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Commercial invoices are a crucial part to international shipping, and there is no escape. There is often confusion about which documents you need to include to get your package to its final destination as smoothly as possible. In this article we explain what a commercial invoice is, why you need this document and how to fill it out. 

In this article, we will answer the following questions: 

What is a commercial invoice and what is it used for?

custom formsA commercial invoice is a special export document that helps your package get through customs. A properly completed and correct commercial invoice for export helps customs authorities quickly decide which taxes and import duties apply to your package. And this prevents delays.

In addition, customs officials can see whether your package meets all the requirements and they can pass on information (e.g. the recipient’s tax liability) to the country of destination. If you fill in this invoice correctly, there is a greater chance that your package will arrive on time. Packages within the EU do not require this special invoice. A list of EU countries can be found on the website of the Dutch Tax and Customs Administration. If in doubt, you can also consult the list of exceptions because some countries or territories are part of the EU but are not part of the EU customs territory.

In addition to the commercial invoice, some international shipments outside the EU also require a customs declaration (CN22 or CN23), a CP71 dispatch note, and possibly a Certificate of Origin (CO). This article will mainly discuss the commercial invoice for international shipping.

Create your commercial invoice using our template

Buying internationally is getting easier, but international shipping remains a bit more difficult and filling in a commercial invoice is quite a bit of work. But we have made it a little easier with a handy template that helps you fill out this export document. This way you can be sure that your invoice meets all the current requirements and that the details have been completed correctly. Fill in all the details of your commercial invoice and then easily download your ready-made commercial invoice in PDF format.


What is the difference between a commercial invoice and a CN22 or CN23 form?

When sending an international package to a country outside the EU, you often need several documents. Sometimes people are confused about the difference between the commercial invoice and the CN22 and CN23 documents mentioned above. This is not surprising: both forms give customs authorities information about what goods are entering and leaving a country. However, these two forms have little to do with each other and they should not be mixed up. So what exactly is the difference? First, let’s briefly discuss what each document involves:

CN22 and CN23

A CN22 or CN23 form is a mandatory customs form that must be added to shipments outside the EU. The form is mainly used for shipments that are transported by a postal company. The value or weight of the shipment determines whether you use form CN22 or CN23. The form contains information about the goods being transported and this information is used to determine whether tax must be paid. A CN23 form is always accompanied by a CP71 dispatch note.
CN23

The commercial invoice

The commercial invoice is also an export document that you add to all commercial shipments outside the EU. It is a binding customs document that mainly contains information about the contents of the package and the agreements made (Incoterms), such as who pays the customs costs. Based on the commercial invoice, the customs authorities determine whether import duties have to be paid on the goods. 
commercial invoice template
A CN22 or CN23 document requires you to fill in a bit more information than the commercial invoice, but the idea behind it is the same. Both documents provide information about the contents of the package so that customs authorities can decide whether the parcel can enter the country, and who is responsible for which taxes and import duties.

So when do you use a CN22 or CN23 form, and when do you use a commercial invoice?

  • If you are sending a package to a country outside the EU and using a postal service like PostNL (in the Netherlands) or Royal Mail (in the UK), use the CN22 or CN23 customs form. The CN22 or CN23 document is used by the Universal Postal Union and is therefore mandatory for postal services. You must also add a commercial invoice to this kind of shipment.
  • If you are using a carrier such as DHL or DPD instead of a postal service, you do not need to add a CN22 or CN23 form. 

The main difference is that a commercial invoice is always required for all e-commerce shipments, and only parcels sent via postal services need the additional CN22 or CN23 document. 

However, to avoid delays, we recommend that you always add both documents. 

Paperless Trade for shipments via DHL Express or UPS

When you ship via DHL Express or UPS, you can use ‘Paperless Trade’. This means that customs forms are sent to the carrier electronically. As soon as you process your international order, the customs forms are immediately forwarded. This not only saves you time, printing and costs, but it also reduces the risk of documents being lost. Sendcloud automatically uses Paperless Trade when you ship outside the EU using DHL Express or UPS.

How to fill in a commercial invoice

What has to be on a commercial invoice? Although there is no standard format, the document must contain several fixed elements, such as details about the parties involved in the shipment and information about the goods. Below you will find the most difficult parts of the commercial invoice, and below that, you will find an explanatory glossary.

Please note: A commercial invoice must always be in English.

commercial invoice

What are you shipping: description of the article, number, weight, and value

It may seem obvious, but describing the contents of the package is an important part of the commercial invoice. This gives customs authorities a clear overview of what you are shipping. The description must explain exactly what you are sending, what the article is made of and, if applicable, what its purpose is. Do this for each item separately. Customs packages are often scanned, and you may be fined if the description does not match the contents of the package. Therefore, it is very important to do this accurately.

Also state the number of items, the total weight, and the total value in euros of the contents of your package. It is important that you determine the value accurately. Even a sample, gift or return shipment has a value. 

HS code or commodity code

Every item in your package must have an HS code or commodity code. The Harmonized System (HS codes) classifies goods so that customs authorities know which taxes, excise duties, and controls apply. It is important that you enter the correct code as it determines the number of import duties or other taxes you must pay. Looking up the code can be difficult, but there are a number of ways to find your product’s code.

The manufacturer of your product often knows its HS code. If you don’t have this information, you can look up the code yourself. You can use Sendcloud’s quick and easy tool to search for the right HS code. Or, go to trade tariffs on the customs administration website and click on the ‘Nomenclature’ tab. There you will find all the commodity codes. Do you need more help? Then read the manual on looking up commodity codes. Finally, you can contact the tax and customs agency in your country for more information.

Country of origin

In the ‘country of origin’ field, you state where your goods were produced. In some cases, you will need a CO document as an additional document. Some countries outside the EU request this document for trade policy measures.

The Incoterms (or terms of sale)

incoterms 2020
The International Commercial Terms or ‘Incoterms’ are standardised international agreements on the transport of goods. The Incoterms clarify:

  • Who is responsible for the shipping, insurance, import and customs costs of the shipment;
  • Who takes care of the transport and to where;
  • Who is responsible for the goods at each phase of the shipment, including the point at which the risk and costs of delivery transfer from the seller to the buyer.

Please note that the carrier you have chosen also supports these Incoterms. 

The Incoterms are updated every ten years and so have just been updated for 2020. The 2010 Incoterms remain in force, but more and more companies will be switching to the 2020 Incoterms. Read our update about the 2020 Incoterms here. The most common Incoterms are EWX (Ex Works), FOB (Free on Board), CFR (Cost & Freight), DAP (Delivered At Place) and DDP (Delivered Duty Paid). If you don’t know which Incoterm is best for you, we recommend you choose DAP. This means that you as the seller pay the shipping costs, arrange the insurance and prepare the export documents. The recipient pays any import and customs duties.

Commercial invoice glossary

commercial_invoice_glossary
We already mentioned that commercial invoices are always written in English. If you want to create your commercial invoice yourself or are using a template and don’t know what to fill in, you will find a description of the most common terms here:

  • From: This is you, the person sending the package.
  • To: The name and address of the person or company you are sending the package to.
  • Intermediate Consignee: If you are sending the package to an intermediary, fill in the details of that person or company here. 
  • Date: The date you sent the package.
  • Invoice Number: Your own invoice number.
  • Customer PO No: Reference or order number of your sale.
  • Currency Used: The currency you used when filling in the document.
  • Country of Origin: The country where your product comes from. In some cases, you must add a CO document.
  • Reason for export: Tick everything that is applicable.
  • B/L/AWB No: This refers to the transport document setting out the arrangements with the carrier. The carrier is often responsible for preparing this document.
  • Final Destination: The final destination of your package.
  • Export Route/Carrier: The shipping company you are working with or the route your package will take.
  • Terms of Sale: Better known as the Incoterms.
  • Terms of Payment: The payment terms between you and the seller (e.g. payment within 30 days of receipt, direct deposit).
  • Terms of Freight: Freight conditions (e.g. prepaid, collect). You can also enter these terms and conditions in the Terms of Sale or the Incoterms.
  • No. of Packages: The number of packages you are sending.
  • Comments: Space for shipping or delivery instructions or other notes.
  • Contents: A description of the articles you are sending.
  • HS Code: The HS code or commodity code.
  • Value: Price per product.
  • Net Quantity: Total number of products.
  • Weight KG: Total weight of the package.
  • Freight: If applicable, report the shipping costs here.
  • Insurance: If applicable, report the insurance costs here.
  • Date and signature: Your name, signature, and date. It may seem obvious, but your package will probably not be sent without your signature. So make sure to sign and date all your packages. 

How to add the commercial invoice to your shipment

commercial invoice
Normally you need to add three copies of the commercial invoice: one for the country you are exporting from, one for the country you are shipping to and one for the recipient. Put two of them in a packing list envelope on the outside of the package and put the last commercial invoice inside the package for the recipient.

Also, make sure that your package meets these other requirements:

    • The box in which you send the package must be sturdy enough to withstand a fall of 1.5 metres.
    • The package must be filled with padding material. Due to censorship rules, you may not use newspapers for this purpose.
  • The corners of the box must be reinforced with tape.

It is important that you always keep a copy of the commercial invoice and any CN22 or CN23 documents. If mistakes are made in the handling of the shipment, you can sometimes face high customs fees. Be prepared for anything and keep a copy.

Do you want to know everything about international shipments? Then download our free whitepaper on international shipping.

14 Comments

  • LR says:

    What do you put on the commercial invoice, when exporting good to the UK, with the local (UK) VAT allready paid? All our shipments, above and below 135 GBP we charge the customer with VAT and we pay the HMRC this VAT.

    – What incoterm to use, DDP right?
    – What should the commercial invoice state: prices incl. VAT, excl. VAT? Since the commercial invoice typically doesnt have a place for VAT.

    • Stephanie Butcher says:

      Hi, thanks for asking this question – it’s a really good one! The first thing to remember is that, even though you are charging your customer the VAT, HMRC will hold you (the seller) accountable for paying VAT since the UK will charge the VAT at the point of sale. Therefore, we advise the following: ensure the correct amount of VAT is mentioned on the customer’s purchase order slip so they are able to see that the charged amount included this tax. For your commercial invoice, you do not need to include the VAT – customs will use the value stated on the commercial invoice to determine the correct amount of tax and duties that are owed from the product’s value.

      DDP is also the correct Incoterm to use as this indicates that you, the seller, are taking responsibility for the VAT and duties. So, in this case, it is the correct one to use.

      Finally, we highly advise that you consult HMRC or a tax advisor if things still aren’t clear. We try to provide the best information that we can, but some things regarding Brexit are still unclear. And as shipping is our speciality – not tax – it might be wise to get a second perspective.

  • Linda G. says:

    The UK required us to get a new EORI number, but I do not see anywhere on the commercial invoice for either the EU EORI or the GB EORI number. Where are these indicated?

    • Iris Dings says:

      Hi Linda,

      Thanks for your comment! We are working on updating our image, but Sendcloud users automatically generate a commercial invoice/customs form when shipping to countries where it’s necessary. In the commercial invoice there’s a new separate field for the EORI number.

      Does that help?

      Best,

      Iris | Sendcloud

  • Corin says:

    Hello, when I send a broken item for getting repaired to the UK from the EU, should I put the value which I paid when I buy it or put less value because it’s broken? I’m worrying if the receiver will have to pay VAT or TAX.

    • Stephanie Butcher says:

      Hi Corin,

      This is a very interesting question! As we are a software company that specialises in helping e-commerce stores sending their packages, this generally doesn’t fall under our specialisation, but I will try to help as best I can. Can I ask, did you purchase this product from a UK (online) retailer? My first piece of advice is to definitely contact the customer service team of the retailer (or the repair company you’re sending this item to) and discuss what customs forms you need to fill out directly with them and see what they advise. Therefore they will be able to find the best solution to avoid paying any fees, and if not, then they are at least aware of them. You can also discuss it with the carrier’s customer service team you are shipping the item with. I’d highly advise doing both these things to get the best insight into what to do. I hope this helps, and wish you luck in getting your item repaired 🙂

  • John says:

    Our supplier gave us a DAP commercial invoice in line with the requirements in your article and the goods were cleared by our customs agent through customs. Our supplier has now replaced this invoice with a usual invoice. Is this normal practice or are we likely to get issues on our VAT return? The replacement invoice does not include all the details of the original DAP invoice.

    • Iris Dings says:

      Hi John,

      We’re not really sure if we can help you out here. It doesn’t really sound to us that you’re shipping goods yourself if you get an invoice from the supplier? Are you importing the goods? If it comes to VAT return, it’s best to seek a tax or customs adviser for advice on this specific case. Additionally, I’ve found an article about VAT returns and how to request them: https://europa.eu/youreurope/business/taxation/vat/vat-refunds/index_en.htm.

      Hope this helps! But because it’s not really a shipping related question, we’re not the experts in it so we highly recommend to request help from a tax advisor.

  • If I’m in the UK and my EU-based supplier delivers direct to my UK- based customer, who should put the commercial invoice on the package?
    It seems it should be the responsibility of the sender, but they would put wholesale prices on it rather than retail. Do I have to provide the sender with my invoice before they ship the parcel?

    • Iris Dings says:

      Hi Steve,

      The retail price should normally be on the commercial invoice. Normally the one who ships creates the commercial invoice. I suggest to speak to your supplier, so they make sure the retail price will be on the commercial invoice and they add it to the package.

      But, don’t worry, it’s just best to speak to the supplier and make sure that there is a commercial invoice is attached. That’s most important for declaring the goods at customs.

      Hope this helps.

      Best,

      Iris from Sendcloud

  • Ken L. says:

    If I sold a good for $3000 2 months ago for shipment today and now the current value of the good is $4000. On a commercial invoice should I use the current market price of $4000? I am new to this so I am just wondering if this value has any bearing on an insurance claim should my good get lost during shipment. Meaning, by putting $4000 as the unit price on the commercial invoice, will that allow me to claim to my insurance the $4000? Or do I have to use the actual sales price of $3000.

    • Stephanie Butcher says:

      Thanks for your question and I hope we can help you out! Regarding the value you should declare on your commercial invoice: this should always be the actual price paid, and you may need to provide proof of the transaction to customs authorities.
      Regarding the insurance: as we understand it, you also will only be able to claim the purchase price. However, if you want more details about the insurance, we suggest getting directly in touch with the carrier you ship with. It’s also good to always check the insurance’s terms of service to make sure you meet the criteria for coverage.
      I hope this helps, and good luck with your shipment!

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