Pro-forma or commercial invoices for export shipping?

September 5, 2023
Pro-forma or commercial invoices for export shipping?

Export Shipping Invoices: Pro-Forma or Commercial?

A pro forma invoice is a preliminary quote, bill, or offer prepared by an exporter or seller to provide the buyer with an idea of the expected cost of the goods or services. Pro forma invoices take into account costs for shipping, taxes, unit pricing, and any applicable discounts or special offers. This document is not legally binding.

The key components of a typical pro forma invoice include:

    • Description of goods or services: a detailed explanation of the provided goods or services, including the prices, specifications, and any other terms or conditions.
    • Estimated costs: an estimate of the cost for each good or service that accounts for the price per unit, taxes, shipping costs, and any applicable discounts.
  • Contact information: contact information, including names, addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses, for both the buyer and the seller.
  • Validity period: the date until which the pro forma invoice is valid. This helps in managing price fluctuations and ensuring timely action.
  • Terms and conditions: the invoice may additionally contain specific transaction terms and conditions, such as payment requirements, delivery deadlines, and any applicable warranties or guarantees.
  • Additional notes or terms: any special terms or conditions of the sale that both parties need to be aware of, such as warranties, return policies, or specific requirements.

Understanding Pro Forma Invoices

Pro forma invoices are widely used in international trade when dealing with new or potential customers since they provide a thorough picture of the projected costs before the final agreement is reached.

When a buyer and seller are still in the planning or negotiation stages of a deal, a pro forma invoice is frequently used to provide a general sense of the costs, allowing the buyer to assess whether they can afford the purchase and adapt their budget accordingly. 

Exploring commercial invoices

A commercial invoice is a formal and legally binding document used in international trade transactions.  In addition to serving as an official request for payment from the buyer to the seller, it offers a comprehensive summary of the goods or services being offered. As opposed to a pro forma invoice, a commercial invoice is issued after a sale has been agreed upon and is used to facilitate the delivery of goods or the rendering of services. It is a crucial document for accounting, import/export regulations, and customs clearance.

The key components of a commercial invoice include:

    • Description of goods or services: a detailed explanation of the provided goods or services, including the prices, specifications, and any other terms or conditions.
    • Commodity code: states the product identification code used in the country of export to classify the goods or products being exported.
    • Country of origin: this section refers to the original place the items were manufactured rather than the country of export. This section includes a list of any products that are manufactured or produced in multiple countries.
  • Total value: use the selected Incoterm to calculate the value of the commodities. If the seller is responsible for paying the freight and insurance expenses, these two items must also be mentioned. If the buyer is to cover the freight company and all additional fees, the commercial invoice will need to specify the worth of the goods.
  • Shipping information: This document contains information regarding the shipment’s method of delivery, carrier, tracking information, and any pertinent shipping documents, such as airway bills or bills of lading.

When and Why to choose Commercial Invoices

Once a transaction is complete, the buyer will receive the commercial invoice alongside the goods. A commercial invoice serves as a binding agreement and record of a transaction between the seller and the buyer. It lays out the conditions of the sale, such as the number and description of the items, the due date for payments, and other essential details. 

Commercial invoices are required for customs clearance when goods are shipped internationally, and they are also necessary for accounting as they ensure accurate financial reporting and tax compliance.

Pro-forma vs Commercial: Key Differences to Consider

Timing: Pro forma invoices are issued before the provision of goods or services; whereas commercial invoices are provided to the buyer following delivery of the goods or services to provide an accurate record of what was purchased and from whom.

Purpose: A proforma invoice typically serves two purposes: informing customers beforehand about the costs related to their purchases, and providing sellers with information regarding specifics on the item’s description, quantity, unit price, and terms of delivery,  so they can set up a letter of credit or other payment method, obtain any required import licences, and overcome any potential import restrictions.

Contrarily, commercial invoices provide a formal record of sale, which is frequently needed by customs officials when shipping products overseas. Customs officials use commercial invoices to accurately calculate any tariffs or taxes owed on imported goods. 

Legality: Proforma invoices are typically used for estimates but have no legal standing, whereas commercial invoices are binding records that provide proof of the goods and services that were acquired.

In conclusion, a commercial invoice is a final, legally-binding document used for actual transactions and customs clearance, whereas a pro forma invoice is a preparatory document used for quoting and delivering information.

Pro forma invoice Commercial invoice
Nature/purpose A pro forma invoice is a sales invoice that is sent by the seller to the buyer before the shipment of the actual goods. It gives a thorough description of the products, their quantities, their costs, and other sale conditions. The final invoice given by the seller to the buyer after the products have been dispatched is known as a commercial invoice. It is a formal record of the sale transaction that includes all the information needed for payment and customs clearance.
Legally binding Pro forma invoices are not binding legal documents. They are used to give the buyer information and to make it easier to negotiate and agree on the conditions of the transaction. The commercial invoice, which contains the terms of the sale, including the agreed-upon prices, payment conditions, and delivery information, is a binding legal document.
Customs and import procedures Customs officials frequently request pro forma invoices to determine tariffs, taxes, and other charges before the arrival of the actual goods. They give customs officials an estimation of the shipment’s value. When the goods arrive in the destination country, customs authorities use commercial invoices to determine the applicable duties, taxes, and fees. They include precise details regarding the cost of the items and the conditions of the sale.
Payment information Pro forma invoices may include payment information, such as the approved payment method and any required upfront payments. Commercial invoices offer comprehensive payment details such as the total amount owed, the payment deadline, and the accepted payment methods.
Used in quotations or payment When submitting quotes to potential customers, pro forma invoices are frequently employed. They assist purchasers in comprehending the expenses related to a potential purchase. The buyer initiates payment to the seller using commercial invoices. They are used to document the transaction and are frequently needed for accounting and tax purposes.
Legal obligation Pro forma invoices are not legally binding, therefore they do not obligate the buyer nor the seller to make a purchase or deliver the goods. The seller is obligated by law to provide the items as specified in the commercial invoice, and the buyer is obligated by the commercial invoice to pay.

What to keep in mind when choosing the right export shipping invoices

In conclusion, a commercial invoice is a final, legally-binding document used for actual transactions and customs clearance, whereas a pro forma invoice is a preparatory document used for quoting and delivering information.

To avoid delays caused by improper paperwork requirements and to guarantee that everything goes smoothly when shipping items internationally, businesses must understand which documents are necessary.

Before shipment, having these documents in your possession will guarantee that your goods arrive on time and that you are in compliance with international trade regulations.


clearBorder provides independent advice on international trade, border systems, policies and processes. We deliver:

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We deploy our expertise and extensive partnerships across the freight forwarding, customs, policy-making and trading sectors to help our clients trade seamlessly across borders.

Contact information

If you require further guidance regarding commercial and/or pro forma invoices, please contact us here