What’s all this fuss about UN standards? or How I Learned to Love Paperwork

What’s all this fuss about UN standards?

Here at Intertradedocs we get pretty excited about export documents in general, but that’s a whole new post – watch out for it, it’s coming!

UN standard trade documentation, all by itself, is something that’s worth getting to know about, for exporters, forwarders and anyone involved in international trade.

It all started back in the middle of last century, when the Nordic countries and then the UN started developing a set of standards for international trade. Before then, inbound customs could get documentation they couldn’t make head or tail of, which could lead to delays, expense, misapplication of duties and taxes – all sorts of confusion. Add all sorts of languages to that, and you have a situation that doesn’t facilitate international trade one little bit.

The standards developed by UNECE incorporate three important factors: the required information, the naming conventions and the document layout.

Required information

The UN Standard lists the base information required on various documents – the table below shows a set of standard information and the types of documents each piece of information is required on. Individual countries may require extra information, or the parties to a transaction may state extra requirements, for customs clearance, to satisfy destination taxation rules or to satisfy the terms of a Letter of Credit, for instance.

Naming conventions

Each data item on an international trade document may have to be read and understood by customs, financial institutions, forwarders and trade parties in several countries, where the local language is different in each case. To facilitate speedy passage of international shipments, a uniform naming convention for each part of the data has been developed, and is in wide use. For some countries a bilingual set of documents is required, but for most of the globe, English-language documents are accepted and understood.


The UN Layout Key is the model for the layout of any and all international trade documents, from invoices to bills of lading to the SAD (single administrative document) used in Europe. Some of the forms are mandated by local laws and regulations; others are recommendations only.

The UNLK sets out which parts of the document are box-model, with the information and its label contained in a bordered rectangular area, and which are columns, such as goods or packaging information

Layout is important because it makes sure that the same information is in the same place for all documents; parties to the transaction (consignor/shipper/exporter, consignee, notify party), transport details and goods details.

Uniform layout also helps customs outbound and inbound to identify each one of a set of documents as belonging to the same shipment, making it simple to identify all required information and achieve faster shipment and clearance.

Want to know more?

There’s lots of information about the UN Document Alignment conventions and standards available online, if you have time for some more reading.

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