Confused about exporting jargon? 11 common trade terms you need to know

If you work in the world of trade, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by acronyms—especially if you’re new to the game. From FOB, FAS and DAP to CIFFA, CETA and CUSMA, you likely feel like you’re drowning in alphabet soup. But the good news is that you don’t have to swallow the dictionary to slice through the jargon. Here’s a short primer on some of the more common export terms you need to know.


Incoterms, short for international commercial terms, are critically important to know because they’re universal trade terms used to determine who (the buyer or seller) is responsible for what during the shipping process. If you choose or agree to the wrong Incoterms in the contracts during negotiations with your international buyer, you could risk a financial hit.

Incoterms were created as common codes of conduct and contract and are regulated by the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) for global trade. Each Incoterm does one of two main things:

  1. Determines at what point the responsibility and ownership for the shipment transfers from the seller to the buyer. This is important if the shipment gets lost or damaged in transit.
  2. Determines who is responsible for, or who pays for, the transportation of the goods, import and export processes, insurance, and loading and unloading.

I’ll give a brief description here, but it’s best to study the complete definitions and hire expert help if needed for your negotiations. The 11 Incoterms can be roughly divided into three groups:

  1. Ex Works (EXW), free carrier (FCA), FAS and FOB: With these, it’s the buyer who pays for all of the shipping costs, which is ideal if you’re the exporter and you want to limit your risk responsibilities.
  2. Group C (CFR, CIF, CPT and CIP): Under these terms, the sellers pay the main shipping costs and include them in their price. Note: While the seller pays for shipping, the goods travel at the buyer’s risk, so the buyer will want to investigate insurance. The “C” terms provide a good middle ground between the risk and responsibilities of the buyers and sellers.
  3. Group D (DAP, DPU and DDP): Here, the shipping costs are paid by the seller who also assumes all the risk of shipping the cargo. In these cases, the seller will want to consider insurance.

Shipping terms


As you can see, shipping your goods can be complex, but you don’t have to go it alone. There are lots of partners such as the Canadian International Freight Forwarders Association (CIFFA) that regulate the industry. Go to the CIFFA site and find out about the legitimate freight companies in your area.

Customs brokers

Similarly, the Canadian Society of Customs Brokers (CSCB) can help make shipping easier. It’s an umbrella organization for those who can help you with customs issues.

Shipping weights and volumes

Familiarize yourself with the terms and conditions of the carriers you’re going to use to deliver your products. If you’re shipping to the United States (U.S.), you’ll likely want to go by truck, and you’ll need to know whether you have a TL/FTL (trailer load or full-trailer load) or an LTL (less than a trailer load). Ocean carriers will ask about a full container load (FCL) or less than a container load (LCL).

Note: In freight weight, Canadians still use the Imperial system because of the U.S. influence. In shipping, you pay either by weight or volume. Tip: You can avoid volume charges by making sure your package is as densely packed as possible—using a box that’s too large for your product will cost you. Generally, the price is per tonne or cubic metre, but if you’re shipping less than a full load, the price is based on weight or volume—whichever is higher.

If you use air travel, there’s a volume formula. You pay for one tonne as long as it doesn’t exceed six cubic metres in volume. After it does, you pay by volume instead. Unlike trucking measurements, air measurements are metric. You can negotiate prices per pallet instead of per kilogram. The latter is usually more advantageous.

Cargo insurance

Carriers provide only minimal compensation should a container fall overboard in rough seas or a package is stolen at a cargo airport, so consider getting cargo insurance. There are clauses, known as Institute Cargo Clauses A, B, or C, that are internationally recognized. In this case, it doesn’t matter what company you deal with, as they all have the same clauses. A covers you for all risks. B and C are cheaper, but they cover less.

The same applies for other modes of transport. In trucking in Canada, the maximum liability of a trucker is $2 per pound of freight or $4.41 per kilogram. In the U.S., it can be as low as 60 cents per pound.

With shipping through air freight, the maximum liability depends on the nationality of the airline, but they generally pay between $30 and $35 per kilogram.

Ocean freight varies, but usually runs between $500 and $900 per container. Therefore, cargo insurance is even more important for ocean freight. Note: These costs may change without notice.

Wood packaging materials

If you use wood when you ship such as pallets or crates,  you’re bound by international regulations. When shipping anywhere except the U.S., the wood has to be heat-treated or fumigated and certified with a stamp. If you don’t use treated wood, your shipment will be rejected at destination. The United Nations’ initiative, known as the International Plant Protection Convention, was put into place to prevent the infestation of forests by certain insects. This only applies to non-manufactured wood—not plywood and chipboard. Canada and the U.S. have a mutual exemption on this, but in case things change, it’s a good idea to know these rules now.

Commercial invoice

On the invoice, you include the seller, buyer, origin of the goods and Incoterm to indicate who’s paying for what. This is the most important document because it’s what will be used at customs. It’s a good practice to also give a packing list. It’s not always compulsory, but it’s recommended.

Pro forma invoices

These are similar to the commercial invoice in terms of content, except they’re for items going to another country, but not being sold there. They include samples at a trade show, for example. Pro-forma invoices are also used to apply for credits and loans at financial institutions.

Certificate of origin

A country will often want to know where the materials in your product originated, as this can have an impact on free trade agreements (FTAs). Check on this with your buyer.

The Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA) makes things easier because Canadians don’t have to supply a separate certificate of origin, but you do have to provide an origin certification on the commercial invoice and follow a certain format. You can look at Annex 2 of the agreement for an idea of what you need to provide.

The Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement (CUSMA) also requires companies to provide a certification statement. The rules of origin are determined according to the country of manufacture, the regional value content and the tariff shift. 

Terms for payment options

Letters of credit

A letter of credit, or LOC, is issued from one bank to another bank (usually in another country) to guarantee that payments will be made to a party (e.g., a person or a company) on time, for the correct amount, and possibly other specified conditions. Once you have a letter of credit from your buyer, you’re sure you’ll get paid, as long as all the documentation required by the LOC is presented to the bank. Note: If you’re dealing with a country where the banking system isn’t stable, the letter of credit must be confirmed by a Canadian bank.

Credit insurance

Credit insurance covers the money you’re owed from your sales to your international buyer. If your customer can’t or won’t pay, credit insurance will cover a specified amount of the insured receivables owed. Export Development Canada (EDC) Credit Insurance covers 90% of your insured losses against the risk of non-payment.

For more information

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