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Bill of Lading vs Sea Waybill: comparison

The Bill of Lading and the Sea Waybill are two documents related to maritime shipping, but they serve different functions and have different characteristics: let's delve into their differences.

In the context of sea freight shipments, two essential documents regulate the maritime transport of goods: the Bill of Lading and the Sea Waybill (or Express B/L). Despite their apparent similarities, these documents hold distinct roles and functionalities. Through a detailed analysis presented by Savino Del Bene, this article endeavors to delineate the differences between these critical documents, providing a comprehensive understanding of their respective value in the global maritime trade.


What is the Bill of Lading?


For ocean shipments the Bill of Lading (B/L) can be considered the most important document, it’s the evidence of the contract of carriage between the carrier and the shipper. The Bill of Lading provides proof of loading on board the vessel specified therein (this differentiates it from the “Received for Shipment B/L” which proves the delivery of the goods to the carrier). 

Upon issue, the maritime carrier therefore certifies that it has loaded the goods onto a specific vessel for shipment and undertakes to deliver them to their destination. The carrier or its agent issues a set consisting of originals (usually three) and non-negotiable copies.

The original copies must be duly signed by the master, the carrier or their agents; usually, in daily practice, it is the agent of the carrier who issues and signs most of them. The presentation of the first original will invalidate the validity of the remaining ones.


 The functions of the Bill of Lading


The B/L performs the following functions:

  • Receipt for goods: the Bill of Lading serves as confirmation that the goods have been received by the carrier.
  • Shipment’s contract: as mentioned, this document constitutes legal proof of the contract of carriage between the carrier and the shipper. Terms and conditions are shown on reverse.
  • Document of Title: the Bill of Lading is a document of title of the goods described. Thanks to its negotiable nature, the B/L can be transferred from one party to another by endorsement. 

The legitimate holder of the Bill of Lading has the right to obtain from the carrier the delivery of the goods indicated in the title, the right to dispose of the goods and has the possession of the goods, this is a symbolic possession but equivalent to the physical one.

It’s divisible: if the cargo, even during the voyage, is destined for multiple buyers, it would be possible to divide the B/L into several delivery orders, depending on the number of receivers of the goods.


How is the Bill of Lading filled out?


The fields typically filled out in most Bills of Lading are as follows: 

    • Shipper: e.g. name and address of the exporter or the freight forwarder;
    • Consignee: e.g. name and address of the importer or the freight forwarder. If this field shows “to the order” or “to the order of…” the B/L is negotiable;
    • Notify Party: name and address of the party (or of the parties) to be notified when the cargo arrives at destination that could be different from the consignee;
  • Booking number: a unique numeric or alphanumeric code assigned by the shipping company;
  • B/L number: a unique alphanumeric code assigned by the shipping company;
    • Vessel and voyage: name and specific voyage number of the ship;
    • Port of loading: the port where goods have been loaded onto the vessel;
    • Port of discharge: the port where goods will be unloaded from the vessel;
    • Place of receipt (for combined shipment only): the location where the goods were received for shipment;
    • Place of delivery (for combined shipment only): the final destination where the goods will be delivered;
  • Container number: the unique identifier for the container holding the goods;
  • Seal number: the unique number of the seal (or the seals) securing the container;
  • Marks and No.: identifying marks and numbers on the cargo;
  • Description of the goods and packages: detailed description of the goods being shipped;
    • Gross weight: the weight of the goods including packaging;
    • Measurement: the volume of the goods including packaging;
    • Shipped on board date: this date, if present, indicates that it is a Bill of Lading and not a Received for Shipment B/L;
  • Place and date of issue: location and date when the bill of lading was issued.


What is the Sea Waybill?


Unlike the Bill of Lading, the Sea Waybill (or Express B/L) is not a document of title representing the goods. The Sea Waybill, which is always named and never to the order, is issued without original copies: only non-negotiable copies exist.

The Sea Waybill is mainly used to speed up the procedures for the delivery of goods at destination. Typically, it is used when there is a trust relationship between sender and receiver, when goods are shipped between companies of the same group, and by freight forwarders who act as shippers and consignees with their respective offices or support agents at the origin and destination.


The functions of the Sea Waybill


The Sea Waybill performs the following functions:

  • Receipt for goods: the Sea Waybill serves as confirmation that the goods have been received by the carrier;
  • Shipment’s contract: this document constitutes legal proof of the contract of carriage between the carrier and the shipper. Terms and conditions are shown on reverse.

The Sea Waybill:

  • Is used to speed up the procedures and delivery times at the port of arrival;
  • Is usually issued when there are shipments which payment of goods is not bound;
  • Is always issued to a specific name (Consignee field);
  • Is not a negotiable document;
  • May not need to be presented by the legitimate consignee for the release of the shipment (payment of expenses to shipping company, a document proving to be the importer and the customs papers will suffice).


Sea Waybill vs Bill of Lading: a detailed comparison


Considering the different features and functions, the difference between the Bill of Lading and Sea Waybill should already be clear. However, in the following table, we try to make a final comparison between the two documents related to ocean shipments:

Feature Bill of Lading Sea Waybill
Document of Title Yes No
Negotiation Yes Not negotiable
Release of goods Physical document needed The physical document may not be necessary
Originals Yes  No, only non-negotiable copies
Bureaucratic procedure More complex Less complex
Delivery timing Longer Shorter
Administrative costs Higher Lower






It is evident that the Bill of Lading and Sea Waybill offer different advantages and disadvantages, therefore the choice of the most appropriate document depends on a careful evaluation of the specific needs related to the individual shipment. In this regard, if you need the advice of experts in the field, you can rely on the international shipping services offered by Savino Del Bene.

With great experience in the field of maritime shipping services and more, we are a reliable partner for your business: with us, you can count on customized solutions that perfectly adapt to your needs. Contact your local Savino Del Bene expert.

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