Proforma vs. Commercial Invoice in International Shipping

Proforma vs. Commercial Invoice in International Shipping
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Proforma vs. Commercial Invoice in International Shipping: What’s the Difference?

When dealing with international shipping, small to medium-sized businesses (SMBs) must learn how to navigate their way in the intricate landscape of global trade. It requires understanding the essential documentation, dealing with freight forwarding services, and complying with trade regulations for imports or exports. Among such documentation, and at the primary stages of the supply chain, are the Proforma and Commercial Invoices. These elementary documents have much significance and implications for the following steps that the freight will undergo. 

In this post, we will provide insight into the distinctions between these two essential documents, their individual significance, functionalities, and application in international shipping.

Learn to Distinguish Between Proforma and Commercial Invoice

Proforma and Commercial invoices, although they are both invoice-format documents, play distinct roles in transactions between sellers and buyers. As essential components of any trade transaction, each type of invoice serves a specific purpose. 

Understanding their differences is vital for several reasons: Firstly, it ensures smooth communication between the buyer and seller in trade terms and expectations. Using the proforma and the commercial invoice correctly can aid in accurate financial planning and forecasting. Lastly, and most importantly, understanding them ensures your import meets international trade regulations and customs requirements. 

What is a Proforma Invoice?

A proforma invoice is the first bill of sale sent to buyers before the delivery or shipment of goods. It is used as a detailed quote, establishing the terms of the transaction. The proforma invoice provides a comprehensive breakdown of the buyer’s expectations in the final commercial invoice and could serve as an effective negotiation tool. It’s important to note that a proforma invoice is not a payment request; instead, it’s more of a commitment from the seller to supply the goods at the specified prices and terms. However, any alterations to this document should be agreed upon by both parties before the payment request. 

Similar to a quotation, the elements to be incorporated in the proforma invoice are:

  • Seller’s name and address
  • Buyer’s name and address
  • Buyer’s reference
  • Items quoted
  • Prices of items: per unit and extended totals
  • Weights and dimensions of quoted products
  • Discounts, if applicable
  • Terms of sale or Incoterm used (include delivery point)
  • Terms of payment
  • Estimated shipping date
  • Validity date

In essence, the proforma invoice equips the buyer with all the necessary details about their order, facilitating clear communication and a smooth transaction between the buyer and the supplier.

Proforma Invoicing and International Shipping

In essence, the proforma invoice plays a vital role in international trade by providing clarity, facilitating various processes, and ensuring that both parties understand the transaction’s specifics. Although it is not the finalized and official invoice for payment, the proforma invoice offers comprehensive data essential for the legal importation of products into the country, which is helpful for buyers who are seeking to obtain an import license, initiate a letter of credit, or make preliminary logistical arrangements.

In other words, the proforma invoice provides the buyer and the relevant import and trade regulatory authorities with information regarding the upcoming shipment.

What is a Commercial Invoice?

When dealing with international trade, where goods cross borders, the seller will issue a commercial invoice after finalizing the terms of the acquisition. Although it could be used as a request for payment, just like a regular simple invoice, it also serves as the official shipping and trade invoice, providing details necessary for customs clearance. The commercial invoice contains specific information, including the consignees and parties involved in the shipping, details of the goods being transported, their country of manufacture, and the Harmonized System codes for those goods. 

Before issuing a commercial invoice for a new export destination, it is crucial to be familiar with the country-specific customs regulations and requirements, making sure it states all the essential details. 

The Importance of the Commercial Invoice in International Trade

When used in foreign trade, a commercial invoice acts as a customs declaration provided by the exporter. As the bill of sale, customs authorities use it to calculate duties and taxes, alongside the bill of lading or the air waybill. The commercial invoice’s details, such as the item’s description, tariff code, and value, are crucial for determining customs duties and ensuring compliance with international trade regulations.

Beyond customs, the commercial invoice is essential for everyone involved in shipping. Freight forwarders, for instance, use the commercial invoice to understand the nature of the goods they are transporting. This helps them make informed decisions about handling and transportation methods. Additionally, in cases where goods are damaged or lost during transit, the commercial invoice becomes a crucial document to refer to during insurance claims.

Proforma Invoice vs. Commercial Invoice: Key Differences Explained

In order to understand how these two documents differ and function, let’s look at the differences:

Proforma Invoice:

  • The seller issues this preliminary bill of sale to the buyer before completing the sale.
  • It details the items to be shipped and their prices, reflecting the seller’s intent to deliver at the quoted prices.
  • This invoice facilitates negotiation, assists buyers in decision-making, or helps in arranging finance.
  • It enables buyers to obtain necessary approvals or arrange financial logistics for the shipment.

Commercial Invoice:

  • Issued after finalizing the sale and when the goods are ready to be shipped.
  • Serves as the key document for customs to process and clear the shipment.
  • Provides a detailed account of the transaction, including descriptions of goods, terms of sale, and conditions.
  • Essential for calculating customs duties and ensuring adherence to regulatory standards.


  • Proforma Invoice: A preview of the upcoming transaction, often used for negotiations or securing permits before the sale.
  • Commercial Invoice: The official bill of sale, essential for customs clearance.

Binding Nature:

  • Proforma Invoice: Not legally binding but shows the seller’s intent.
  • Commercial Invoice: Legally binding, confirming the sale and agreement between parties.


  • Proforma Invoice: Has limited validity; terms and prices may change afterward.
  • Commercial Invoice: Remains valid throughout the transaction.

Customs Clearance:

  • Proforma Invoice: Not typically used for customs clearance.
  • Commercial Invoice: Essential for customs clearance, used to determine duties and taxes.

Payment Terms:

  • Proforma Invoice: Sent before payment, indicating expected costs.
  • Commercial Invoice: Sent after the sale, showing the exact amount that needs to be paid.

Shipping Details:

  • Proforma Invoice: This may lack detailed shipping info but can indicate projected costs.
  • Commercial Invoice: Contains detailed shipping information.

Use in Freight Forwarding:

  • Proforma Invoice: This is not a primary document for freight forwarders but can provide initial information.
  • Commercial Invoice: Vital for freight forwarders, ensuring shipment compliance with regulations.

For SMBs involved in international trade, understanding the nuances between a proforma and a commercial invoice is crucial. Overall, both invoices play a vital role in international trade, but they cater to different phases of the transaction process. The proforma invoice lays the groundwork, offering preliminary details and expectations. In contrast, the commercial invoice finalizes the deal, confirms the sale, and facilitates the shipping and customs clearance processes. 

How Ship4wd Simplifies Shipping for SMBs

As your dedicated digital freight forwarder, we’re here to help you navigate through the complexities of international shipping. Whether you’re shipping to or from the US, Canada, or any other global destination, you can count on us to provide you with competitive shipping quotes that will streamline your shipping process.

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We understand that questions and needs can arise at any hour, which is why we offer 24/7 customer support. Our professional team is always happy to assist you with questions regarding your shipments or how to use our platform effectively.

By partnering with us, you can significantly simplify and optimize your shipping operations. Register with us today, and let us take care of your shipping logistics, enabling you to concentrate on what you do best – running and growing your business.


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