After the pro-forma invoice is accepted, the exporter must prepare a commercial invoice. The commercial invoice is required by both the exporter (to obtain the necessary export documents to enable the consignment to be exported, to prove ownership and to enable payment) and importer (who requires the commercial invoice to facilitate the import of the goods in question). In exporting, the commercial invoice is considered a very important document as it serves as the starting document that underpins an export transaction.

The commercial invoice is essentially a bill (i.e. invoice) from the seller (the exporter) to the buyer (the importer) describing the goods to be sold and the terms involved. The commercial invoice will normally be presented on the exporter’s letterhead and will be addressed to the importer. It should contain full details of the consignment, including price and other related costs, in order to facilitate customs clearance. It must be signed and dated. Freight and insurance, when included in the selling price, should be itemised separately as these charges are not subject to duty in certain countries. There is usually very little, if any, difference between the final proforma invoice accepted by the importer and the commercial invoice, except that the one is titled “Proforma Invoice”, while the other is titled “Commercial Invoice”.

Customs’ and consular invoices

Some countries, however, may require the commercial invoice to be completed on their own specified forms – such commercial invoices are known as “Customs’ invoices” and may be provided in lieu of or in addition to the standard commercial invoices referred to above. In addition, a “consular invoice” is required by certain countries. The consular invoice must be prepared in the language of the destination country and can be obtained from the country’s consulate, and often must be “consularised” (i.e. stamped by an authorised Consul official in the exporting country).


The importer needs the commercial invoice since it is often used by Customs authorities to assess duties. For this reason, it is common practice to prepare a commercial invoice in English and in the language of the destination country. The freight forwarder can advise you when a translated copy is necessary.

From the proforma to the commercial invoice

Although the proforma invoice comes before the commercial invoice, the proforma invoice really only serves as a means of negotiating the actual contract. We said previously that the proforma invoice is the ‘offer’ put to the importer by the exporter. The importer may accept the terms specified in the proforma invoice, but a more likely scenario is that the importer will negotiate some of these terms with the exporter. There may be some backward and forward communication between the exporter and importer before the importer finally agrees to the transaction. Once the importer indicates that (s)he is happy with the terms of the contract as outlined in the (final) proforma invoice, the exporter will then be requested to provide the importer with a commercial invoice. The commercial invoice should reflect the final (agreed-upon) profroma invoice exactly – any deviances will result in problems executing the transaction and/or receiving payment.

Based on the terms specified in this commercial invoice, the importer will instruct his/her bank (referred to as the issuing bank) to issue a letter of credit. This letter of credit (or the documentation associated with any other form of payment) will also need to reflect the terms specified in the commercial invoice exactly, while all subsequent documentation must reflect the terms of the L/C; there can be no exceptions. From this explanation, it is clear that the commercial invoice plays a central role in an export transaction.

What should appear in the commercial invoice

The following details need to appear in the commercial invoice:

  • The name of the shipper/exporter and their contact details, including physical address
  • The name of the importer/consignee and their contact details, including physical address
  • An order number of reference to correspondence between the supplier and importer
  • A complete and clear description of the goods in question (including brandmarks and the HS number)
  • The packing details unless provided in a separate packing list
  • The quantity of goods in question including the number and kinds of packaging involved
  • The external dimensions, cubic capacity, weight, numbers and contents of each package shipped.
  • The total price of the goods (and unit price where applicable) usually quotes as a CIF/FOB price
  • The currency in which the goods will be sold (e.g. US dollars or rands)
  • The type and amount of discount given
  • The likely delivery schedule and delivery terms
  • The payment methods, for example cash in advance or L/C
  • The payment terms, for example 30 days on sight
  • The Incoterm to be used
  • Who is responsible for the banking fees and other related costs (insurance and freight costs are covered by the incoterm in question)
  • What the freight and insurance charges are
  • The exporter’s banking details
  • A declaration of the country of origin of the goods
  • The expected country of final destination
  • Any freight details such as the port of loading and discharge
  • Any trasshipment requirements
  • Any other information relevant to the order

Commercial invoices are the basis for assessing duties and statistics

Commercial invoices are often used by governments to determine the true value of goods when assessing customs duties and recording trade statistics. Governments that use the commercial invoice to control imports, will often specify its form, content, number of copies, language to be used, and other characteristics.

Examples of commercial invoice