You have a cargo of goods you need to get from one country to another. How do you go about planning your shipment?

This guide will give you the basics of what you need to do to get your goods where they need to go: we’ll walk you through every step along the way. Mr. Jack Fong, our CEO, drafted this comprehensive, easy-to-follow guide way back in the late 90s, and it is popular with clients, missionaries, and other shippers to this day. So let’s get started!

Don’t be intimidated. Feel free to call or email us if you have any questions!

› Introduction

“And how shall they preach unless they are sent?”

Romans 10:15

International shipping has a reputation for being daunting. Especially to a small or first-time shipper, it can be confusing to know where to start or what to do. How does a shipment even work, you might ask?


The number one key to a successful shipment is a plan. In your mind, start at the destination and work backwards. This helps you can identify what you need to do now, at the beginning of your project, and create a schedule of deadlines by which to accomplish these tasks. Some key things to plan for include a local budget, permits, who’ll pick the shipment up, and so on.

Afterwards, you draft the documentation and send it to your chosen freight forwarder. With over 60 years of experience, Missionary Expediters is a good choice! We’ll walk you through what you’ll need.

After the documents are drawn up, it’s time to prepare the shipment for transportation. This includes packing, sealing, and delivery to the load point. How you’ll prepare your shipment varies depending on your mode of shipping: typically air or ocean freight.

At this point, your cargo is on board the ship and shipping across the skies or ocean, maybe with various stopovers on the way, towards its destination. We’ll help you select the right ports and paths to align with your shipping needs, as well as your budget.

Once it arrives, it has to clear customs. Usually some form of onward carriage is also required, unless your consignee (receiving party) can pick it up at the discharge port. Various procedures take place here, which we can assist with.

Finally, your shipment gets delivered to the consignee. You let out a sigh of relief, and your partners overseas smile and cheer the arrival of their shipment!

We’ve shipped to destinations as remote as the Maasai tribe of Tanzania

› Planning your shipment

“Prepare thy work without, and make it fit for thyself in the field;
and afterwards build thine house.”

Proverbs 24:27

As you contemplate your shipment, it’s a good idea to plan from the destination backwards. Unless you’ve shipped to that country before, try to become familiar with the customs clearance procedures at your destination. Ask fellow service members, find a customs agent, go to the customs house, or check online. You can call the consul or embassy in your destination country, but the best source of information will be fellow staff or partners in the same country. Many steps will depend on the consignee’s status in the destination country.

Destination Inquiries

As you make contacts and develop a network in your destination, inquire into the following issues:

  • What name or designation is best to receive the shipment? Which entity available to you has the optimal legal status, name value, duty and tax free status for your shipment? Make sure you spell it right, and indicate the full address, email, and phone/fax numbers.
  • What is the best cargo description to use on the shipping documentation, to minimize duties and taxes, and to afford speedy customs clearance?
  • Are there any specific clauses that need to be attached to the description? For example, “Imported under duty exemption franchise no. 7”; “Donation for humanitarian aid”; “Not for resale”
  • Do you recommend a particular customs value that will likely be acceptable, and will minimize the basis of taxes and duties, if exemptions are not obtained or are voided?
  • Does the consignee have the appropriate import permits?
  • Which documents need to be provided by the sender to expedite clearance? (Original Bills of Lading, Declaration of Value, Packing Lists, Letter of Donation, Certificates of Origin, Phytosanitary Certificates, Fumigation Certificates, Purity Statements, etc.)
  • Does the consignee (receiving party) have a customs agent or “contact” in the customs house with whom they have become acquainted?
Physical Considerations

The consignee should think about the physical condition of their shipment and other logistical details:

  • What kind of package will you ship your cargo in? Cartons, boxes, pallets, etc.
  • What is the cubic footage of your shipment? Estimate it to will help determine the mode of shipping. More detailed instructions will be given below.
  • What warehouse, organization, or home will receive the cargo? Indicate their full address and phone/fax numbers, as well as the square footage, height, ingress, egress etc., if available.
  • Is the warehouse equipped to do the necessary cargo handling to unload and accept the cargo in a secure and timely manner, including fork lifts, dollies, hand trucks, manpower, and security?
  • What is the requested time of arrival? Why?
Local Budget

Consider the logistics and customs situation. Does your consignee have the appropriate budget for typical local charges, including but not limited to:

  • Port charges
  • Customs agent
  • Duties and taxes, including import fees
  • Local delivery to the final door from the place of customs clearance: a rail terminal, discharge port, border crossing, etc.
  • Cargo handling at the warehouse (unloading and stowage)

Now that you have considered your shipment from the perspective of the destination, make your plans in the US accordingly, with regards to documentation, contents, packaging, budget, etc.

Take action to gather and procure the cargo, applying the guidelines of this booklet. Make a “working plan” for you and your team. This plan will include two critical documents: Shipping Instructions and the Cargo Inventory.

Proper documentation is key!

› Documentation

“Oh that my words were now written!
Oh that they were printed in a book!”

Job 19:23

Shipping Instructions are a set of written directions that specify how a shipment of goods is to be handled. They include information on the origin and destination of the shipment, the route to be taken, the type of packaging to be used, and any special handling instructions. The Cargo Inventory is used to list all of the items that are being shipped. This document is used to help keep track of the shipment and to make sure that everything arrives at its destination.

We’ll explain each in turn.

Shipping Instructions

To begin, you’ll need to gather the names, addresses, telephone and fax numbers of the:

  • Shipper or exporter of record: you or your organization
  • Consolidation point: where the cargo will be gathered and made load ready
  • Consignee: receiving party at destination
  • Notify Party (if present): an agent, organization, or associate who may represent the consignee at the destination
  • Billing Party: who pays (US only)

Be precise! Avoid nicknames and abbreviations, as this information will appear on the official shipping documentation.

The next most important information is your estimated cargo dimensions. Visualize your cargo, in sealed cartons, stacked in a dense cube. Multiply the longest length, the widest width, and the highest height. The result will be the estimated cubic footage of your cargo, which is key to estimating freight cost.

At this time, with the help of a comprehensive report by one of our Project Expediters, you’ll select a direction plan for the shipment: the budget, mode of shipping and routing (consolidation point, cargo preparation, and carrier). You’ll probably keep updating the Shipping Instructions as things develop, until the final documents submission date.

Cargo Inventory

For the inventory, you’ll need to complete at least these columns:

  • Piece number: how many cartons, vehicles, containers, pallets and so forth are in the shipment (not the number of items within a piece! Three pallets with 1,000 liter cans of vegetable oil apiece has a piece number of 3)
  • Contents in each piece. Don’t detail items less than $50 in value; instead group these items into larger categories (put “kitchen utensils” rather than listing a spatula, whisk, egg beater, ladle, baster, etc.)
  • Customs value for the items under contents. This will be a very low valuation, say “garage sale” levels,  showing full depreciation, obsolescence, etc. Customs value is the basis for taxes and duties overseas, and the higher the value, the more you or your consignee may have to pay.
  • Insurance value for the each item listed under contents. This is whatever value you’ll claim in the event of, say, the loss of a ship (replacement cost, generally)

Keep updating this inventory, including the column totals, as you plan your shipment. The finalized Cargo Inventory form should be sent to Missionary Expediters and will be used to support your insurance coverage.

Now, make another version. Cut off the “Insurance Value” column of the copy. This version should have only the lower customs values. Send this Customs Inventory to the consignee so that they may present it to customs at the destination.

When finalized, send Missionary Expediters three things:

  • Shipping Instructions
  • Cargo Inventory (with insurance values)
  • Customs Inventory (customs values only)

Other documentation may be required. For example, if shipping a vehicle, you’ll need to send four copies of the title, front and back, each one notarized as “true copies” of the original. Your clearance agent or local partner should let you know what you need.

We’ve shipped every kind of cargo in our over half century in business

› Preparation

“In all labour there is profit…”

Proverbs 14:23

It’s time to prepare your shipment for travel! This will include consolidating your cargo at a chosen location, preparing the cargo for travel, packing and stuffing it into containers, and labeling and documentation. With everything in place, your shipment will be ready to begin its journey.

Consolidation Point

A place for consolidating your cargo should be established when your cargo will originate from multiple places, storage may be required, or your cargo needs cargo preparation. If these needs are minimal, you may consider your home/origin as the consolidation point. Otherwise, it may be Missionary Expediters, a church or institution available to you, or another warehouse.

Cost is the main factor in establishing a consolidation point. To minimize cost, we consider the overall routing of your shipment. We also recommend minimal cargo handling. There usually is less overall cargo handling if you consolidate your shipment where the cargo is prepared. For example, if you can prep the cargo yourself at your home/origin, the cargo will not be handled again until it reaches its destination. There is less unloading and loading, and your prepared cargo can be sent directly to the nearest departure port.

For many missionaries and relief agencies, Missionary Expediters’ warehouse at the Port of New Orleans is economical and convenient. The warehouse is always manned and equipped, and it handles all types of cargo preparation. Also, as we’re located in a major seaport, the shipment does not have to undergo yet another long inland transit to a port.

Our warehouse is used because the various items being consolidated are often marked inconsistently and arrive at random times. Other warehouses consider these kind of “oddball” cargoes a nuisance. To ship to your consolidation point, a 40% discount is available on various truck lines if Missionary Expediters is the billing party. Call to find out more!

The consolidation point involves these services:

  • Unvanning (unloading the truck and forklifting into the warehouse)
  • Cargo preparation (see Cargo Preparation)
  • Storage
  • Vanning (pulling out of warehouse and loading the truck/container)
Cargo Preparation

The type of cargo preparation that is necessary depends on how the cargo is shipped. According to your estimated cubic footage, weight, and schedule, Missionary Expediters will recommend the best mode of shipping, typically air or ocean freight. Ocean freight is usually done in 20′ or 40′ containers or LCL (less than container loads): pallets, wood boxes, drums, etc.

Your shipment must be prepared for acceptance by the carrier (shipping line). At the consolidation point, the cargo may be palletized & wrapped, boxed, placed in steel drums, or loaded into containers.

Packing and Stuffing

If you chose to prepare the cargo yourself, the first step is to pack all items in sealed cartons (large pieces may be wrapped). This may also involve reconditioning new appliances (to look used), labelling, sorting items, knocking down bulky items, wrapping brittle things, etc. Certain items may be corrosive, flammable, explosive, poisonous, toxic, etc. Let us know and we’ll advise you.

For all packing and stuffing, apply common sense. Heavy items go on the bottom, light items on top. Stack pieces tightly to avoid sliding, rattling, shifting and rocking. Avoid “packing” empty air space.

To load a container, you’ll need to be able to lift your cargo off the ground. Under ‘driver wait’ trucking, you must load it within the free time allowed, usually two hours. To have the driver come back a day or two later (a ‘drop and pick’) can be arranged but may cost more.

Therefore, preplan the stowage. The cross section of a container is 90 x 90 in. (7.5 x 7.5 ft). A 20’ unit is 234 inches long and has a volume of 1,100 cubic feet. A 40’ unit is 474 inches long (2,200 cubic feet). Plan to distribute your entire cargo evenly over the entire floor area of the container. Thus, if your cargo cubic footage is 70% of the container’s capacity, stack the cargo at 70% of the container’s height. In this way, the cargo is self-bracing; otherwise, higher cargo will fall on lower cargo.

To load a vehicle into a container, do so from a dock. Do not try to build a ramp! Disconnect the batteries; empty the gas tank; chock the wheels. Leave the keys in ignition to avoid losing them. Lock the container (we recommend a Master No. 1 lock) and record the lock number and container number.

If you make your own wooden boxes, use proper materials and construction. An ideal size is 87 inches long, 44 inches wide, and 87 inches high (inclusive of 4×4 inch runners underneath). To minimize the overall cargo cubic footage, you should reduce from these dimensions and avoid exceeding them. Record the final dimensions, in inches, of each finished wood box, and the estimated gross total weight. Stencil or mark in indelible ink the consignee address on each box. Plan to forklift the boxes onto a truck.

For air freight we recommend sturdy cartons, the size being about as large as a person can carry. Boxes that are too small can “fall through the cracks”. Boxes that are too big can be dropped or mangled by a fork lift.

Cost is based on the greater of actual weight or dimensional weight (cubic inches divided by 166). So, light cargo will be rated on “dimensional weight” if greater than actual weight. This means you should try to pack very tightly, as well as safely. Avoid, if possible, steel drums (which are heavy) and pallets (which exaggerate cubic inches).


Label each piece: consignee, “this way up” arrows, piece numbers. Record actual weights, dimensions in inches, and cubic inches of each piece on the Cargo Inventory. Call or email us with the totals.

Now, the cargo is load ready. Send the final, updated Shipping Instructions and Inventory forms to Missionary Expediters.

If the cargo is in a container, the driver delivering the container will return it. If wood boxes, discounted trucking can be arranged. If air freight, door pickup service is normally available. Sometimes you may choose to move the cargo yourself. In any of these cases Missionary Expediters will make the appropriate arrangements and prepare the forms necessary to forward the finished cargo to the departure port. When the cargo is turned over to the trucker or terminal, be sure to get the recipient’s signature on the forms to acknowledge receipt!

Don’t forget: whatever’s packed will be unpacked! Consider the destination

› Shipping

“Those who go down to the sea in ships,
Who do business on great waters,
They see the works of the LORD,
And His wonders in the deep.”

Psalms 107:23-24

Your shipment is prepped and packaged, the documentation has been filed, and you’re ready to see it on its way. It’s time to consider the journey it will take. It’s a matter of getting it from the departure port, through international carriage, to the arrival port. This will include loading the cargo onto the vessel and securing it for the voyage, possibly transiting through other countries and ports, and finally unloading the cargo at the final destination.

Departure Port

By its choice of routing and carrier, we will have determined the departure port, which can be a:

  • Seaport like Long Beach, Seattle, New York, New Orleans, Charleston, Baltimore, or Milan.
  • Inland terminal like Chicago, Atlanta, or Dallas. Door service is increasingly available from small cities, too.
  • Airport

The departure port is the place where the international carrier takes responsibility of the cargo.

When delivering the cargo to the departure port, the truck driver should present the proper documentation to further direct the cargo’s movement. Missionary Expediters will provide the driver with this paperwork. Besides the trucking costs, there may be a pier delivery charge and a lift charge, depending on the departure port.

Before the cargo can be loaded on board the vessel, you should have provided Missionary Expediters the final details in the Shipping Instructions and Inventory (both versions), containing all the previously listed information: the inventory, values, piece counts, cargo dimensions and weight, container numbers, lock and seal numbers, addresses, special instructions, etc. With these, we can execute the export documentation: Shippers Declaration, Bills of Lading, insurance policy, letters of credit, drafts, customs invoices, packing lists, consular forms, etc.

Please note that the carrier gets paid the freight at this point (“freight prepaid”). It is normal and customary that the freight is payable at the departure port, not at the end of the voyage. If not paid, the carrier will stop the cargo wherever it chooses. The consequences of late payment, transit delay, high costs (demurrage and storage), and possible cargo loss, should at all costs be avoided.

International Carriage

Carriage is the most visible leg of the journey, and the major cost is the freight. For simplification of terms, we consider the myriad costs of items like bunker fuel surcharge, currency adjustment factor, terminal handling charge, wharfage, port congestion charge, security charge, in addition to the freight rate itself, as “freight”.

We shop around regularly to know the best combination of freight, schedule and service. These are considered together with the US inland routing (the choice of consolidation point and the cargo preparation) and foreign inland routing to provide you with the lowest bottom line cost.

Just after the cargo is on board the vessel, the shipping line sends their carrier invoice to Missionary Expediters, who will in turn invoice the billing party for the freight and all the other associated charges (insurance, export documentation and traffic management services, trucking, etc.) These charges cover the movement to the arrival port. From the arrival port, further charges are normally paid by the consignee.

The invoice is payable immediately!

This is customary. Indeed, we encourage advance payment. If not paid, the carrier will not release the Original Bill of Lading (the necessary document with which the consignee claims the cargo). If the consignee cannot claim the cargo, the consignee will then incur storage and demurrage costs at the place of stoppage, and these costs are extremely high.

For voyages with short transits, Missionary Expediters will often require advance payment of a cost estimate to allow an immediate release of the Original Bill of Lading.

Upon release, Missionary Expediters will put together a package of it and other documents deemed necessary for a smooth clearance process at the arrival port. For donated relief cargoes, for example, a letter of donation, a cargo invoice, packing list and other documents like phytosanitary certificates, fumigation certificates, certificate of origin, etc. may be included.

Missionary Expediters typically uses DHL air courier for sending the consignee package to the consignee. The consignee will combine this package with documents he may already have (import permits, customs forms, etc.) At the least for personal effects, there should be an inventory list, a declaration of value, passport, and visa.

Arrival Port

The arrival port is where the international carrier completes its responsibility. This is a normally a seaport, but in some cases may be an inland point (for example, under a “through bill of lading”.)

The arrival port and the carrier will give the consignee only so many days to take their cargo away. Thereafter, storage and demurrage charges accrue. They are costly.

Claiming and clearing the cargo at the arrival port is the responsibility of the consignee, who usually delegates this to an inbound clearing agent. The agent is knowledgeable of the carrier personnel, customs forms and practices, labor union rules, and local trucking firms. Missionary Expediters may be able to assist in finding an inbound agent, but we believe it best that the consignee, who is at the site, meet the agent and check their services and fees firsthand.

From the arrival port, the consignee is responsible to:

  • Claim the cargo from the carrier
  • Clear the cargo through customs
  • Transport the cargo to the final door

The consignee should seek to go through all this without issues. At this step it is much easier to prevent problems through wisdom and advance planning than fix them once they arise.

To claim the cargo from the carrier, the consignee/agent should “chase” after the cargo, rather than just wait for the carrier to send a notice of arrival to the consignee: the carrier is not liable if the consignee is not notified.

On ocean freight shipments, the consignee or agent should already have received the Original Bill of Lading in the consignee package, by which to claim the cargo. If they have not, they should notify Missionary Expediters immediately!

(This is why immediate payment of Missionary Expediters’ invoice is so important. If we don’t receive it we cannot obtain the Original Bill of Lading and forward it to the consignee.)

To clear the cargo through customs, the consignee should be prepared with the duties and documentation requirements (including the consignee package) that were defined at the very beginning.

In customs clearance, flexibility and patience is key. Despite whatever regulations there may be, it often comes down to the individual customs inspector. Be nice!

 You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar

› Delivery

“Ask, and it shall be given you;
seek, and ye shall find;
knock, and it shall be opened unto you.”

Matthew 7:7

After release by the carrier and customs, a local trucking firm is enlisted to make the final delivery of the cargo to the door. If a container, the consignee only has a few free days to unload and return the container. Be sure the trucker returns the empty container to the terminal on time to avoid demurrage charges.

If the final door is in a city different than the arrival port, this leg of the journey can sometimes be regarded as Onward Carriage, discussed below.

The consignee/agent should note any exceptions on the condition of the cargo (like broken locks, crushed boxes, dents, or twisted doors) as the cargo is given over and received from party to party. These exceptions should be recorded on the accompanying documentation (delivery tickets, dock receipts, bills of lading) and signed and dated by both the receiver and the delivering party. Acknowledging these exceptions on documents will help process any claims later on.

If the consignee/agent judges the damage significant enough, a cargo surveyor may be enlisted to validate the losses and damages. This cost will be covered by the marine insurance.

The charges for these activities, from the arrival port onward, are almost always “collect”, paid by the consignee (against the local budget mentioned in the beginning).

Onward Carriage

Onward carriage occurs when the final destination is a city other than the arrival port. The consignee/agent arranges and pays for this transit. If the cargo is a container, they must return the empty container promptly to avoid demurrage charges.

The international carrier may be responsible for the transit under a through bill of lading, where the freight for the inland move is included in the overall freight that was prepaid. Carriers will offer this service if they carry regular cargoes to certain inland points. If customs clearance can be conducted at these inland points, the same discussion under Arrival Port on customs clearance would apply here.

In some cases, even under a through bill of lading, customs clearance must still be done at the seaport. The consignee/agent would complete that process there, and the carrier would then be responsible to deliver the cargo to the onward carriage point.

The international carrier, under a through bill of lading, sometimes must conduct customs procedures to transit the cargo across one country to get to the onward carriage point. The consignee then is obliged to provide requested documentation (normally inventory and customs values) to the carrier so that the carrier can perform those customs procedures.

Final Considerations

The consignee usually makes their own arrangements to unpack the cargo, move the cargo in, and clean up. Keep in touch with them and make sure everything goes well. Once that’s taken care of, you’ve completed the delivery of your shipment and your duties are done. Congratulations!

Ultimately, it’s all about helping others!

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