What is a bill of lading?

A bill of lading, or BOL, is one of the most important aspects of your freight shipping. Unfortunately, it's also one of the most commonly understood, and can cause major headaches when improperly filled out.

Let's take a deeper dive into why this shipping document is so important, what its different components are, and how you can ensure that it is correctly completed for every shipment.

What is a Bill of Lading?

A BOL is a receipt for freight services. That answer is deceptively simple, however. The BOL is a legally necessary shipping document that serves as a contract between the parties involved in a given freight shipment. Every freight shipment starts and ends with a straight (non-negotiable) BOL, as it lays out the contents and appropriate transportation of the shipment. It also protects the seller, shipper and recipient, and will be referenced if litigation arises from issues related to the freight shipment.

The term "lading" is an old word that describes the action of loading a ship or other transport vessel with cargo. Though "bill of lading" is a phrase with archaic origins, it remains very pertinent to modern shipping.

What are the different sections of a Bill of Lading Form?

Bills of lading can vary slightly from shipper to shipper, but all of them contain vital sections that must be completely and accurately filled out in order to avoid putting the shipment (and the business making the shipment) at risk. Failing to accurately fill out a BOL — or deliberately misstating information — can lead to service interruptions, additional fees, voided insurance coverage, and even legal trouble.

Here are the typical sections of a freight bill of lading and what information is required in each:

  • Reference/purchase order numbers are unique identifiers for the sale of goods and should be matched against the consignee's records for accuracy.
  • Shipping service ensures all parties are on the same page regarding the mode of transportation and service type being used.
  • Shipper/ship from indicates the shipment's origin point and also verifies the shipment upon delivery.
  • Consignee/ship to refers to the party authorized to receive the shipment. This is usually the purchaser of the goods.
  • Special instructions lay out how to handle the shipment and where to deliver it. This can include directions to use refrigeration, or if a forklift or liftgate is required, etc.
  • Third-party freight charges spell out if a party other than the shipper or consignee is responsible for the transaction costs.
  • Collect on delivery (C.O.D.) is filled out if the consignee has not prepaid and will be paying the carrier upon delivery.
  • Shipment details include the number and type of handling units in the shipment, any labels that indicate fragile or dangerous goods, and other handling instructions for the carrier.
  • Packaging type identifies the materials used to protect the shipment such as cartons, pallets, containers, etc.
  • National Motor Freight Classification (NMFC) is a vitally important section that designates the class and code of the freight being shipped.
  • Hazardous materials describes a description and special instructions for any hazardous materials in the shipment.
  • Declared value is the maximum value of the product that helps the carrier determine the limit of its liability. Declared value is not to be confused with insurance coverage.
  • Broker information pertains to international shipments and should contain the freight broker's name and contact information in the case of a delay at customs.
  • Carrier name and driver signature is where the driver confirms that he/she has received and inspected the goods and found them in acceptable condition for shipping.

How SpeedShip smooths things out for your shipping documents

As you can see, a bill of lading form is a complicated document with lots of room for error and missing information. A BOL with erroneous, absent, or false details opens up a Pandora's Box of potential delays, fees and other consequences.

The easiest way to make sure that every one of your shipments has a correctly completed freight BOL is to use a transportation management system like SpeedShip® from Worldwide Express.

SpeedShip helps guide you through the complex details of generating your BOL. SpeedShip also accurately pre-populates frequently used data to greatly speed up the BOL completion process and get your valuable shipments moving.