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Bill of lading: A comprehensive guide

A bill of lading (BoL) is a vital document issued by a carrier (shipping company) to a shipper (the party sending the goods). It acts as a comprehensive receipt and legal contract between the involved parties, outlining the details and terms of a specific shipment. 

The Pitney Bowes parcel shipping index reports that over 5,100 parcels are shipped globally every second. So think of the BoL as a passport for these parcels. Just as a passport allows you to enter different countries, an original bill of lading grants access to your goods at the destination port. 

In short, no original bill of lading = No cargo access at the destination port.

Why you need a bill of lading

A bill of lading serves the following main functions:

  • Receipt: It acts as a receipt of goods for the shipper, confirming that the carrier has taken possession of the goods in the described condition.
  • Contract: It outlines the terms and conditions of the transportation agreement, including details like the agreed-upon charges, responsibilities of each party, and limitations of liability.
  • Document of title: In some instances, the BoL also acts as a negotiable document of title. This way, whoever holds the original BoL is considered the legal owner of the goods and can claim them upon presentation at the destination.

Key players involved

  • Shipper: Prepares the BoL, arranges the shipment, and pays the freight charges.
  • Carrier: Takes custody of the goods, transports them to the destination, and issues the BoL to the shipper.
  • Consignee: Receives the goods upon presentation of the bill of lading and pays any applicable customs duties or fees.
  • Freight forwarder (optional): Acts as an intermediary between the shipper and the carrier, handling logistics and documentation.
  • Bank (optional): May be involved in financing the shipment (letters of credit) and might require the presentation of the BoL.

Who issues a bill of lading?

The carrier typically issues a BoL once they have received and verified the goods for shipment. This issuance generally occurs at the point of origin, where the shipper hands over the goods to the carrier.

Who receives a bill of lading?

The original bill of lading is typically issued to the shipper, who may:

  • Keep it for the record as proof of shipment and ownership (if the BoL is negotiable).
  • Send it to the consignee (the recipient of the goods), allowing them to claim the goods at the destination.
  • Negotiate the BoL with a bank to secure financing for the shipment, if applicable.

Types of BoL

BoL type Use case
Inland bill of lading Ideal for businesses shipping goods within a country.
Ocean bill of lading Essential for international sea freight. Acts as a receipt for the cargo and allows ownership transfer upon arrival.
Through bill of lading Suitable for multi-modal shipments needing seamless transitions. (e.g., truck, train, ship).
Negotiable bill of lading Enables the transfer of ownership to a third party, often used for financing international trade.
Nonnegotiable bill of lading Used for direct shipments where the goods are consigned to a specified party.
Claused bill of lading Issued when there's damage or discrepancies during loading. This document protects the receiver and impacts their ability to claim full insurance.
Clean bill of lading Issued when cargo appears in good condition upon loading.
Uniform bill of lading Primarily used in the US for domestic rail freight. This standardised document outlines the terms and conditions of the transport contract between the shipper and the railroad carrier.

What information will you find in a bill of lading template

For a quick reference on what a bill of lading typically contains, see the table below:

Category Description
Parties involved
Shipper (Consignor)
The party sending the goods.
The company transporting the goods (e.g., shipping line, airline, trucking company).
Decide to implement a digital email management platform across the fleet.
Notify party (optional)
The party to be notified upon arrival.
Shipment details
Description of goods
Quantity, weight, packaging.
Point of origin and destination
Origin and destination locations.
Mode of transport
Type of transportation used (e.g., ship, plane, truck).
Date of shipment
Date the goods were shipped.
Freight charges and payment terms
Costs of transportation and how payment will be handled.
Special instructions/requirements
Any specific instructions or requirements for handling the goods (e.g., temperature control, hazardous materials).
Terms and conditions
Liabilities and responsibilities
Responsibilities of each party involved in the shipment.
Dispute resolution procedures
Process for resolving disagreements related to the shipment.

The transition to electronic bill of lading (eBoL)

Traditionally, these BoLs were physical paper documents, often requiring multiple copies to be exchanged between various parties involved in the shipping process. The push toward digital transformation has contributed to the increased adoption of the electronic bill of lading (eBoL). In fact, McKinsey reports that electronic bills of lading could save $6.5 billion in direct costs and unlock $40 billion in global trade.

Benefits of eBoLs

  • Automation of manual data entry: Information is pre-populated and electronically transmitted, reducing errors and saving time.
  • Faster processing: EBoLs are instantly transmitted and received, accelerating customs clearance and other administrative processes.
  • Increased transparency: Real-time tracking of eBoLs allows for greater transparency and visibility throughout the shipment journey.
  • Reduced risk of loss or damage: Electronic copies are less susceptible to physical damage or loss compared to paper documents.
  • Environmental sustainability: Replacing paper documents with eBoLs reduces paper consumption, contributing to sustainability and efficiency in the shipping industry.

Email plays a vital role in the eBoL exchange. It's a familiar, reliable way to send these electronic documents quickly. It offers a clear audit trail, showing who sent what and when. But while email works well for basic exchange, it can be time-consuming to manually process and manage documents within long email threads. 

That's why you need AI-powered email management solutions that offer additional benefits such as real-time tracking, message prioritisation, and integration with other logistics software.

Simplify bill of lading management with Sedna

At Sedna, we understand the challenges of managing BoLs through email. That's why we created our AI-powered email platform, Stream

Stream reduces manual email management, connects to other systems, and provides data visibility, enabling shipping and logistics teams to make better, faster decisions. By automating document data extraction, we helped a marine service company save 40 hours per week.

Sedna interface showing an email request for shipment ETA and shipment details

Sedna AI enables you to:

  • Prioritise urgent shipments: Our platform identifies and highlights emails containing urgent shipments based on keywords or specific criteria, enabling shipping companies to promptly address time-sensitive issues and avoid delays.
  • Monitor for security and authenticity: Sedna ensures that eBoL exchange occurs through secure channels, minimising the risk of fraud or tampering compared to physical documents.
  • Extract critical information: Our platform automatically extracts key information from emails and document attachments, eliminating manual data entry and reducing errors. 

Never miss another bill of lading or critical document. Book a Sedna demo today.

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