What is a Commercial Invoice? Definition & When You Need One

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In global trade, mastering the documentation can be as crucial as the trade itself.

One document, in particular, plays a pivotal role in the seamless operation of international transactions – the commercial invoice.

Here, we’ll address common questions and issues with commercial invoices for small business owners, making sure you know how to streamline your dealings.

Key Takeaways

  • Commercial invoices are used in international trade.
  • Commercial invoices serve as customs declarations, a record of sale, and provide a formal payment request.
  • Commercial invoices are highly detailed compared to other types of invoices. Detail is key.
  • Accurate preparation following international standards is important for efficient customs clearance.

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What is a commercial invoice & how it works?

commercial invoice definition

A commercial invoice is a legal document between a supplier and a buyer that details the goods sold and the amount due.

It’s a core part of international trade, as it helps with:

  • Customs Clearance: Customs authorities use commercial invoices to assess duties and taxes.
  • Record of Sale: Acts as proof of the transaction between seller and buyer.
  • Payment Request: Serves as a formal request for payment.

The commercial invoice must have detailed information about the transaction, including a description of the goods, the value, and the parties involved.

Examples of commercial invoice

Below are a few commercial invoice template examples to see what how a commercial invoice invoice is structured and what one looks like.

example of commercial invoice

See the live commercial invoice template example here

commercial invoice example

See the live commercial invoice template example here

Commercial use cases

The commercial invoice can be used in multiple ways to support international trade:

  • Exporting Goods: It gives customs officials the details they need to process shipments out of the country.
  • Importing Goods: It helps determine the correct import duties and taxes and ensures compliance with local laws and regulations.
  • Shipping and Logistics: Assists with creating shipping documents and correct shipping cost calculations.

Commercial invoice vs. proforma invoice

Both documents are integral to international trade, but serve different purposes.

Commercial invoices demand payment issued after the goods have been shipped or delivered. It is used for customs clearance and has legal implications in the payment process.

A proforma invoice is essentially a preliminary bill of sale sent before the shipment of goods.

It outlines the goods and prices, but isn’t used for customs or payment purposes.

ComparisonCommercial InvoiceProforma Invoice
PurposeRequests payment from the buyerLets the buyer know what to expect from the sale and allows negotiation
IssuedAfter goods are shipped or deliveredBefore sale confirmation
Legal StatusLegally binding record of the transactionNo legal obligation; gesture of good faith
AccountingCan be used for accountingNo use for accounting purposes

How to create a commercial invoice

Creating a commercial invoice requires attention to detail, with adherence to international standards.

Here’s a step-by-step guide:

  1. Use a Template: This ensures the word “INVOICE” is prominently displayed, and you don’t potentially miss information you must include.
  2. Include Basic Information: Start with your company name, contact information, and the invoice date. Also include the dates goods were shipped and delivered.
  3. Detail the Buyer and Seller Information: Include both parties’ full names, addresses, and contact information.
  4. Describe the Goods: Provide a detailed description of items shipped, including quantities, prices, and total value.
  5. Mention the Terms of Sale: Include the terms of delivery and payment, as agreed upon by both parties.
  6. Include the Currency: Indicate the currency used for the transaction.
  7. Sign the Invoice: Either the sender or an authorized representative must sign the invoice.


Commercial invoices facilitate smooth customs clearance and lay the groundwork for successful global transactions.

Commercial invoices underpin the financial and operational aspects of international commerce by providing a detailed record of the sale and a formal payment request. 

Whether exporting goods overseas for the first time or looking to streamline your existing process, mastering the commercial invoice can significantly contribute to your business’s global success. 

Remember, in international trade, knowledge isn’t just power – it’s profit.


What is the difference between a commercial invoice and a regular invoice?

A commercial invoice is specifically used for international trade and includes detailed information about the shipment, like value, description, and country of origin.

A regular invoice is a general billing document used for domestic transactions that outlines the sale of goods or services between two parties.

Who provides a commercial invoice?

A commercial invoice is provided by the seller (exporter) to the buyer (importer) in an international transaction.

What is the reason for a commercial invoice?

A commercial invoice serves as a customs declaration, allowing authorities to assess duties and taxes, ensure compliance with import regulations, and confirm the details of the goods shipping internationally.


FreshBooks is accounting software built for business owners and their clients. Balancing your books, client relationships, and business isn't easy.

Try it free
We earn a commission if you make a purchase, at no additional cost to you.

Lucinda has spent the last 15 years working from home as a freelance writer and WordPress designer, and throughout her career, she has worked directly with several digital marketing agencies with clients in the SaaS space, ranging from e-commerce platforms to procurement software.