What Is a Bill of Lading?

What Is a Bill of Lading?

The bill of lading (BOL) is a critical part of all freight shipping because it is essentially evidence of the contract between you and your carrier or freight broker. Your shipment, whether you are using less than load (LTL) shipping, intermodal shipping, or ocean freight, will not be shipped without a bill of lading.

In this article, we will answer all of your questions concerning a bill of lading, from what exactly it is, to what is written on it, to the correct way to read it, and any other details you will need to know about your bill of lading before you ship your package.

Bill of Lading Definition

So what does BOL mean? The bill of lading is a necessary document for freight shipment and is filled out by the shipper and given to the carrier at pickup. It could be considered a receipt, proof of the contract between the shipper and the carrier. It is legally binding and contains all of the details required to process and invoice a freight shipment.

The bill of lading contains pertinent information regarding the shipment including, but not limited to: order numbers, contact information, pickup/delivery addresses, billing information, NMFC code, freight class, item count, weight and dimensions of the package, a detailed description, and any special instructions the shipper deems relevant.

Who Issues the Bill of Lading?

Who issues the bill of lading? A BOL is generally issued by the broker, carrier, or broker and it is your job to fill out the bill of lading details on the blank BOL form. Some freight services will allow you to make your own BOL for LTL shipments, but for (full truckload) FTL shipments, the shippers almost always use their own BOL.

Sample Freight Bill of Lading

Sample Freight Bill of Lading

Bill of Lading Information - How to Read a BOL

What does all of this bill of lading information actually mean? Here’s a quick look at the details you should know to help you read a BOL:

  • Names and addresses: The names and addresses of the shipper and receiver (consignee) should be legible and clearly visible.
  • Purchase orders or reference numbers: These will be required at pick up and delivery of the freight.
  • Special instructions: This is the place to write specifications and instructions for the carrier. However, these instructions should not be extra service requests like delivery notifications.
  • Date: This is the date that a consignee can expect to receive their shipment and might be used to reconcile shipping invoices or as a reference to track the freight.
  • Description of items: This includes dimensions, weight, density, information regarding the materials and their makeup, and quantity of goods.
  • Packaging type: Include whether you are using cartons, crates, drums, and/or pallets for the shipment.
  • NMFC freight class: Freight class impacts how much your freight shipment will cost. Shipments are classified into one of 18 classes based on density, handling, liability, and stowability.
  • Department of Transportation hazardous material designation: any hazardous materials within the shipment must be cited, and there will be specific handling requirements.
  • BOL number: given by the BOL issuer.

What Needs to Be on a Bill of Lading

There are a few necessary things that a bill of lading includes. As discussed above, the freight BOL must have a delivery address so that the carrier knows where to deliver the freight. The freight BOL must also include the number of items and the total weight of the shipment. It might seem obvious, but don’t forget to include what you are actually shipping or the commodity. Also, freight BOL has to have the necessary billing information.

Obviously, there are not the only details that need to be included on the BOL, but they are the minimum, unless the shipment is LTL, in which case you will also need the freight class. If this information is not on the BOL, the freight will not be picked up and you will face extra costs from the carrier.

How Is a BOL Issued?

A BOL is issued for each truckload, container, or shipment, but is also determined by the specific requirements you have as a shipper. It can depend on the types of goods you are shipping, the letter of credit, and the purchase order, as well as other factors.

Every shipment is unique and there is not always one BOL per shipment, like one truckload with two BOLs because of the specifics of the shipment. There is also the possibility that three truckloads could have just one BOL.

Different Types of Bill of Lading

Different Types of Bill of Lading

Different BOLs have different terms within their contract and are needed for different shipping situations and scenarios. The list below explains the 18 types of bill of lading that are most commonly used and their different terms.

1. Master bill of lading

This BOL is issued by the trucking company, shipping line, or whomever owns the transport vessel being used for the shipment. This BOL is also used between the freight broker and carrier.

2. House bill of lading

This BOL is given to clients by the broker, forwarder, or the non-vessel operating common carrier (NVOCC). This BOL is also known as a forwarder’s bill of lading.

3. Open bill of lading

This BOL specifies that if the consignee signs off, then the shipment can be transferred from one consignee to a different, predetermined consignee. This BOL is also known as a negotiable bill of lading.

4. Order bill of lading

This BOL is restricted to being delivered to someone predetermined by the shipper. The bill of lading must be verified by the agent responsible for the delivery. This BOL is the most commonly used worldwide.

5. Bearer bill of lading

This BOL dictates that the shipment should be delivered to whoever has the BOL and the consignee can be unspecified and negotiated later at delivery. This BOL is used for bulk shipments that are sent out in small quantities.

6. Straight bill of lading

This BOL is also known as a non-negotiable bill of lading. The shipment is consigned to one specific party and when claiming ownership of the delivery, neither the endorsee nor the endorser is prioritized. The consignee has to pay in advance of receiving the shipment and may, depending on the laws of the destination, be required to have the original bill upon receipt.

7. Received for shipment bill of lading

This temporary BOL is issued when a transport vessel is late. It confirms that the cargo has been received but not necessarily loaded onto the transport vehicle or ship yet. When the shipment has been loaded, it is replaced by a Shipped BOL.

8. Shipped bill of lading

This BOL is issued when the package is already onboard the vessel to bind the carrier with the vessel owner.

9. Ocean bill of lading

This BOL is transported both nationally and internationally, using ocean freight.

10. Inland bill of lading

This BOL is used for domestic shipments delivered only on land (rail or road).

11. Airway bill of lading

This non-negotiable BOL is issued by the air freight forwarder or company.

12. Clean bill of lading

The BOL states that the shipment has been loaded into the vessel in good condition and that the packaging and goods cannot be declared defective. If the packaging and/or goods do end up being damaged or incorrect, it can be replaced by a Dirty BOL.

13. Dirty bill of lading

This BOL contains a clause that states that the condition of the shipment can be declared “dirty” if there is significant damage to the packaging, broken cargo, the incorrect quantity of goods, etc.

14. Through bill of lading

This BOL is considered a legal document that allows the shipment to be passed from one distribution center to another, through international and domestic borders, and between different modes of transport. An Ocean or Inland BOL might also be necessary, depending on the shipment’s final destination.

15. Combined transport bill of lading

This BOL is used when there are two or more modes of transport for this shipment. This BOL is also referred to as the multimodal transport BOL.

16. Direct bill of lading

This BOL is used for cargo that is meant to be both picked up and delivered by the same vehicle or vessel.

17. Stale bill of lading

This BOL is considered “stale” if the shipment arrives at the port before the BOL itself.

18. Surrender bill of lading

This BOL is issued to an importer by an exporter to signify that once the cargo is received, the ownership has been transferred.

Why Is it Important to Use The Correct Bill of Lading?

A BOL contains details and terms that are necessary to ensure your freight shipment goes smoothly. Using a correct bill of lading will allow you to evade unnecessary challenges like extra freight charges and avoid timing issues like the items being delivered to the wrong addresses.


Freight shipping with Cowtown Express means always meeting all the necessary documentation requirements. We will make sure that your shipments are cared for, from first pick up to final delivery. If you’re looking for high quality freight shipping services, contact us at Cowtown Express for a quote.

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