The air waybill

An air waybill (AWB) is a standard form distributed by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) that accompanies goods shipped by an international air courier to provide information about the shipment and allow it to be tracked. The bill has multiple copies, so that each party involved in the shipment can document it.

An AWB serves as a receipt of goods by an airline (the carrier), as well as a contract of carriage between the shipper and the carrier. It becomes an enforceable contract when the shipper (or shipper’s agent) and carrier (or carrier’s agent) both sign the document. 

The AWB contains:

  • the shipper’s name and address
  • the consignee’s name and address
  • the origin airport code
  • the destination airport code
  • the declared shipment value for customs
  • the number of pieces
  • the gross weight
  • a description of the goods
  • any special instructions (e.g., “perishable”)
  • the carrier’s terms and conditions and charges.

There are two types of AWBs – an airline-specific one and a neutral one. Each airline’s air waybill must include the carrier’s name, head office address, logo and air waybill number. Neutral air waybills have the same layout and format as airline AWB but aren’t prepopulated.

There are two further types of air waybills: the master AWB and the house AWB.

A master airway bill (MAWB) details the complete information of the consignment, including the place of origin, destination and cost of the shipment. Most importantly, it is issued by the agent on behalf of the airline.

A master air waybill has 11 numbers and comes with eight copies, in varying colours. Since 2010, paper air waybills are no longer required. The ‘e-AWB’ has been in use since 2010 and became the default contract for all air cargo shipments on enabled trade lines in 2019.

A house airway bill (HAWB) is released by a freight agent and serves as proof that the goods have been received by the customer. A HAWB provides two benefits to the customer – it serves as proof of receipt of the goods and is evidence of an agreement between both parties. The HAWB clearly states the terms and conditions and should be read by both parties carefully. Bear in mind that HAWB is not the document title. Most importantly, only one copy of a HAWB is issued, while the airline or the agent releases seven copies of a MAWB (of the total eight copies available).

A HAWB does not have a long verification code like the MAWB ‘s 11-digit code. The first three digits is a prefix, while the rest of the numbers are used to keep track of the consignment.

View and download examples of a Master AWB and House AWB here.


 Master air waybillHouse air waybill
Issued byCarrier
(e.g. airline, shipping line or groupage service)
Forwarding company
(e.g. Kuehne Nagel)
Issued on
Carrier's pre-printed air waybill formStandard air waybill form
Signed byCarrier or their agentForwarding agent
(carrier not stated)
IATA rulesApplyMay or may not apply
T&CsCarriage T&Cs statedForwarder's T&Cs stated
ReferencesMAWB numberMAWB & HAWB number

Available to download here.


The bill of lading

A bill of lading (B/L or BoL) is used for sea shipments.

It is a legal document issued by a carrier to a shipper that details the type, quantity and destination of the goods being carried.

A text box describes the three functions of a bill of lading: acting as a document of title to goods; as a receipt for the shipped products; as a representation of the agreed terms and conditions for the transportation of goods

A bill of lading also serves as a shipment receipt when the carrier delivers the goods to a predetermined destination. This document must accompany the shipped products and must be signed by an authorised representative from the carrier, shipper and receiver.


A bill of lading is a legally binding document that provides the carrier and shipper with the necessary details to accurately process a shipment.

BoLs usually carry the name of a specific person (consignee). This is called a “straight bill of lading” and means that the person to whom the shipment is being delivered is the only person who can sign for and accept the shipment. This bill of lading is non-transferrable.

View and download a Bill of lading here.


The waybill

A waybill is an official shipping document that travels with a shipment, identifies its shipper, transporter and consignee, origin and destination, describes the goods and shows their weight and freight. See above for more details on how to use the waybill copies.

The standard IFRC waybill form is available here and at the end of this section.


The CMR

A CMR is a waybill used in international road transportation. It is an abbreviation of a French term: “Convention relative au contrat de transport international de marchandises par route”.  

If goods are being transported internationally by road within the European Economic Area, you must use a CMR note. At least three original copies are required, which are signed by both the freight carrier and the sender.

See link for members of the CMR convention – shipments by road from Europe to these countries (and back) require CMR letters. The CMR forms a contract between the sender and the carrier company and confirms that the carrier has received the goods. It also sets out the transport and liability conditions between the two parties.

The following details are part of the CMR waybill:

  • place and date of issue
  • address and name of sender
  • address and name of carrier
  • place and date of acquisition of the goods, and place of delivery
  • name and address of recipient
  • definition of the type of goods, as well as the type of packaging
  • the quantity and sequence of the packages (“box 1 of 22” for example)
  • the weight and dimensions of each box
  • statement of costs (for example, for freight, tariffs, extra charges, etc)
  • instructions for handling tariffs, and for other official regulations
  • the agreement that all transports must conform to conventions, even if contents differ
  • mention of the prohibition of transhipment
  • the costs carried by the sender
  • the collection fees at delivery
  • exact information about the value of the transport goods
  • all handling specifications from the sender to the carrier, for insurance
  • the time limit by which the transport must be completed
  • a list of all documents handed to the carrier.

The colour-coding and disposal of the CMR consignment not is explained here.


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Local transportation is often required in countries where the national market can supply goods for the purpose of the ongoing programmes, in which case transport is from market to distribution point, with potential transit through a local warehouse (also known as ‘primary distribution’).

Local transportation is also required when goods have been delivered in country at a central warehouse and need to be further distributed to smaller regional or local warehouses, or distribution points. Sometimes these delivery points are served by a single transport movement; this is called “secondary distribution”.

A flowchart shows the difference between primary distribution and secondary distribution using local transportation. Primary is when transport is from market to distribution point and secondary is when goods need to be shipped from central warehouses to local ones or distribution points

Primary distribution

Primary distribution is usually straightforward and can be organised either by the selling party or the buyer of the goods.

For fragile loads, refrigerated goods or controlled supplies (chemicals, drugs, etc.) it is often better to leave the organisation of the transport to the seller, who will have a better understanding of the safety or regulatory requirements and a knowledgeable network of transporters.

For general supplies with no specific requirement, the buyer can organise transportation, either mobilising their own resources or outsourced fleet (rented trucks or chartered flights, for example).


Secondary distribution

Secondary distribution often requires more in-depth planning, to avoid wastage of time and resources.

Optimisation factors will include:

  • Route definition: sequencing the deliveries in a way that minimises the use of fuel and lead times.
  • Vehicle load: load in order of distribution, to minimise offloading time.
  • Local context: considering labour laws and security rules (maximum number of hours worked, curfews).
  • Safety and security: planning for safe overnight arrangements when the distribution route spans several days.

Specifics of international movements

International movements involve transportation from the origin country to the destination country, via ports, roads, airports or train stations.

Moving goods internationally will require interventions of third parties such as customs officials, clearing agents who may be required to support the customs clearance process, and freight forwarders who may be needed in case the sending or receiving party cannot supply the necessary vehicles.

A flowchart explains the use of international transportation including using third party providers and the terms and conditions needed

International shipments are usually arranged as part of the sourcing or contracting process under specific terms and conditions, commonly known as incoterms, or International Commerce Terms. Click here to access a guide to Incoterms and a summary table.

Incoterms are defined by the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) and are a series of pre-defined commercial terms that ensure sellers, shippers and buyers have a shared understanding of the commercial terms governing the commercial transactions they enter.

The agreed-upon incoterm will determine several conditions of the sale but most importantly, it will define who has responsibility (over costs and process) of:

  • preparing the consignment for export (palletising, labelling, marking, wrapping, etc)
  • carrying the consignment from seller to point of departure (port or airport)
  • arranging and booking transportation services
  • insuring the goods – up to which point will the goods be covered by the seller’s insurance and from which point will they be covered by the buyer’s insurance?
  • loading the goods at point of departure and offloading at point of arrival
  • clearing the goods through customs at point of arrival
  • transporting the goods from point of arrival to point of delivery
  • offloading at point of delivery
  • defining when the ownership of the goods transfers from the supplier to the buyer
  • clarification of who carries responsibility for payment of import duties, taxes, etc.

Planning for all of the above and selecting the right incoterm will avoid surprises during the transportation of the goods.

For a list of the most up-to-date incoterms, see the ICC website or the incoterms guide or summary table.

A diagram shows what Incoterms define responsibility for, which includes packing, booking transportation, insurance, loading, clearing, offloading, ownership transfer and payment of duties and taxes

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