Bill of Lading (BL)

Bill of Lading / BL Meaning

Bill of Lading

Bills of Lading are cited frequently in shipping and trade documents; especially when there are cross border transactions or the movement of goods overseas.

A Bill of Lading is often abbreviated to BoL or B/L. It is a list of the cargo which a ship is carrying as a receipt; provided by the master of the ship to the person who is consigning the goods. BLs are issued by a carrier of goods to acknowledge that they are in receipt of cargo for shipment.

What is the criteria for a Bill of Lading?

There is the requirement for a bill of lading to be negotiable, and it is widely seen to have three main purposes:

  • a definitive receipt (goods are loaded)
  • terms of carriage contract
  • document of title to goods

Examples of Bills of Lading

Bills of lading are used to make sure that exporters are paid and importers receive goods. We also usually see a policy of insurance and invoice for the goods. It is important to note that a bill of lading is negotiable, but a policy and invoice are assignable.

Bills of Lading Frequently Asked Questions

1. How are BLs transferred?

A bill of lading is transferable by endorsement or by the lawful transfer of possession. A carrier must issue a bill of lading to the shipper which sets out the specification, quantity, nature and quality.

2. What is a BL used for?

It is a contract with conditions attached which is signed by the owner of the ship when the product is loaded. There is an acknowledgement of the receipt of products, with the undertaking to deliver goods at the end of the shipment.

3. What do you track and prove of a Bill of Lading?

Bills of lading come into use when goods are moving and a transfer of title happens. Therefore they are used as a receipt; which is issued by the carrier when the product has been loaded onto a vessel. We constantly see BLs mentioned when looking at proof of shipments; especially in relation to customs and insurance. It is also used as commercial proof to show agreements have been fulfilled.

A bill of lading is used as a carrier’s receipt in relation to the product that is being carried.

4. What are the different types of BL?

There are two types of bill of lading:

  1. Onboard bill of lading: this is when there is no discrepancy in what the description of the shipper sets out and the product that is actually on the vessel.
  2. A clean bill of lading: shows that goods have been loaded on board. However, if the carrier realises that the bill of lading is different from goods on board then the evidence can be cited on the clean bill of lading.
  3. A claused bill of lading: is when one can see a difference between the description in the bill of lading and the product that is presented. Therefore it will only be marked where the product was loaded in this type of bill.

Note: That once the bill of lading is transferred to a third party, there is no possible way to mark a discrepancy.

A bill of lading is used as goods are transferred between the carrier and the shipper; so they are used to show that a contract of carriage has been effected and upon receiving the goods they will usually undertake to deliver them.

There is also the Switch Bill of Lading – read our article here which describes what a switch BL is.

5. Does this class as a document of title?

A bill of lading is usually classed as a document of title when the purchaser of goods is receiving the product from the carrier.

We usually see bills of lading classed in two areas; being a straight BL and a to order BL. A straight BL is issued in favour of a specifically named consignee; which is not negotiable.

Conversely, an order BL is where there is no specific consignee; which is outlined on the document. Thus, this type of BL can be transferred or negotiated to be in favour of another party.

6. Why are there 3 Bills of lading issued?

It is not always the case that three bills of lading are issued; the number used is stated on the bill. The traditional number is three; as one will be taken by the shipper, the consignee and the other is usually taken by the lender or another party. However, it is preferred to have less BLs; as the increased number creates a higher chance of releasing goods to the wrong party and fraud.


An example of when a bill of lading may be used is where there is a shipment across two countries. Bills of lading are used and forwarded onto the end buyer or offtaker. It may be the case that payment is only made when the original or copy bills of lading are received by the end buyer or lender They are used as a receipt of the shipment, confirmation of the underlying goods and to show the passing of title. – John B, Metals Trader


Case Study

Metals Distributor

Trade Finance Global along with their partner funders assisted us by clearly explaining how a new financing structure worked. This was when we were working on a shipment of metals travelling from Singapore to India. They clearly set out the documents that were to be sent by the supplier to us (as the buyer). This included the purchase order, packing list and bills of lading. The lender also had to receive these documents and would only make payment upon their receipt. However, in relation to the bills of lading, they would make payment upon receiving the copies of these documents.

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About the Author

Trade Finance Global (TFG) assists companies with raising debt finance. While we can access many traditional forms of finance, we specialise in alternative finance and complex funding solutions related to international trade. We help companies to raise finance in ways that is sometimes out of reach for mainstream lenders.

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