What is a Shipping Manifest?

Shipping Manifests may present themselves as simple document, but it is one of the more complex documents to prepare. This is especially the case when the cargo carriers ships unit load devices such as containers. In this article, we will guide you through the process of preparing a shipping manifest, as well as the uses of a shipping manifest. 

So What is a Shipping Manifest?

A Shipping Manifest, or cargo manifest, summarizes all the cargoes that the vessel carries on board. 

This summary provides Customs Officers an overview of the cargoes on board and takes necessary steps to assure that the cargoes onboard are safe for the port operators to handle. If the cargo is declared as hazardous, it would appear on the manifest, and safety measures will be taken. 

The Shipping Manifest summary of cargoes on board also allows Customs Officers to undergo risk assessments on the cargoes before allowing them to enter the country. Should there be any potential risks involved, the customs officers can decide to examine the cargo in the Customs Examination Station (CES).

Shipping Manifests not only summarizes transported goods, but also details the bunker fuel that is laden on the vessel.

Below you will find some examples of details summarized on a shipping manifests: –

1. Vessel Details

2. Port of Loading/Port of Discharge

3. Shipper Details

4. Consignee Details

5. Cargo Details (Quantity, Weight, and Dimension)

The information above describes what the users of the manifests are looking for. The users intend to know the total weight of the laden cargoes, who is the contracted parties of the carriage, and also the intended destination of the vessel. 

There is more to unravel about a shipping manifest, do read on if you intend to learn more!

Who Prepares the Shipping Manifest?

Principally speaking, the entity that provides the transportation service is the one responsible to prepare a shipping manifest. 

In a much broader sense, the Vehicle Operated Common Carrier (VOCC), can “manifest” in various modes. Regardless whether the mode of transportation, once the transportation crosses a border from one country to another, the vehicle operator has to prepare a transport manifest. 

On the other hand, what if the transport provider is a Non-Vehicle Operated Common Carrier (NVOCC)? 

We use the term VOCC and NVOCC very often, and it’s worth mentioning briefly what an NVOCC is. An NVOCC is a service provider that issues contracts of carriage but does not own the mode of transportation. These select groups of entities are service providers such as 3PL (third-party logistics providers) or freight forwarders.

While NVOCC service providers technically do not issue a shipping manifest. But, they are required to inform the customs officers, port operators, shipping agents (VOCCs), and other governing agencies of the details of the shipper and consignee of the cargo. 

There is also a complication where a house bill of lading is involved. A shipping manifest details the shipper and consignee with details on the Master Bill of Lading in mind. Therefore a shipping manifest would not have the actual intended owner of the goods transported, but rather the entity that is under the VOCC’s contract of carriage. 

So, these NVOCC inform the interested parties by submitting an “inward/outward manifest”. It is not the same as a shipping manifest per se, but the purpose of an inward/outward manifest is similar to a shipping manifest nevertheless.

The Intended Users of the Shipping Manifest

What is a Shipping Manifest

The intended users of the shipping manifest, or in other words, the readers of the shipping manifests are: – 

1. Port Operators

2. Customs

3. Other Governing Agencies

Port Operators

So far we mostly focused on cargoes that are loaded in a unit load device, such as a shipping container. But that is only a proportion of the cargoes transported globally. 

Cargoes that do not fit in a standard 20’ container or a 40’ container are commodities such as: – 

1. Steel

2. Grains (Wheat)

3. Ores (Coal)

4. Out-of-Gauge Cargoes

5. Oil and Natural Gas

These cargoes require special equipment that only port operators can provide. Therefore, port operators are essential users of the shipping manifest. 

Customs Officers

We’ve touched in brief about this so we will only glance through. 

The failure to declare shipping manifest at the port of loading, and also the failure to present the shipping manifest at the port of discharge is a serious offense. 

As we all know, certain cargoes are Schedule I prohibited, such as firearms, explosive devices, illicit drugs, and also byproducts of endangered species. Customs officer will perform the aforementioned risk assessments to determine the likeliness of those cargo being contraband cargoes. 

Secondly, Customs Officers are also on high alert on vessels coming from embargoed countries. Some examples are Cuba, Iran, and North Korea. The shipping manifest, among other data elements provided to the customs officer, will have details about the vessel’s voyage as well. 

Other Governing Agencies

Federal Agencies also have vested interest on the to-and-fro of regulated cargoes. 

Waste cargoes is a good example. We will quote an excerpt from the EPA website: –

“Uniform Hazardous Waste Manifest, a form required by EPA and the U.S. Department of Transportation for all generators who transport, or offer for transport, hazardous waste for off-site treatment, recycling, storage or disposal.”

The U.S. Enviromental Protection Agency

How Shipping Manifest Details are Compiled

MSC Hamburg Said To Contain
MSC Hamburg

Let’s take a step back and look at a few figures for a moment, a vessel MSC Hamburg is capable of carrying 16,000 TEUs per trip. 

For the sake of this example, say a shipper has 1 container contracted with MSC’s shipping agency. That is equivalent to 16,000 different shippers and consignees per shipment!

Not to mention, there are 16,000 different types of cargoes details that need to be accounted for in every voyage. 

So how does the shipping agent compiles all this information into a neat shipping manifest?

The answer is simple: by “crowdsourcing” the data. 

Let’s look at this from the perspective of documentation. In an export shipment, the exporter firstly issues a shipping instruction to the contracted transport service provider. 

From the Shipping Instruction itself, the necessary data elements required to prepare a shipping manifest are already provided by the exporter. Any supplementary document provides supplementary data elements that support the preparation of the shipping manifest as well. 

The nature of sea transportation is that not all data elements is ready at one specific point. Container numbers can only be ascertained after the depot has dispatched an empty container. In addition, cargo details such as weight can only be validated by SOLAS submission. 

Therefore, this is why we describe a shipping manifest as a summary that is easy to understand, but complex to prepare. 

Manifest and Bill of Lading’s “Said To Contain”

Firstly, it’s worth explaining what “Said to Contain” or STC means and where would it appear in shipping documents. 

We’ve touched on how a vessel could potentially carry up to 16,000 TEUs of containers in a single voyage; we’ve also touched on how shipping agents “crowdsource” their manifest information from shippers and consignees. 

It is impractical for shipping agents to vet all their customer’s cargo load and monitor what is stowed into the container. The best method is a trust-based system where shipping agents place the responsibility of declaring the cargo stowed to the shipper themselves. 

Therefore, you would see the term “said to contain” mentioned right on top of the cargo description in the bills of lading, citing that the shipping agent has no real possible way to determine if the cargo description matches the actual cargo in the container. 

This is done so in order to limit the liability of shipping agents from penalties of shipping contrabands across the seven seas. 

In summary, you should be aware that shipping manifests are built upon a trust system where all the cargo that is listed in the shipping manifest is entirely based on what the shipper declared. 

That is why customs officers play an important role in performing both routine and non-routine checks to see whether cargoes transported are genuine. 

Modern approaches to Submitting Manifests

Let’s face it, gone are the days when all documents are handwritten, and information is physically passed on to another person via fax or a piece of paper. 

Right now, manifests are submitted to customs electronically. The method by which the electronic manifest is submitted varies in each country. 

As most countries are participating nations of the World Customs Organization (WCO), the framework with which the manifest submission and gathering are based on standards set by WCO. 

According to the WCO website, data transmission, to-and-fro customs officers are based on the SAFE Framework of Standard to Secure and Facilitate Global Trade. 

The more recent development in software approaches to information transmission is the CTS Solution or the Cargo Targeting System. 

Of the many functions of the CTS solution, the chief function of it is to gather and store electronic cargo manifest data. 

You can read more about the WCO CTS system here. It is only a nice-to-know slice of information, as the users of this system are mostly port operators, shipping agents, and customs officers. 

World Customs Organization CTS Link

In Summary

We hope this article covers what a shipping manifest is. The term “shipping manifest” can take various names, such as cargo manifest or even just “manifest”, but the essence of the function of a shipping manifest remains the same; A simplified document that details what is on the vessel. 


Hello! I'm Kelvin, I work as a custom broker and I'm thrilled with having the experience to share my industry knowledge with you. I hope that you enjoy reading them as much as I do posting them.

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