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Bill Of Lading Explained: The Complete Beginner’s Guide [2020 Update]

In the world of business, the Bill of Lading (BoL or B/L) is one of the main documents used to execute transportation transactions by sea, air or road.

In this article, we will cover:

  • what a Bill of Lading is
  • what its purpose is
  • BoL samples so you can see first hand the key information contained within the document.

What Is A Bill Of Lading (BoL)?

A Bill of Lading is a document issued by a Carrier (somebody who transports and delivers goods) to a Shipper (someone who supplies and/or owns the goods – also known as a Consignor), confirming goods were received in an acceptable condition and are ready to be shipped. Those goods will then be delivered by the carrier to a Consignee (the person who bought the goods in the first place). A Bill of Lading is essentially a contract of carriage between the Shipper, Consignee, and Carrier stating the terms and conditions of carriage.

carrier shipper consignee

What Are Bill of Ladings Used For?

A bill of lading can represent a receipt of goods.  

Shipments cannot be executed without a Bill of Lading. BoLs must be issued for goods to travel from Point A to Point B. They are legally binding documents, and they often serve as proof of ownership over the goods being carried.

A bill of lading also covers its role as title to goods.

Once the goods have arrived at destination, the Bill of Lading acts as a title to the goods. The consignee* listed will need to present the Bill of Lading in order to secure the release of the shipment by the carrier and claim ownership. In this sense, it is evidence of confirmation of delivery.

*Only the consignee listed on the Bill of Lading has contractual rights to request for the release of the cargo.

Bills of lading also make sure that the shipper is paid

In some cases, the shipper can hold the original bill until they receive payment. By doing this, the consignee is unable to access their goods until payment has been made and the Bill of Lading released.

Who Uses A Bill Of Lading?

Usually, are companies that sell transportation services that generate bills of lading. They can include owner-drivers, freight forwarders, steamship lines, third party logistics companies and others. They include companies transporting goods by any means, whether it be through air, sea, rail or road.

They can be used for both domestic and international deliveries.

What Is Contained In A Bill Of Lading? 

  • Details of the transportation company (i.e. the carrier), the shipper and/or consignee;
  • The place where the goods were loaded;
  • Destination;
  • Transportation mode (i.e. road, rail, air, sea, etc.);
  • The terms of the shipment (incoterms); and
  • A description of the goods being carried (including their weight, dimensions, classification, etc).

Accuracy Is Critical

We cannot stress the importance of providing accurate information on a Bill of Lading.

Mistakes in preparing bills of lading have led to disasters for transportation companies. For example, in 2017, a freight forwarder was ordered by a court in NSW to pay over $800,000 in damages for ‘misleading and deceptive conduct’ because the bills of lading gave the impression that they were ocean carriers bills (when they were not).

Extreme caution must be taken when generating these bills.

Who Issues A Bill Of Lading?

The ‘Carrier’ is the only company that can issue the Bill of Lading.  When transporting by sea freight, the carrier can refer to the Shipping Line (Vessel Operating Common Carrier) or an NVOCC (Non-Vessel Operating Common Carrier) also known as a Freight Forwarder (although not all Freight Forwarders are NVOCC’s).

Who Receives A Bill Of Lading?

Bills of lading are normally provided to:

  1. The shipper;
  2. A broker, freight forwarder or a third party managing customs; and
  3. The consignee – this is the person who purchased the goods in the first place.

Example: if the goods are being imported through a freight forwarder on EXW terms (refer to incoterms again), this is the journey of a Bill of Lading:

Bill of lading process for import chart(2)

If the goods are being exported, this bill of lading journey is as follows:

Infographic Bill of Lading export Process

Different Types Of Bills Of Lading

There are, many different types of Bills of Lading. They differ based on many factors such as the issuer of the BoL, the purpose of the BoL, its form of transmission, the relationship between buyer and seller, and the protection it offers to the buyer. 

The main types of bill of lading dealt with for international transport are Ocean Bill of Lading, Seaway Bill of Lading, House Bill of Lading,  Master Air Way Bill of Lading, House Air Way Bill of Lading and occasionally Switch Bill of Lading. We will cover each one of them below. But first, there are two main categories that bills of ladings fall in that you need to know: negotiable and non-negotiable. 

Negotiable And Non Negotiable BoL

An Original Bill of Lading is a negotiable and legal document as it represents the title of the goods. Non-negotiable Bills are in effect copies of the originals but have no power over the title of the goods.

Originals Bills of Lading (negotiable) must be endorsed by the consignee (buyer) when being transferred to a third party such as a freight forwarder and much like a cheque that is made out to a specific party. 

When cargo moves under a Negotiable status, it is the forwarder’s responsibility to ensure it is surrendered to the appropriate authority to obtain possession. When cargo moves through the forwarder’s NVOCC services (Non Vessel Owning Common Carrier) on Negotiable Bills, the forwarder too must ensure that the Original Bill (Negotiable) is surrendered to them prior to releasing the consignee or their agent.

Failure to follow this process would hold the carrier responsible for the value of the cargo in the event that the contract between the shipper/consignee is not honoured.

Note that both terms only apply to sea freight. For airfreight, terms are Master Air Way Bill (MAWB) and House Air Way Bill (HAWB). However, unlike sea freight, Air Way Bills are classed as Non-Negotiable Documents unless they are consigned through a bank.

BoL Types

Ocean Bill Of Lading

This is generated by the Shipping Lines as the Carrier in this instance for containers transiting by sea and is generally used when the shipper would like to retain control of payment by a consignee (buyer) for the goods. The original bill of lading will be utilized to make sure payment is made before the goods are released to the consignee. 

Once payment is receipted the document can be actioned in several ways, dependent on what the carrier makes available.

  1. Original Bill of Lading can be surrendered to the carrier for a Telex Release (a digital version of the BoL)
  2. Original Bill of Lading is couriered to the consignee to present to the reciprocating carrier at the destination to obtain release.

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Sea WayBill of Lading

It is a Non Negotiable document issued instead of an Ocean Bill of Lading where the Shipper has no need to control the release of cargo. 


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House Bill Of Lading (HBoL)

Where cargo is arranged by sea freight through an NVOCC/Freight Forwarder a House Bill of Lading is generated.  This can be arranged as a Negotiable or Non Negotiable option depending on the requirements of the shipper.   Where a Non Negotiable option can be utilised it can sometimes be arranged/referred to as an Express Bill of Lading.


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Master Air Way Bill Of Lading 

Master Air Way Bills (MAWB’s) are Airline bills of Lading and are generated by the Airline or Freight Forwarders. They are Non-Negotiable documents excepting where the cargo is consigned ‘To Order’. This generally means that the shipment has been negotiated through a bank in which case a release from the bank in question would need to be presented prior to the cargo being released by the carrier.

Generally, these are arranged from Forwarder to Forwarder and a House Air Way Bill is generated from the shipper to the consignee.


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House Air Way Bill Of Lading 

This is the Air Way Bill that is issued by a Freight Forwarder for consolidated air freight shipments. HAWB’s are treated exactly the same as MAWB’s, provided they indicate the issuer itself assumes the liability as the carrier or is acting as the agent of a named carrier.


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Multimodal Bill Of Lading

These are when you’re using more than one type of transport. For instance, you may use rail for the some of the trip and then road for the rest.

Through Bill Of Lading

Through bills of lading are for goods transported by ocean as much as it can possibly be transported by ocean, and then by road or rail to the final destination. Ensure these are not mixed up with multimodal bills of lading.

Switch Bill Of Lading

When goods need to be moved and the supplier’s information needs to be kept private – generally in the case of a Triangle shipment where a buyer is onselling to a 3rd party, a second BoL is generated replacing the first with the updated information.

Dirty/Claused Bill of Lading

This term is used when the goods are received by the shipper in a damaged condition. In these cases, the carrier’s insurance company may refuse a claim for damage. Contrast this with a ‘clean’ bill of lading, where the goods are delivered in an acceptable condition.

Straight Bill Of Lading

This is a type of format of either an Ocean or House Bill of Lading and are used when the goods are paid in full and delivered direct to the consignee (i.e. the person or organisation that purchased the goods in the first place).

Cargo is only released to the named consignee at the declared destination and it only happens upon surrender of at least 1 of the original copies issued.

Electronic Bills of Lading – Telex Release and Express Release

Telex release and Express release are not types of Bill of Lading, but methods of releasing Bill of Lading.

A Telex Release is simply an EDI message or email which is sent by the carrier or agent at load port to their office or agent at discharge port informing that the shipper has surrendered one or all of the original bills of lading that have been issued to them. Based on this, the discharge port agent can release cargo to the named consignee shown on the bill of lading without presentation of any original bills of lading.

The Express Release Bill is similar to the Telex Release in the sense that it can be digital. However, the difference being that with the Express Release, no hard copies of the Bill of Lading are issued. With no originals are created, the Express Release offers many advantages, but should only be used under very specific circumstances.

BoL Differences Chart

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Why Are Incoterms Important To A Bill Of Lading?

Your choice of incoterms will determine how the whole process will be handled. Before reading on, check out our Beginner’s Guide to Incoterms to understand how the two interact. 

Which incoterms to use can be tricky, as it will depend on the nature of the business and what goods are being handled.

You must determine exactly what terms you are shipping on so there is clarity who is responsible for what part of the shipping process.

One Last Tip

Whenever embarking in shipping activity, be sure to engage an experienced forwarder to ensure all documentation and the flow of BoLs are handled correctly.

You can find other useful tips on the Australian government agency website helping you to understand import and export compliance.

Still have questions on this topic?

Leave us a message below for a free tailored consultation.



What is the legal definition for seaway bill, surrender BL and telex release?

Marketing Dept insisted of surrendered BL vs seaway bill when buyer instructed to release the cargo without present of original BL at destination prior to shipment date.
shipper received 100% fund of purchase price.

International Cargo Express

Hi Priscillia,

Thank you for your enquiry.

From a commercial perspective, the shipper might choose to have an Original Bill issued for their goods and hold onto that Original Bill until the purchaser has paid. Once paid the shipper can Surrender the Originals to the Sending Agent or Shipping line and ask for the goods to be released without presentation of the Original via a Telex Release Notification sent to the Destination agent or Shipping Line. If a Seaway Bill is issued an original is not required for the release of the goods. This may be preferable when the purchaser has agreed credit terms or have paid in advance and the Original Bill doesn’t have to be held as collateral.


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