Documentary Credits (Letters of Credit)

DineroThe documentary credit (letter of credit, documentary letter of credit, or commercial letter of credit) is an arrangement whereby the applicant (the importer) requests and instructs the issuing bank (the importer’s bank) or the issuing bank acting on its own behalf, pays the beneficiary (the exporter) or accepts and pays the draft (bill of exchange) drawn by the beneficiary, or authorizes the advising bank or the nominated bank to pay the beneficiary or to accept and pay the draft drawn by the beneficiary, or authorizes the advising bank or the nominated bank to negotiate, against stipulated document(s), provided that the terms and conditions of the documentary credit are fully complied with.

For purpose of maintaining uniformity in the text, the words «letter of credit«, «credit» and «L/C» are used on this website to refer to the documentary credit.

A letter of credit (L/C) can be irrevocable or revocable. The L/C usually indicates whether it is an irrevocable or revocable letter of credit. In the absence of such indication, the L/C is deemed to be irrevocable.

Irrevocable Letter of Credit

An irrevocable letter of credit cannot be amended or cancelled without the consent of the issuing bank, the confirming bank, if any, and the beneficiary. The payment is guaranteed by the bank if the credit terms and conditions are fully met by the beneficiary. The words «irrevocable documentary credit« or «irrevocable credit« may be indicated in the L/C.

In some cases, an irrevocable L/C received by the beneficiary may become invalid without the amendment or cancellation of such L/C, for example, when the trade between importing and exporting countries is suspended such as in a trade sanction, or when the issuing bank has ceased operation.

There have been cases of an irrevocable L/C being amended without the consent of the beneficiary in the OEM arrangements. The beneficiaries affected were export-manufacturers from a developing country. The importers were able to convince and instruct the issuing bank to amend the latest date for shipment in the L/C, changing to a date earlier than the agreed upon date, at which time the beneficiary would not be able to ship the OEM products. The importers used sneaky tactics that aimed to cause the beneficiaries to default in the delivery. The intention of the importers was to cancel the orders from the existing OEM suppliers and buy from other suppliers in another developing country where the prices had become lower

In the event of an amendment like the above-mentioned case, the beneficiary must give notification of rejection of amendment to the bank that advised the amendment at once.

The irrevocable letter of credit received from an advising bank may be indicated as «irrevocable and without recourse documentary credit». The words «without recourse» mean that the advising bank will not be able to recover the money paid to the beneficiary in case the issuing bank does not pay the advising bank.

Revocable Letter of Credit

revocable letter of credit can be amended or cancelled by the issuing bank at any time without the consent of the beneficiary, often at the request and on the instructions of the applicant. There is no security of payment in a revocable letter of credit (L/C). The words «this credit is subject to cancellation without notice«, «revocable documentary credit« or «revocable credit« usually are indicated in the L/C.

The revocable L/C was not uncommon in the 1970’s and earlier when dealing with less developed countries. It is rarely seen these days in international trade.

Confirmed Irrevocable Letter of Credit

An irrevocable letter of credit (L/C) opened by an issuing bank whose authenticity has been confirmed by the advising bank and where the advising bank has added its confirmation to the credit is known as confirmed irrevocable letter of credit. The words «we confirm the credit and hereby undertake …« or «we add our confirmation to this credit and hereby undertake …« normally are included in the L/C.

An exporter whose method of payment is a confirmed irrevocable L/C is assured of payment even if the importer or the issuing bank defaults. The confirmed irrevocable L/C is particularly important from buyers in a country which is economically or politically unstable.

In a confirmed letter of credit, the exporter or the importer pays an extra charge called the confirmation fee, which may vary from bank to bank within a country. The fee usually is added to the exporter’s account. The exporter may indicate in the sales contract that the confirmation fee and other charges outside the seller’s country are on the buyer’s account.

Unconfirmed Irrevocable Letter of Credit

An irrevocable letter of credit (L/C) opened by an issuing bank in which the advising bank does not add its confirmation to the credit is known as an unconfirmed irrevocable letter of credit. The promise to pay comes from the issuing bank only, unlike in a confirmed irrevocable L/C where both the issuing bank and the advising bank promise to pay the beneficiary.

Restricted Negotiable Letter of Credit

In a restricted negotiable letter of credit, the authorization from the issuing bank to pay the beneficiary is restricted to a specific nominated bank.

Freely Negotiable Letter of Credit

In a freely negotiable letter of credit, the authorization from the issuing bank to pay the beneficiary is not restricted to a specific bank, any bank can be a nominated bank as long as the bank is willing to pay, to accept draft(s), to incur a deferred payment undertaking, or to negotiate the L/C. The words «this credit is not restricted to any bank for negotiation« or «this credit may be negotiated at any bank«, or similar words, may be indicated on the L/C.

When a letter of credit (L/C) is specifically designated «revolving letter of credit«, the amount involved when utilized is reinstated, that is, the amount becomes available again without issuing another L/C and usually under the same terms and conditions.

The revolving L/C may be used in shipments of a wide range of goods to a buyer within a period of time (several months to one year usually).