Exporting: Documentary Letters of Credit and Documentary Drafts

Documentary letters of credit or documentary drafts are often used to protect the interests of both buyer and seller. These two methods require that payment be made based on the presentation of documents conveying the title and that specific steps have been taken. Letters of credit and drafts can be paid immediately or at a later date. Drafts that are paid upon presentation are called sight drafts. Drafts that are to be paid at a later date, often after the buyer receives the goods, are called time drafts or date drafts.

Since payment by these two methods is made on the basis of documents, all terms of payment should be clearly specified in order to avoid confusion and delay. For example, "net 30 days" should be specified as "30 days from acceptance." Likewise, the currency of payment should be specified as "US$30,000." International bankers can offer other suggestions.

Banks charge fees - based mainly on a percentage of the amount of payment - for handling letters of credit and smaller amounts for handling drafts. If fees charged by both the foreign and U.S. banks are to be applied to the buyer's account, this should be explicitly stated in all quotations and in the letter of credit.

The exporter usually expects the buyer to pay the charges for the letter of credit, but some buyers may not agree to this added cost. In such cases, the exporter must either absorb the costs of the letter of credit or risk losing that potential sale. Letters of credit for smaller amounts can be somewhat expensive since fees can be high relative to the sale.

Letters of Credit
Documentary Drafts
Related Information

Letters of Credit

A letter of credit adds a bank's promise to pay the exporter to that of the foreign buyer provided that the exporter has complied with all the terms and conditions of the letter of credit. The foreign buyer applies for issuance of a letter of credit from the buyer's bank to the exporter's bank and therefore is called the applicant; the exporter is called the beneficiary.

Payment under a documentary letter of credit is based on documents, not on the terms of sale or the physical condition of the goods. The letter of credit specifies the documents that are required to be presented by the exporter, such as an ocean bill of lading (original and several copies), consular invoice, draft, and an insurance policy. The letter of credit also contains an expiration date. Before payment, the bank responsible for making payment, verifies that all document conform to the letter of credit requirements. If not, the discrepancy must be resolved before payment can be made and before the expiration date.

A letter of credit issued by a foreign bank is sometimes confirmed by a U.S. bank. This confirmation means that the U.S. bank (the confirming bank), adds its promise to pay to that of the foreign bank (the issuing bank). If a letters of credit is not confirmed, it is advised through a U.S. bank and thus called an advised letter of credit. U.S. exporters may wish to confirm letters of credit issued by foreign banks if they are unfamiliar with the foreign banks or concerned about the political or economic risk associated with the country in which the bank is located. An Export Assistance Center or international banker can assist exporters in evaluating the risks to determine what might be appropriate for specific export transactions.

A letter of credit may either be irrevocable and thus, unable to be changed unless both parties agree; or revocable where either party may unilaterally make changes. A revocable letter of credit is inadvisable as it carries many risks for the exporter.

A change made to a letter of credit after it has been issued is called an amendment. Banks also charge fees for this service. It should be specified in the amendment if the exporter or the buyer will pay these charges. Every effort should be made to get the letter of credit right the first time since these changes can be time-consuming and expensive.

To expedite the receipt of funds, wire transfers may be used. Exporters should consult with their international bankers about bank charges for such services.

A Typical Letter of Credit Transaction
Here are the typical steps of an irrevocable letter of credit that has been confirmed by a U.S. bank:

  1. After the exporter and buyer agree on the terms of a sale, the buyer arranges for its bank to open a letter of credit that specifies the documents needed for payment. The buyer determines which documents will be required.

  2. The buyer's bank issues, or opens, its irrevocable letter of credit includes all instructions to the seller relating to the shipment.

  3. The buyer's bank sends its irrevocable letter of credit to a U.S. bank and requests confirmation. The exporter may request that a particular U.S. bank be the confirming bank, or the foreign bank may select a U.S. correspondent bank.

  4. The U.S. bank prepares a letter of confirmation to forward to the exporter along with the irrevocable letter of credit.

  5. The exporter reviews carefully all conditions in the letter of credit. The exporter's freight forwarder is contacted to make sure that the shipping date can be met. If the exporter cannot comply with one or more of the conditions, the customer is alerted at once.

  6. The exporter arranges with the freight forwarder to deliver the goods to the appropriate port or airport.

  7. When the goods are loaded, the freight forwarder completes the necessary documentation.

  8. The exporter (or the freight forwarder) presents the documents, evidencing full compliance with the letter of credit terms, to the U.S. bank.

  9. The bank reviews the documents. If they are in order, the documents are sent to the buyer's bank for review and then transmitted to the buyer.

  10. The buyer (or the buyer's agent) uses the documents to claim the goods.

  11. A draft, which accompanies the letter of credit, is paid by the buyer's bank at the time specified or, if a time draft, may be discounted to the exporter's bank at an earlier date.

Example of a Confirmed Irrevocable Letter of Credit
The example of a confirmed irrevocable letter of credit in Financing Export Transactions illustrates the various parts of a typical letter of credit. In this sample, the letter of credit was forwarded to the exporter, The Walton Building Supply Company (A), by the confirming bank, Megabank Corporation (B), as a result of c letter of credit being issued by the Third Hong Kong Bank, Hong Kong (C), for the account of the importer, HHB Hong Kong (D). The date of issue was March 8, 1997 (E), and the exporter must submit the proper documents (e.g., a commercial invoice in one original and three copies) (F) by June 23, 1997 (G) in order for a sight draft (H) to be honored.

Tips on Using a Letter of Credit

  • When preparing quotations for prospective customers, exporters should keep in mind that banks pay only the amount specified in the letter of credit - even if higher charges for shipping, insurance, or other factors are incurred and documented.

  • Upon receiving a letter of credit, the exporter should carefully compare the letter's terms with the terms of the exporter's pro forma quotation. This step is extremely important, since the terms must be precisely met or the letter of credit may be invalid and the exporter may not be paid. If meeting the terms of the letter of credit is impossible or if any of the information is incorrect or even misspelled, the exporter should contact the customer immediately and ask for an amendment to the letter of credit.

  • The exporter must provide documentation showing that the goods were shipped by the date specified in the letter of credit or the exporter may not be paid. Exporters should check with their freight forwarders to make sure that no unusual conditions may arise that would delay shipment.

  • Documents must be presented by the date specified for the letter of credit to be paid. Exporters should verify with their international bankers that there will be sufficient time to present the letter of credit for payment.

  • Exporters may request that the letter of credit specify that partial shipments and transshipment will be allowed. Specifying what will be allowed can prevents unforeseen last minute problems.

Sample Confirmed Irrevocable Letter of Credit

Back to Top

Documentary Drafts

A draft, sometimes also called a bill of exchange, is analogous to a foreign buyer's check. Like checks used in domestic commerce, drafts carry the risk that they will be dishonored. However, in international commerce, title does not transfer to the buyer until he pays the draft, or at least engages a legal undertaking that the draft will be paid when due.

Sight Drafts
A sight draft is used when the exporter wishes to retain title to the shipment until it reaches its destination and payment is made. Before the shipment can be released to the buyer, the original ocean bill of lading (the document that evidences title) must be properly endorsed by the buyer and surrendered to the carrier. It is important to note that air waybills of lading, on the other hand, do not need to be presented in order for the buyer to claim the goods. Hence, risk increases when a sight draft is being used with an air shipment.

In actual practice, the ocean bill of lading is endorsed by the exporter and sent via the exporter's bank to the buyer's bank. It is accompanied by the sight draft, invoices, and other supporting documents that are specified by either the buyer or the buyer's country (e.g., packing lists, consular invoices, insurance certificates). The foreign bank notifies the buyer when it has received these documents. As soon as the draft is paid, the foreign bank turns over the bill of lading thereby enabling the buyer to obtain the shipment.

There is still some risk when a sight draft is used to control transferring the title of a shipment. The buyer's ability or willingness to pay might change from the time the goods are shipped until the time the drafts are presented for payment; there is no bank promise to pay standing behind the buyer's obligation. Additionally, the policies of the importing country could also change. If the buyer cannot or will not pay for and claim the goods, returning or disposing of the products becomes the problem of the exporter.

Time Drafts and Date Drafts
A time draft is used when the exporter extends credit to the buyer. The draft states that payment is due by a specific time after the buyer accepts the time draft and receives the goods (e.g., 30 days after acceptance). By signing and writing "accepted" on the draft, the buyer is formally obligated to pay within the stated time. When this is done the time draft is then called a trade acceptance. It can be kept by the exporter until maturity or sold to a bank at a discount for immediate payment.

A date draft differs slightly from a time draft in that it specifies a date on which payment is due, rather than a time period after the draft is accepted. When either a sight draft or time draft is used, a buyer can delay payment by delaying acceptance of the draft. A date draft can prevent this delay in payment though it still must be accepted.

When a bank accepts a draft, it becomes an obligation of the bank and thus, a negotiable investment known as a banker's acceptance. A banker's acceptance can also be sold to a bank at a discount for immediate payment.

Sample Draft Transmittal Letter

Back to Methods of Payment

More about Exporting:
Introduction
Developing an Export Plan
Developing a Market Plan
Export Advice
Methods/Channels
Making Contacts
Technology Licensing /Joint Ventures
Preparing Your Product for Export
Service Exports
International Legal Considerations
Shipping Your Product
Pricing, Quotations, and Terms
Methods of Payment
Financing Export Transactions
Selling Overseas
After-sales Service