier of the goods. This usually refers to the shipping line responsible for the main leg of the journey. It consolidates all the information about an entire shipment, even when multiple smaller Bills of Lading, often known as House Bills, are issued by other parties like freight forwarders or secondary carriers.

The master bill serves as the "original bill," which means it is the principal document that holds all the details of the consignment under a single cover. It's the cornerstone document that enables efficient coordination among all the entities involved in the transportation process.

Ocean Bill of Lading

As the name implies, an Ocean Bill of Lading is specifically designed for sea transport. It is akin to a "sea waybill" and serves a dual role: as a receipt acknowledging the condition and quantity of the shipped merchandise, and as a contract outlining the terms and conditions for its sea transport.

Unlike an inland bill, an Ocean Bill of Lading is international in scope and is accepted universally across shipping lines. It's important to note that the Ocean Bill is often subject to different laws and regulations that govern maritime trade, making it crucial to understand its nuances fully.

Inland Bill of Lading

The Inland Bill of Lading is employed for domestic transportation within a country's borders. Whether the goods are moved by rail, road, or inland waterways, an Inland Bill serves as both the contract for the carriage and a receipt for the received goods. Unlike the Ocean Bill, which is used for international shipments, the Inland Bill is more localized and often needs to be converted to an Ocean Bill or another form if the goods are to be shipped internationally.

Bill of Lading as Contract Of Carriage

In the world of freight and shipping, the Bill of Lading serves as the actual contract between the shipper and the carrier. This "contract issued" is a legally binding document that spells out the terms, conditions, and responsibilities of both parties.

Whether you are dealing with an Ocean Bill or an Inland Bill, it's vital that the shipper fully understands these terms as they will be held accountable for any discrepancies or legal issues that may arise. This makes the Bill of Lading an "important document" in the realm of logistics and freight management.

As Cargo Receipt

When a carrier takes possession of goods for transport, the Bill of Lading functions as a cargo receipt. It specifies the condition of the goods at the time they are received and any discrepancies or damages should be noted immediately. This aspect of the Bill of Lading is crucial for both the shipper and the carrier as it can be used to reconcile shipping invoices if there are any disputes about the condition or quantity of the goods shipped.

Electronic bill of lading being created

Electronic Bills of Lading

As technology continues to advance, the logistics and shipping industry is increasingly adopting electronic Bills of Lading. These e-documents offer the same legal standing as traditional paper bills but are easier to manage and distribute. They are often secured with digital signatures and encryption, reducing the likelihood of manual errors or fraud. The electronic form is especially useful for shippers and carriers who are looking to streamline their operations and make them more efficient.

Problems with the Electronic Bill of Lading

Despite the many advantages, electronic Bills of Lading are not without their problems. One of the main issues is the matter of authentication and security. While they are generally more secure due to encryption, the risk of cyber-attacks and data breaches cannot be completely eliminated.

Additionally, not all countries or carriers accept electronic bills as legally binding documents. In some cases, a "telex release" is required to confirm the validity of an electronic Bill of Lading, adding an extra layer of complexity to the shipping process.


By understanding these different types and aspects of Bills of Lading, shippers, carriers, and consignees can navigate the complexities of the shipping world more effectively. Whether you're dealing with paper bills or electronic versions, knowing the nuances can save you time and legal hassle, making your shipping operations more efficient and secure.

Understanding the Bill of Lading in its entirety is crucial for anyone involved in the shipping or logistics industry. From acting as a receipt for goods to being a legally binding contract, this document serves multiple important functions that streamline and safeguard the transportation of goods.

If you're looking for reliable, efficient, and cost-effective shipping solutions, Revolution Trucking is your go-to partner. With industry-leading expertise, we offer customized and scalable solutions for all your shipping needs. Contact us today to learn more.

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