The International Trade Blog arrow Export Compliance

How Exporters Do Documentation, AES and FTAs [Survey Data]

On: April 17, 2024    |    By: Kari Crane Kari Crane    |    6 min. read

How Exporters Do Documentation, AES and FTAs [Survey Data]Exporting opens doors to exciting opportunities, but the details—documentation, compliance, AES, shipping regulations, FTAs—can quickly turn excitement into frustration. Have you ever wondered if you, as an exporter, are doing it right?

Our recent survey explored how exporters navigate these key aspects of doing business internationally, and we're sharing the results because we think they offer valuable insights into the real-world practices other companies have in place. The data will help you understand where you stand on the exporting map.

We already told you about the top challenges facing exporters, according to our survey. Today’s article focuses on questions about export documentation and filing through the Automated Export System (AES). In future articles, we'll share insights across other key areas, including compliance, logistics and Incoterms.

Make sure you're using the right export documents. Download the free  Beginner's Guide to Export Forms.

The Export Documentation Process

Navigating export documentation can be daunting, and the preferred method often evolves with experience and volume. Our survey revealed that:

  • 50% rely on manual templates: This offers affordability and control but can be time-consuming and prone to errors.
  • 34% use software solutions: These can automate tasks, improve accuracy and save time, but require some investment. (Often there are varying price points depending on how many exports you ship per month.)
  • 12% trust their freight forwarder: This frees up internal resources but involves relying on external expertise and comes with fees. Remember, as the exporter you’re liable for any mistakes.
  • 3% depend on the customer: While convenient, this carries risks due to potential incomplete or incorrect information, especially when relying on an international customer.

The optimal approach depends on your specific needs, resources and comfort level. If you're interested in Survey Results Graphics (800 x 3000 px) (1)exploring software solutions like Shipping Solutions to streamline your documentation process, we’d love to show you how we can help you save time and money and reduce errors. (If you’re sticking with the manual way of doing things for now, download free templates of the most common export forms here.)

The Essential Export Documents

What documents are the bread and butter of export compliance? The survey identified the commercial invoice and packing list as the most frequently used documents, with 89% and 85% of respondents, respectively, relying on them. (Honestly, we wonder why those numbers aren’t closer to 100%! Both documents are at the top of the 11 Documents Required for Exporting and should be used for almost every export transaction.)  

Other commonly used documents include:

  • Certificate of Origin (68%): Verifies the origin of goods, often required for claiming preferential duty rates under Free Trade Agreements.
  • Shipper’s Letter of Instruction (60%): Provides detailed instructions to the freight forwarder for handling the shipment.
  • Proforma Invoice (41%): Provides a preliminary cost estimate and product details, often used for obtaining import licenses or securing financing.
  • Air Waybill (41%): A contract of carriage used for air shipments.
  • Inland Bill of Lading (29%): Evidence of a contract of carriage between the exporter and the shipper of the goods that states where the goods are going; it also serves as your receipt that the goods have been picked up.
  • Dangerous Goods Form (27%): Mandatory for shipments containing hazardous materials.
  • Ocean Bill of Lading (25%): A crucial document for ocean freight, acting as a receipt, contract of carriage and title document.
  • Bank Draft (9%): A guaranteed payment method often used in international trade due to its security and reliability.
  • Certificate of Free Sale (8%): Certifies that a product meets health, safety and quality standards set by the importing country.

Remember, specific document requirements can vary depending on your destination country, so make sure you know the regulations before shipping. If you’re not sure if you’re using the correct document, read The Beginner’s Guide to Export Forms.

Most-Used Free Trade Agreements

Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) offer exporters significant advantages, including reduced tariffs and streamlined customs procedures. Our survey showed that the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) reigns supreme, with 69% of respondents using it to enhance their competitiveness. No other FTA came close, but these are the other most-used U.S. FTAs:

Claiming preference under an FTA is complex, so we weren’t surprised to learn that 22% said they don’t use FTAs at all. If you’re in this group, our free whitepaper How to Qualify for a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) could convince you to reconsider. We explain the process step-by-step.

Download Free PDF -> How to Qualify for a Free Trade Agreement (FTA)

AES: Who Does the Filing?

The Automated Export System (AES) plays a crucial role in export compliance. Our survey asked who typically completes AES filings at their company: 

  • 54% rely on their freight forwarder.
  • 34% handle the filing themselves.
  • 5% use another third party. 

Be aware that you can outsource the responsibility for your AES filings, but not the liability. You should always request a copy of the AES filing from your forwarder to ensure its accuracy. Better yet, do the filling yourself through export documentation and compliance software like Shipping Solutions. That way, the same data you entered to complete your export documents is easily uploaded to AESDirect on the Automated Commercial Environment (ACE) Portal. This method eliminates redundant data entry, which reduces mistakes and provides substantial cost savings. Some Shipping Solutions customers say they recouped their investment in the software in less than 10 export shipments.

Download this step-by-step guide: Filing Your Export Shipments through the  Automated Export System

Other Insights from Exporters

This article provides a glimpse into how exporters handle documentation and AES filing, but our survey unveiled much more. Watch for future articles on survey results related to export compliance, logistics, Incoterms and more. 

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Kari Crane

About the Author: Kari Crane

Kari Crane is the editor of Passages: The International Trade Blog. Kari joined Shipping Solutions after working as an editor, writer and designer at a major market newspaper in Texas. Kari has spent her career finding different ways to tell stories and make complex topics easy-to-understand, so she loves helping importers and exporters understand how to navigate the complex world of international trade.

Are you sure you’re using the right documents for your exports?

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