Carton Markings for Export Shipments

Boxes on a conveyor belt
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To pack your product effectively for export, you must provide complete, appropriate and accurate package markings. Several considerations govern your shipment marking. First, you must make sure that whatever markings you put on the outside of a carton can easily be read by anyone, anywhere in the world. Second, you must meet shipping regulations and ensure the proper handling of your goods. Finally, you must know when to mark your cartons on the outside with what is truly inside (there are times when that's the last thing you should do). Your customer should be your best adviser as to how to mark your cartons for export, but if he or she seems ill-informed or cannot be reached for consultation, the following guidelines ought to cover most situations.

If you are shipping a container load or more, simple identification of your cargo should be enough, but don't make it hard on the cargo handlers. Pretend the lights went out and your flashlight went dead — then pretend you have to read your cartons. If you were crawling around a gloomy warehouse trying to identify the contents of a stack of cartons, what would you hope for? That whoever prepared the cartons for shipment would have given some thought to making sure their goods could be identified even in the worst-case scenario (and marked them accordingly). Mark your cartons with big, bold letters that can be read even at a distance and in poor light. Think about moisture, think about dust, think about accidental grease splattering over your cartons. Use waterproof markers or waterproof labeling with a durable adhesive. The more aggressive and durable your markings, the better your chances of avoiding misunderstandings and delays in shipping.

Exporting Shipments and Carton Suggestions

If you are shipping a smaller quantity, such as a single carton or several cartons to be placed on a pallet, you need much more detailed identification, including the following:

  1. Shipping address label: provide your consignee's (customer's) name, address, key contact person and preferably a telephone and fax number on your shipping label, along with the customer purchase or order number.
  2. Return address label: your company name, address, key contact person and communications numbers (telephone, fax, and e-mail) should be on each carton so that if a problem arises en route, you can be notified immediately.
  3. Country of origin: your return address label shows your place of business, but this may not be the actual origin or place of manufacture of the goods. Check with your customer, transport company or local consulate to see how the country of origin should be represented on the carton. This marking supports all your documentation and streamlines processing at the port of destination.
  4. The contents of the carton should be marked on the outside unless you're shipping a product in high demand: if you are shipping a low-price product that you consider a commodity item, canned black beans, for example, you might think it's all right to mark the outside of your carton CANNED BLACK BEANS, right? Not always. If the demand for the product in the importing country is phenomenal and they can't keep up with it locally, you could be asking for theft or hijacking. Talk to your customer about substituting a different product identification on your carton to make your goods less tempting. For example, if Malaysian consumers love black beans and hate asparagus, you and your customer can agree ahead of time that, for purposes of your shipment, CANNED ASPARAGUS means BLACK BEANS. This practice, sometimes referred to as "blind" marking, is simple but effective. However, you and your customer must change your "code" names every so often, or else you'll attract the notice of the smarter and more organized thieves who keep track of what is moving in and out at the ports. More obvious high-value products, such as cameras, computers or televisions, can also be shipped under "blind" markings. In all other cases, of course, it's best to mark the outside of your carton with exactly what's inside. That minimizes confusion for customs, your customers, and intermediary handlers at every stage of the shipment.
  5. Make your carton markings in English: mark the outside of your cartons in English unless notified otherwise. Your customer or your transportation company should be able to tell you whether it is required to provide any carton markings in the language of the importing country as well. If such marking is required, call up a local translator and have the necessary language rendered appropriately. Better yet, contact the country's local consulate to help you — they are always eager to facilitate trade, and they may even provide the service at no charge. But be sure to get your translation approved by your customer. You don't want to be too eager to finish up this labeling chore only to find that your translation is inaccurate, ambiguous, or even offensive.
  6. Include universal symbols and phrases for immediate identification of packages needing special handling: numerous standard international symbols signal the need for careful handling of hazardous or breakable products, such as "this side up," "fragile — handle with care," "flammable" or "keep dry." Be sure to find out which international symbols apply to your product. When in doubt, label your cartons with BOTH words and standard symbols.
  7. Identify the number of cartons you are shipping on each carton: for example, number the cartons "one of three," "two of three," and "three of three." This ensures that all of the cartons in your shipment will arrive — together — at the port of destination.
  8. Mark all sides of cartons: if possible, have your cartons marked on five sides, i.e., all four sides and the top. If your plant or transport company cannot mark all sides, have markings placed on at least two sides of each carton — the long and short ends. But again, the ideal strategy is to mark five sides. That way, no matter how your cartons are positioned, they can easily be read in any direction. Also, don't forget to remove any old markings. You do not want to create confusion for the receiver of your package.
  9. Weight and measurement markings: make sure that your net and gross weight and measurement (dimension) markings are on the outside and in the appropriate system of measurement, which is generally accepted to be metric.