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What are Incoterms and when are they used?

The goal of the Incoterms is to alleviate or reduce confusion over interpretations of shipping terms, by outlining exactly who is obligated to take control of and/or insure goods at a particular point in the shipping process. Further, the terms will outline the obligations for the clearance of the goods for export or import, and requirements on the packing of items. The Incoterms are used quite frequently in international contracts, and a specific version of the Incoterms should be referenced in the text of the contract.

Although the Incoterms are widely used and exceedingly handy, they are not meant for every type of contract. Specifically, the terms used in a contract state exactly when the shipper unloads and relinquishes obligation, and when the buyer takes over for carriage and insurance. The Incoterms are not meant to replace statements in a contract of sale that outline transfers of ownership or title to goods. Therefore, the Incoterms may not be of use when looking to resolve disputes that may arise regarding payment or ownership of goods.
What are some examples of Incoterms?

The 13 Incoterms fall into four different groups. These four groups are

  • Departure (E)
  • Main Carriage Unpaid (F)
  • Main Carraige Paid (C), and
  • Arrival (D)

Each group’s letter makes up the first letter of Incoterm. For example, if your agreement with a buyer calls for the release of goods by the seller to occur at the seller’s location, the Ex Works (EXW) Incoterm would be used. This term states among other things that the buyer is to take over carriage and insurance responsibilities at the sellers dock. Alternatively, if the seller were to deliver goods to the buyers dock, including all carriage and insurance, a term from the Arrival group such as DDP would be appropriate. The DDP term stands for Delivered Duty Paid and includes in its definition that the seller will deliver goods to the buyers dock with all carriage, insurance, and duties paid. DDP represents the most obligations for the seller, whereas EXW represents the least.
Caution must be exercised when using Incoterms because the Incoterms relate to particular modes of transportation. For example, some of the Incoterms deal solely with transport by sea. Terms such as FOB and CIF can be used only for ocean bound freight. FOB, meaning Free on Board, translates to the shipper (seller) having upheld his/her part of the agreement when the goods pass the ship’s rails at the port of exit. The receiving party (buyer) assumes risk and costs associated with the goods once they pass the ship’s rail in the seller’s home port. Due to the specific mention of the ship’s rails, an aircraft or other mode of transport could not be used with FOB. For a shipment scheduled for delivery by air, rail, or some other form of transport with the same agreement as FOB one would need to use the Incoterm FCA, or Free Carrier. FCA can include other modes of transportation such as road, rail, interland waterway, and air. Whereas transfer under FOB takes place when the cargo passes the ship’s rails, transfer with FCA occurs when delivery of goods has been made at a destination previously outlined by the buying party.

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