Pro forma invoice

If an invoice is not issued for payment reasons, and only for customs reasons, this is known as a pro forma invoice. You will encounter documents like these in international trade relations in particular. We have summarised when pro forma invoices are used and what purpose they serve when it comes to exporting goods.

What is a pro forma invoice?

The pro forma invoice is an invoice that does not require any payment on the recipient’s part. Instead, the document is created pro forma (Latin term meaning “for the sake of form”) to comply with legal requirements – for example when exporting goods to non-EU countries (e.g. China, Japan, or Switzerland). Non-EU countries are also referred to as third countries.


The pro forma invoice is an exclusively informative invoice that is primarily used in foreign trade. In particular, the pro forma invoice is intended to inform customs authorities about the type, scope, and value of import or export goods. It’s not usual to ask the recipient for payment with a pro forma invoice.

Function of the pro forma invoice

The pro forma invoice is primarily used in foreign trade.

Commercial transactions with third countries are subject to mandatory declaration. If you export goods to a third country, you must declare their value to customs. And this also applies if the goods are exported free of charge for the recipient – for example in the case of sample shipments, gifts, donations, or a free replacement delivery as part of the guarantee or as a gesture of goodwill.

In such cases, a pro forma invoice is issued instead of a commercial invoice for customs purposes. This only declares the value of the exported goods and therefore has a purely informative function.

In addition, the pro forma invoice is used as an advance copy of a commercial invoice. For example, if the recipient pays in advance. In this special case, the pro forma invoice serves as a payment request.

Pro forma invoices are also used for transactions processed by letters of credit or as a prerequisite for issuing import licenses. The pro forma invoice is then similar to an offer.


A commercial letter of credit (CLC) is a payment model where a bank is contractually obliged by an account holder (letter of credit applicant) to make a payment to a third party (letter of credit beneficiary) upon receipt of certain documents. In foreign transactions, letters of credit are sometimes ordered by importers in order to guarantee exporters payment for the receipt of goods.

In general, a pro forma invoice does not signify a booking neither at the sender’s end nor at the recipient’s end.

A pro forma invoice can also be used as a substitute document for accounting if the actual invoice has not yet been received, but you already have to make a booking. If a service has been performed and you know what it will cost, but no invoice has been received yet, you can issue a pro forma invoice for the correct amount. As soon as the proper invoice is received, it replaces the pro forma invoice. Supporting documents or internal receipts are issued, for example, for accruals and deferrals at the end of the year.

Structure and content of a pro forma invoice

The pro forma invoice is essentially the same as the commercial invoice, but must be identified explicitly as a pro forma invoice. We recommend that you use “pro forma invoice” for the subject line.


There is no legislation to denote what belongs in a pro forma invoice. However, we recommend that you follow the guidelines for creating commercial invoices.

If you issue a pro forma invoice within the scope of foreign trade, we recommend that you list all mandatory data for export invoices in order to sufficiently inform the importer and the relevant authority of the importing country about the details of the shipment.


A commercial invoice is an invoice for foreign business. In order for imported goods to clear customs successfully, commercial invoices must contain, in addition to the mandatory details for domestic invoices, additional details which enable customs employees to assess the goods under customs law. It’s also important to adhere to the import regulations of the destination country.

Required details on commercial invoices usually consist of:

  1. Sender’s name, address, and contacts details
  2. Receiver’s name and address
  3. Date of invoice (shipping date)
  4. Full description of each item
  5. Sender’s VAT number (if applicable)
  6. Country of origin (where each item was manufactured)
  7. HS tariff code if known (also referred to as “commodity code”)
  8. Quantity of each item of goods supplied
  9. Currency of the goods
  10. Total value of all goods covered by the invoice
  11. Total weight, net weight, and number of items
  12. “I declare all of the information to be true to the best of my knowledge” must be included on the invoice
  13. The invoice must be signed and dated

Pro forma invoice vs. commercial invoice

The pro forma invoice is distinguished from the commercial invoice by its name and function. On a recipient’s pro forma invoice, you clearly state that the invoice was created for formal reasons only and therefore does not contain a payment request. Unlike in the commercial invoice, you do not specify a payment amount in the pro forma invoice.

Please note the legal disclaimer relating to this article.

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