Shield Yourself and Your Business with the Commercial Invoice

Not having a commercial invoice leaves you and your business vulnerable.
Seth Kniep
Oct 18, 2019
Start on Amazon
The Commercial Invoice isn't just a big part of getting your goods into the country, but allows you to defend yourself when someone (probably a competitor) claims your product is not authentic.

If you get a message from Amazon’s seller performance team that says your product is under risk of being deactivated because someone claimed it’s “inauthentic", it will go something like this:

Include the following information for each ASIN: Copies of invoices or receipts from your supplier issued in the last 365 days. These should reflect your sales volume during that time.

What they need is not a proforma invoice (PI)—an invoice the supplier sends to you, the buyer, giving you an approximation of what you will pay for the products. The PI is sometimes issued to assist you, the buyer, in obtaining a letter of credit or an import permit in advance of the international shipment.

What Amazon needs in this case is totally different: a commercial invoice. Don't fake it and copy info down making it look like you bought it from a USA supplier. It's so much simpler and easier to get the real thing in the first place.

Elena Lacey, Getty Images

I actually learned about this from sourcing agents: Before you pay the supplier, require that they send you a commercial invoice in English. If English isn't going to work (like if they're Chinese with poor English skills), get it in their native tongue and have it translated.

Just ask. They will do it because they want their money!

If they say they can't, you're either working with a Trading Company or someone shady.

The document itself will vary on look and design depending on the company supplying the invoice, but a basic one looks something like this:

A commercial invoice not only legitimizes you with Amazon, but has important uses:

  1. It is a document that serves as a formal request of payment from the supplier to you, the buyer. It’s concrete and, most importantly, it’s legally binding.
  2. It's physical proof of your transaction with the supplier. It is also extremely important that you have a copy of every commercial invoice for every batch of products you order, not only for tax reasons, but for the day when Amazon asks you for a commercial invoice to prove that you are a legitimate seller.
  3. If somebody comes after your products, this serves as a shield against your competitors who will try to challenge or claim that your products are not legit. The commercial invoice proves that your products come from so and so supplier—who is in fact legit. Your products are legit. You can see what is being shipped, how many, the value of the products, and signatures of those who are involved in this transaction. 
  4. The destination country may need it before it can release the goods through customs.
  5. If your goods are damaged or lost in transit, it serves as a supporting document for your insurance claim.
  6. A bank may need to see it before reimbursing funds under a letter of credit or documentary collection.
  7. Exporters can use it to support foreign credit risk insurance claims.

Commercial invoices are so important that USA export regulations require that exporters retain it for five years from the date of shipment.

Look at this way, Amazon’s storefront is a battlefield. You are a warrior and part of your responsibilities as a warrior is to safeguard these products to your base. You wouldn’t risk these goods into battle without something to protect yourself. You would be wide open to your enemy’s attacks. You need tools, weapons, and shields to guard you against those attacks.

This commercial invoice is just one of those things. Insurance is another.

Photo by Lou Levit

There are 18 fields on a commercial invoice. I am going to walk you through each one and break down for you the important fields you need to know.

A commercial invoice is filled out by the exporter (your supplier, not you) based on your previously negotiated payment and shipping terms.

The supplier themselves don't really ship it, but they are responsible—especially if you do deliver-duty-pay (DDP) when they ship it all the way from (probably) China to Amazon's Fulfillment Center. Some people do EXW or another option, but I prefer DDP because it means those products get there without me having to do anything. In fact, the customs agent is built in, and they will take care of paperwork related to the commercial invoice for you. All you have to do is pay the tariffs, which you will know all about as a Just One Dime Member.

Remember it is likely that customs agents may look at this, and if the information is not accurate, you, not the exporter, are responsible.

While you usually don't have to fill this out, you should know how to read it in case someone tries to pull a fast one on you. That way you won't get in trouble with the feds. Keep in mind, these boxes don't have numbers. I'm just giving it to you in numbers to make it easier to follow.

1. Seller

Written here is the name and address of the principal party responsible for exporting from the country of the supplier. Note that suppliers who export large amounts of product must have an export license. Double check to make sure they have an export license. If they're working with a freight forwarder, they can receive the export license and then give it to you.

Sometimes the box will say “consigner” instead. This is an alternate term for the entity shipping out the products.

2. Sold to

This is, you, the buyer. Here goes the name and address of the person/company to whom the goods are being shipped.

Photo by chuttersnap

3. Ship to

If different than "sold to," this is the intermediate consignee.

Here, put the name and address of the party responsible to receive the product and forward it on to its final destination. This is often an authorized forwarder.

If you are shipping directly to Amazon’s fulfillment center, then create a shipping plan in seller central for your products to be shipped FBA. When you create the plan, Amazon will provide you with shipping destinations for the boxes of your products to be shipped. Send this info to your supplier or freight forwarder so they can ship it indirectly for you.

4. Commercial Invoice number

This is the invoice number automatically generated by the exporter (the supplier). This is easily the tiniest field in the form, but it’s important because Amazon loves this number.

5. Customer reference number

This is a unique number assigned by the supplier to identify you by. Customs and sellers don’t really care about this information, so don’t worry about it too much unless your supplier asks for it for some reason.

6. Terms of sale

Terms of sale define the obligations, risks, and costs of both the buyer and seller involving the delivery of goods that make up the export transaction. Terms of sale are also called “incoterms.” 

Incoterms are abbreviations or phrases customs agents use such as DDP. Here's a free complete list of incoterms and what they mean.

7. Terms of payment

This is the terms for your payment to the supplier, any conditions for payment, and the currency agreed on by the supplier and purchaser (you) per the pro forma invoice, customer purchase order, and/or the letter of credit—which is a letter stating the amount needed to be paid.

Terms of payment is similar to terms of sale and often overlaps. 

8 Currency of settlement

The currency for payment agreed upon between the seller and the buyer. For example, will you be paying in American USD 💵, Euros 💶, or Chinese RMB 🎧 (Renminbi = Yuans).

9. Mode of shipment

There are three possible modes of agreed upon shipment: air, ocean, and surface.

Shipping by ocean is good for a large number of items. There is a wait time of three to five weeks, but the cost savings is worth it. ⛴

If you are just testing an item or doing a fast launch followed up by larger orders of inventory by sea later, than air express is perfect. ✈️

Surface means a shipment by land or sea—as in surface of the Earth. 🚂

10. Quantity

Simply the total number of units being shipped.

11. Description

This is a full description of the items being shipped, the type of container (carton, box, etc.), the gross weight per container, the quantity, and unit of measure of the merchandise.

Sometimes a supplier will recommend to change the name of a product to get through customs quicker. While there was a time when that may have worked, over the last few years, customs have made it a point to be more aggressive in checking that the products described in the invoice, match the actual items. If they do not, you risk losing your goods, heavy fines, and—worse—your rights to import. It's not worth it. Don't do it! 🚫

12. Unit of measure

This is the total net weight and total gross weight in kilograms per description line. If you are shipping multiple kinds of goods, each one will have its own line.

13. Unit price

This is the per-unit price for the goods being shipped.

14. Total price

This is the total price of all the goods in the shipment.

Do not understate the value! How do I know the value of the goods? It's the retail price to the consumer. If the supplier brings that value under $2500 so you don't have to pay the tariff, you're not going to save money if customs finds out. I know it's tempting, but no. You'll never be able to import again on top of fines.

15. Total commercial value

It's the same as the total you paid for the products. It does not include the shipping fees or customs fees.

16. Package marks

All marks on the packages are included in this field. For example, your packages should say “1 of 12,” “2 of 12,” all the way until "12 of 12", to keep track of both the individual packages and the total number. Think about these boxes being moved by real people who need to keep track of things. 📦

Package marks include the shipping company's name and country of origin (e.g. Made in China). The country of origin is not where it was sourced or necessarily manufactured but where your supplier is (where you send money and receive it from).

Other marks could be the destination port of entry (e.g. Port of Long Beach), package weight in kilograms, package size (length x width x height), and the shipper’s control number (this is an identification number for the shipper).

17. Miscellaneous charges

This includes any miscellaneous charges—such as packing fees, insurance fees, export transportation, etc.—that are to be paid by you, the buyer.

18. Certifications

This includes any certifications or declarations required by the receiving country that you, the shipper, are responsible for.

This is important because these can allow special products to be sold on Amazon. Examples include a child’s product (that they can choke on) that need a CPC certification.

It will make the importing process so much easier to have these beforehand. Otherwise, your goods could be stopped and you may end up waiting months before receiving your goods. They could say that there's a risk of fire with electronics without these certifications. We teach our students exactly how to do this in the Amazon FBA Mastery membership

Photo by Martin Abegglen

I learned all of this the hard way. 

I lost $20,000 on one order. 

Half of my products disappeared. 

I remember a delivery driver showing up at my house with hundreds of customs fees that my supplier told me I had already paid.

You don’t have to make those mistakes! In Just One Dime’s Amazon FBA Mastery membership, we show you how to not be caught off guard by these same international shipping and customs surprises.

If you are worried you’ll make the wrong move and end up costing your business, my team and I can help you avoid that.

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Seth Kniep

Married a pearl. Fathered 4 miracles. Fired his boss. Turned a single dime into $104,857. Today, a self-made millionaire, Seth and his team of 8 badass coaches teach entrepreneurs how to build passive income on Amazon.

Dead serious about building income on Amazon with eight successful coaches in a community of badass Amazon sellers? Join the Amazon FBA Mastery membership.

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