Sunday, April 2, 2023
HomeBill of LadingHow do I know the bill of lading issued is a House...

How do I know the bill of lading issued is a House Bill or Master Bill..??

shipping and freight question“How do I know the bill of lading issued is  House Bill of Lading or Master Bill of Lading? Is it mentioned anywhere on the bill of lading that it is a House Bill or a Master Bill?” 

I really love such basic but curious questions because it rejuvenates the gray matter..

First let’s examine the definitions of a few entities that will be involved in the explanation of this answer.. The term ship and vessel are used interchangeably..

Shipping Line : is a company engaged in the process of transporting (shipping) cargo from Point A to Point B..

When operated on established routes and schedules, the operation is known as “Liner Shipping” and when not operated on established routes and schedules the operation is known as “Tramping”..

A shipping line might or might not own or operate the ship that they load the cargo on..

The ship could be owned by X (known as Ship Owner) and operated by Y (known as Vessel Operator) because either X doesn’t have the capability of operating the ship but has the money to invest in it or doesn’t want the responsibility of operating it and is only interested in the revenues generated..

Slot Charterer : is a shipping line who chooses to buy certain amount of “slots” (space on board a ship) from the principal vessel operators on every vessel.. These “slots” may or may not be fixed for a voyage or for the duration of the consortium..

Freight Forwarder : is an entity that secures the business of various exporters and importers and has the ability/facility to store, distribute their clients cargoes in addition to negotiating freight rates on behalf of the client, process all relevant customs, port and government documentation on behalf of their client either directly or through 3rd party sources..

NVOCC Operator : is an entity that are in certain areas accorded the status of a virtual “carrier” and in certain cases accepts all liabilities of a carrier..

An NVOCC can and sometimes do own and operate their own or leased containers.. In certain countries like USA, the NVOCC operators are required to file their tariffs with the government regulatory bodies (like FMC) and create a public tariff.. A NVOCC is popularly known as a “carrier to shippers” and “shipper to carriers”..


So why am I giving this whole long story in response to a simple question..?? It is because all these above mentioned entities are capable of issuing their own bills of lading and the bills of lading they issue can be either a HBL or MBL depending on who is issuing it..


So back to the question “How do I know the bill of lading issued is a House Bill or Master Bill..??

None of the bills of lading issued by any of the above entities will state anywhere whether it is a House Bill of Lading (abbreviated to HBL) or Master Bill of Lading (abbreviated to MBL).. 

Bills of lading only displays whether it is a Sea Waybill, Combined Transport Bill of Lading or Port to Port Bill of Lading..

The most common way of distinguishing whether a bill of lading is a HBL or an MBL would be to see who is the carrier mentioned on the Bill of Lading..

You can see this either from the logo of the carrier or where the carrier signs the bill of lading (like the examples below)

master bill of lading

Alphaliner provides a constantly updated ranking of the 100 largest container/liner operators taking into account the fleets of virtually all container operators worldwide..

Take a look at the latest ranking of container/liner operators as of current..

house bill of lading or master bill of lading

If a bill of lading is issued by any of the lines mentioned in the list, it is safe to assume that it would be a MBL as these are liner operators and cover the majority of the worlds containerised cargo..


What are the scenarios under which a HBL is issued and who issues them..??

  • HBL maybe issued by a Groupage operator – Groupage operator books an FCL with the shipping line.. Once the cargo is packed, they issue their own HBLs to their clients and collect the MBL from the shipping line..
  • HBL maybe issued by a NVOCC or Freight Forwarder who handles the cargo on behalf of their clients, who might be using them for the cost benefit they can provide as compared to a direct booking with the shipping line.. The FF issues their HBL and collects the MBL from the shipping line..
  • HBL maybe issued by a NVOCC or Freight Forwarder to also mask the identity of the actual shipper/consignee and they collect the MBL from the shipping line..

When a HBL and MBL are issued for a shipment, normally a hierarchy is followed especially with regards to filing manifest with customs..

The entity issuing the MBL (shipping line) will have to file their manifest first in some cases, making reference to the different HBL’s issued under the MBL.. The manifest containing all the HBLs is then filed with customs making reference to the MBL..

As described in one of my previous articles, there is a difference between House bill of lading & Master bill of lading and it is important to understand these documentary differences between a HBL and MBL..

Article republished with some updates..


  1. It must always be remembered that there is a vast difference in liability between a HB/L and a MB/L. Another problem is that the majority of companies who issue HB/L do not realize that they become the actual carrier and that all claims will be their responsibility. They may have a counter claim against the MB/L but they need to accept and settle the claim in the first instance. The time bar period is also shorter with a HB/L compared to that of a MB/L

  2. Very informative forum.
    I have been on the shipper side of the business for 12 years using a nvocc to ship my cars and containers from USA to west Africa.
    Can anyone guide me through the process of applying for my own OTI licence and operate on US soil as a Ocean freight forwarder?

  3. Hi ,
    I am in Dubai, My supplier supplying from USA . I want to ship goods to Chinese Customer in mainland of china , Is it possible to hide the detail from each others , Also we deal on 30% advance & 70% after the showing the OBL Via mail ….

  4. Anivesh, a Bill of Lading is an important document in International Trade and therefore one needs to be a registered MTO in order to issue a Bill of Lading. This operation is regulated by the Government by an Act of the Parliament and enforced. In my opinion a Bill of Lading however simple cannot be issued by any entity. Will appreciate any diverse views on this matter.

    • Hi Premkumar, for the sake of our readers, can you clarify what is the ruling in India about NVOCC operators and Freight Forwarders bills of lading..?? Do they also have to register with MTO or is it only liner companies..?? What about tramp vessel operators..?? If someone wants to issue a Congen Bill of Lading, would they have to register..??

Be part of the discussion and share your views about the article here..

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.



Enter your email address to subscribe and be notified about new content


Most Popular

Recent Comments