What is an Original Bill of Lading (OBL)?

The Original Bill of Lading, also referred to as OBL, is a document issued by a carrier to the shipper that serves as proof of shipment, contract of carriage, and receipt for goods.

It typically includes details such as the description and quantity of items shipped, origin and destination points, shipping terms and conditions, and the consignee’s name and address. The original bill of lading must be surrendered to receive freight delivery at the destination.


Why is the Original Bill of Lading Important in International Trade?

The Original Bill of Lading (OBL) is regarded as one of the most important documents in international trade due to the following reasons:

  • Proof of Ownership: The OBL serves as a legal document and a receipt, providing proof of ownership or title to the goods specified in the bill. Possession of the original, negotiable OBL typically represents ownership of the goods, allowing the holder to claim or sell them.
  • Transfer of Title: The negotiable OBL can be transferred from the original shipper to subsequent parties through endorsement and delivery, facilitating the transfer of ownership and enabling the buyer to take possession of the goods at the destination port.
  • Payment and Financing: In many international trade transactions, the OBL is linked to payment mechanisms like Letters of Credit (LCs). Banks often require the presentation of the OBL to release payment to the seller, ensuring that the buyer receives the goods as specified in the contract. Additionally, the OBL can be used as collateral for financing arrangements.
  • Cargo Release: Customs authorities at the destination port often require an Original Bill of Lading before releasing the cargo to the consignee, ensuring that the rightful owner or authorized party takes possession.
  • Legal Protection: The OBL establishes a legal contract between the shipper, carrier, and consignee, outlining the terms and conditions of carriage, responsibilities, and liabilities. It provides legal recourse in case of disputes or issues during shipment.
  • Document of Compliance: Various international conventions and regulations require the use of OBLs as a standard practice in international shipping. Compliance with these regulations is essential for smooth trade operations.
  • Evidence of Shipment: The OBL serves as evidence that the goods were loaded onto the vessel at the port of origin, providing assurance to both the buyer and seller that the shipment has commenced as agreed.
  • Insurance Claims: The OBL can be used to support insurance claims in case of damage, loss, or other incidents during transit. It helps insurers assess the validity of claims and determine liability.
  • Risk Mitigation: For both buyers and sellers, the OBL plays a crucial role in risk management. It ensures that goods are only released upon compliance with the terms of the sale, reducing the risk of non-payment or disputes.


Frequently Asked Questions About the Original Bill of Lading


What is Included Within the Original Bill of Lading?

The Original Bill of Lading (OBL), as a key shipping document, typically contains the following information: shipper and consignee details, purchase orders or special reference numbers, special handling instructions, date of shipment, the quantity and type of shipping units, detailed description of the goods, their volume, weight, and dimensions, and the declared value of the goods. 

In international trade, these elements are essential for the documentation, tracking, and processing of shipments in international trade.


What is a “Clean” Original Bill of Lading, and Why is it Important? 

A “Clean” Original Bill of Lading (OBL) is a document confirming that the shipped goods are in good condition without any visible damage or irregularities when received by the carrier. It is vital because it signifies the transfer of title, allowing the buyer to take ownership, and is often a requirement for payment, particularly when using Letters of Credit (LCs). Customs clearance, insurance claims, and dispute prevention also rely on a Clean OBL. For both sellers and buyers, it serves as a risk management tool by ensuring contractual compliance and reducing the risk of non-payment or disputes. While it confirms the goods’ apparent condition at the time of shipment, it doesn’t absolve the carrier of liability for concealed defects or damage. In essence, a Clean OBL plays a critical role in the smooth and secure flow of international trade.


How Does an OBL Differ from a Sea Waybill?

An Original Bill of Lading (OBL) and a Sea Waybill are two distinct shipping documents in international trade, primarily differing in negotiability and ownership transfer. An OBL, particularly a negotiable one, enables the transfer of goods ownership through endorsement and delivery of the original document, which is crucial for title transfer, trade finance, and Letters of Credit. Conversely, a Sea Waybill is typically non-negotiable, serving as evidence and carriage contract without conferring ownership rights or involving negotiations. 


How Does the OBL Impact the Release of Goods at the Destination? 

The Original Bill of Lading (OBL) plays a pivotal role in the release of goods at the destination in international trade. Here’s how it impacts the release of goods:

  • Proof of Ownership: Possession of the original, negotiable OBL is often required to claim the goods at the destination port. The OBL serves as evidence that the holder is the rightful owner or has the authority to receive the goods.
  • Customs Clearance: Customs authorities at the destination port typically require the presentation of the Original Bill of Lading (OBL) to clear the imported goods. It verifies that the goods have been shipped and are in compliance with the relevant regulations and documentation.
  • Release to Consignee: The consignee, the party named on the OBL, is entitled to take possession of the goods upon presenting the original document to the carrier or the port authorities. This ensures that the goods are released to the correct recipient.
  • Transfer of Title: In the case of a negotiable OBL, possession of the document allows for the transfer of ownership rights. If the consignee endorses and transfers the OBL to another party, that party gains ownership and the right to receive the goods.
  • Dispute Resolution: In case of disputes or discrepancies in the shipment, the OBL serves as a critical reference point to determine the terms and conditions agreed upon in the contract of carriage, helping resolve issues related to the release of goods.


Can You Have More Than Three Original Bills of Lading? 

Yes, you can have more than three bills of lading issued for a shipment. While the standard practice is to issue three original bills of lading — one for the shipper, one for the consignee, and another for the bank (in the case of a Letter of Credit), freight forwarder, or other interested party — you have the flexibility to issue additional copies if necessary. However, it’s crucial to state the total number of bills of lading issued on the document itself to maintain transparency and avoid confusion. This allows for clear documentation and distribution of the copies to relevant parties involved in the shipment and trade transaction.


What Happens if the Original Bill of Lading is Lost or Damaged?

Losing or damaging the Original Bill of Lading (OBL) during an international shipment can be a challenging situation, primarily because obtaining a new bill is typically not possible unless the original is recovered. If the OBL is lost, destroyed, or stolen, a complex set of procedures often needs to be followed by the shipper, importer, or exporter to address the issue. The initial step is to promptly notify the carrier or the entity that issued the OBL, generally through written communication, detailing the loss or damage. An investigation may ensue to verify the circumstances surrounding the situation, often involving an affidavit or a Letter of Indemnity from the party who lost the OBL. 

However, it’s important to note that even with these steps, the issuance of a completely new OBL is highly unusual unless the original document is subsequently found. Duplicate OBLs, marked as “DUPLICATE ORIGINAL,” may be issued by the carrier or issuing entity, but they carry the same legal weight as the originals and come with additional safeguards to prevent misuse. 


How is a Telex Release Related to the Original Bill of Lading?

A Telex Release is closely tied to the Original Bill of Lading (OBL) in international shipping. It functions as an electronic communication method employed to authorize the release of cargo. This electronic message becomes relevant once the shipper or consignee has surrendered the original physical set of OBL documents to the carrier at the point of origin. In essence, a Telex Release is issued as confirmation that the cargo can be released to the consignee at the destination without the necessity of presenting the physical OBLs. This process proves particularly useful when a carrier has initially issued physical OBL documents but aims to expedite cargo delivery at the destination by relying on electronic communication rather than traditional physical paperwork.


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