What is a Bill of Lading?

Allison Champion
5 min read
August 8, 2018
Modified: March 20, 2023

Every package larger than an envelope that has ever been shipped has included a bill of lading, however, if shipping freight isn’t a part of your daily life then you are perhaps unfamiliar with a bill of lading, what it does and why they are so important.

A bill of lading is a simple piece of paper, but it is a very important simple piece of paper that ensures every package you order arrives at your door.

What is a Bill of Lading?

A bill of lading (BOL) is a required shipping document that must be included in every shipment larger than a letter envelope.

The bill of lading acts as a shipment manifest as well as a receipt for delivered goods between the freight carrier, the shipper, and the consignee (person, address or business to which the freight is delivered.)

A bill of lading is also a legally binding contract that provides the freight carrier and the driver with all of the shipping and special freight details that ensure the freight is delivered to the right address, at the right time and includes all of the undamaged individual freight pieces.

Who is Responsible for the Bill of Lading?

The shipper is generally the party that is responsible for creating a bill of lading for each shipment that leaves their freight dock, in fact, ensuring that a bill of lading is created for every shipment is a critical job for all shipping operations.

Without a signed bill of lading, there is nothing to confirm the contents of the freight, how much of it there is and whether it arrived in whole.

Freight carriers will outright refuse to move any freight without the appropriate bill of lading because the bill of lading, besides acting as a receipt, also ensures the correct order of liability should anything happen to the freight during the shipping process.

Once the freight is loaded, and the BOL signed by the dock manager and driver, the freight is legally in the custody of the freight carrier until it has been offloaded and the BOL signed by the receiving dock manager.

What Does A Freight Bill of Lading Include?

A bill of lading is a useless piece of paper if it doesn’t include the specific information that ensures the shipments successful delivery, or at least which party is liable should anything other than a successful delivery occurs.

Shipper & Consignee Name & Address- It’s simple and obvious but also important.

Every BOL needs to include the name of the individual or business shipping the freight as well as the individual or business who is to receive it.

The ship-from and delivery addresses needed to be clearly labeled, correct and verified before signing the BOL and turning over liability of the freight to the driver.

Should an address be incorrect, it is the shipper who is liable for the missed delivery, not the carrier or the consignee.

Contacts & Contact Phone Numbers- A bill of lading should also include the shipping and delivery contacts as well as their phone numbers so the carrier can confirm addresses, call for directions, and make a shipping or delivery appointment.

The BOL should also include emergency, and after-hours contacts, so the carrier knows whom to contact should an issue arise.

Purchase/Reference Numbers- There are a lot of numbers and reference numbers involved in shipping anything.

The shipper will have their own referencing system for the freight they ship. In most cases so will the consignee. The carrier will also most likely issue their own BOL number for their reference, which means there are a lot of references, PO, and shipping numbers that need to be included in the BOL if it is to be shipped and received successfully.

When generating a BOL, it is always a good idea to include more information than you might need rather than omit important information. If there is a product or reference number, include it in the BOL.

Special Shipping & Handling Instructions– Unless the freight you are shipping is indestructible it probably includes special shipping and handling instructions.

All special instructions regarding freight handling, delivery, and scheduling should be included in the bill of lading.

Date Shipped- The bill of lading must also include the date the shipment left the freight dock. This is to ensure that the freight carrier heads directly to the consignee and takes only the required amount of time to deliver.

The majority of freight shipped over the road is refrigerated with a shelf life. The ship date on the BOL ensures that the consignee is aware of how long the freight was on the truck, and how much shelf life it still has.

Packaging Type- The bill of lading must also include the manner in which the freight is packaged.

This ensures proper handling during the shipping process and that the freight is not loaded in a manner that can damage its packaging or the packaging of other shipments.

Shipment Method/Mode- This is where you specify to all involved parties the method in which the freight is to be shipped, often referred to as the shipment mode. Shipment modes include:

  • Air
  • Less than Truckload (LTL)
  • Full Truckload (FTL)
  • Sea Freight
  • Intermodal (Train)
  • Standard Mail
  • Expedited Delivery
  • etc.

Department of Transportation Hazardous Material Designation– The bill of lading is also where the shipper is to designate whether the shipment includes hazardous material.

Authorizing Signatures– Arguably the most important aspect of the BOL is the authorizing signatures that transfer freight liability from the shipper to driver, then the driver to the consignee.

A BOL is not valid unless signed, verifying that the shipment is undamaged and in one piece when it is loaded on the truck, in transit, and at final delivery. Freight carriers will outright refuse to move any freight without the appropriate bill of lading.

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Written By:

flowspace author Allison Champion

Allison Champion

Allison Champion leads marketing communication at Flowspace, where she works to develop content that addresses the unique challenges facing modern brands in omnichannel eCommerce. She has more than a decade of experience in content development and marketing.