Methods of Payment in International Trade: Letters of Credit

David Noah | August 19, 2019 | Export Finance
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Methods of Payment in International Trade | Shipping SolutionsOne of the most important international trade considerations is how you are going to get paid for your exports. While relying on cash up front may eliminate the risk of non-payment, it limits your universe of potential customers since it can cause cash flow and other problems for the buyers.

There are five primary methods of payment in international trade that range from most to least secure. Of course, the most secure method for the exporter is the least secure method for the importer and vice versa. They key is striking the right balance for both sides. This article focuses on letters of credit.

The Advantages of a Letter of Credit

Letters of credit (LCs) are one of the most versatile and secure instruments available to international traders. An LC is a commitment by a bank on behalf of the importer (foreign buyer) that payment will be made to the beneficiary (exporter) provided that the terms and conditions stated in the LC have been met, as evidenced by the presentation of specified documents.

Since LCs are credit instruments, the importer's credit with their bank is used to obtain an LC. The importer pays the bank a fee to render this service.

An LC is useful when reliable credit information about a foreign buyer is difficult to obtain or if the foreign buyer's credit is unacceptable, but the exporter is satisfied with the creditworthiness of the importer's bank.

This method also protects the importer since the documents required to trigger payment provide evidence that goods have been shipped as agreed. However, because LCs have opportunities for discrepancies, which may negate payment to the exporter, documents should be prepared by trained professionals.

Discrepant documents, literally not having an "i dotted and t crossed," may negate the bank's payment obligation. That's why many export companies utilize export documentation and compliance software to ensure their export paperwork is accurate and complete.

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Understanding a Letter of Credit

An LC, also referred to as a documentary credit, is a contractual agreement whereby the issuing bank (importer's bank), acting on behalf of the customer (the importer or buyer), promises to make payment to the beneficiary or exporter against the receipt of complying stipulated documents. The issuing bank will typically use intermediary banks to facilitate the transaction and make payment to the exporter.

The LC is a separate contract from the sales contract on which it is based; therefore, the banks are not concerned with the qualify of the underlying goods or whether each party fulfills the terms of the sales contract.

The bank's obligation to pay is solely conditioned upon the seller's compliance with the terms and conditions of the LC. In LC transactions, banks deal in documents only, not goods.

LCs can be arranged easily for one-time transactions between the exporter and importer or used for an ongoing series of transactions.

Unless the conditions of the LC state otherwise, it is always irrevocable, which means the document may not be changed or cancelled unless the importer, banks and exporter agree.

Confirmed Letter of Credit

A greater degree of protection is afforded to the exporter when an LC issued by a foreign bank (the importer's issuing bank) is confirmed by a U.S. bank.

The exporter asks its customer to have the issuing bank authorize a bank in the exporter's country to confirm (this bank is typically the advising bank, which then becomes the confirming bank). Confirmation means that the U.S. bank adds its engagement to pay the exporter to that of the foreign bank. If an LC is not confirmed, the exporter is subject to the payment risk of the foreign bank and the political risk of the importing country.

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Exporters should consider getting confirmed LCs if they are concerned about the credit standing of the foreign bank or when they are operating in a high-risk market where political upheaval, economic collapse, devaluation, or exchange controls could put the payment at risk. Exporters should also consider getting confirmed LCs when importers are asking for extended payment terms.

The Letter of Credit Process

There are typically seven steps that occur in order to get paid using a letter of credit:

  1. The importer arranges for the issuing bank to open an LC in favor of the exporter.

  2. The issuing bank transmits the LC to the nominated bank, which forwards it to the exporter.

  3. The exporter forwards the goods and documents to a freight forwarder.

  4. The freight forwarder dispatches the goods and either the dispatcher or the exporter submits documents to the nominated bank.

  5. The nominated bank checks documents for compliance with the LC and collects payments from the issuing bank for the exporter.

  6. The importer's account at the issuing bank is debited.

  7. The issuing bank releases documents to the importer to claim the goods from the carrier and to clear them at customs.

Special Letters of Credit

Letters of credit can take many forms. When an LC is made transferable, the payment obligation under the original LC can be transferred to one or more second beneficiaries. With a revolving LC, the issuing bank restores the credit to its original amount each time it is drawn down.

A standby LC is not intended to serve as the means of payment for goods but can be drawn in the even of a contractual default, including the failure of an importer to pay invoices when due. Similarly, standby LCs are often posted by exporters in favor of an importer because they can serve as bid bonds, performance bonds, and advance payment guarantees. In addition, standby LCs are often used as counter guarantees against the provision of down payments and progress payments on the part of foreign buyers.

Final Tips for Exporters

Before you start using letters of credit for your exports, here are some final suggestions to help you get started:


This article is taken in large part from the Trade Finance Guide: A Quick Reference for U.S. Exporters, which you can download for free by clicking the link below.

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