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The purpose of Incoterms is to provide a set of international rules for the interpretation of the most commonly used trade terms in foreign trade. Thus, the uncertainties of different interpretations of such terms in different countries can be avoided or at least reduced to a considerable degree.

Frequently, parties to a contract are unaware of the different trading practices in their respective countries. This can give rise to misunderstandings, disputes and litigation with all the waste of time and money that this entails. In order to remedy these problems the International Chamber of Commerce first published in 1936 a set of international rules for the interpretation of trade terms. These rules were known as «Incoterms 1936». Amendments and additions were later made in 1953, 1967, 1976, 1980, 1990 and presently in 2000 in order to bring the rules in line with current international trade practices.

It should be stressed that the scope of Incoterms is limited to matters relating to the rights and obligations of the parties to the contract of sale with respect to the delivery of goods sold (in the sense of «tangibles», not including «intangibles» such as computer software).

It appears that two particular misconceptions about Incoterms are very common. First, Incoterms are frequently misunderstood as applying to the contract of carriage rather than to the contract of sale. Second, they are sometimes wrongly assumed to provide for all the duties which parties may wish to include in a contract of sale.

As has always been underlined by ICC, Incoterms deal only with the relation between sellers and buyers under the contract of sale, and, moreover, only do so in some very distinct respects. While it is essential for exporters and importers to consider the very practical relationship between the various contracts needed to perform an international sales transaction - where not only the contract of sale is required, but also contracts of carriage, insurance and financing - Incoterms relate to only one of these contracts, namely the contract of sale.

Nevertheless, the parties' agreement to use a particular Incoterm would necessarily have implications for the other contracts. To mention a few examples, a seller having agreed to a CFR - or CIF -contract cannot perform such a contract by any other mode of transport than carriage by sea, since under these terms he must present a bill of lading or other maritime document to the buyer which is simply not possible if other modes of transport are used. Furthermore, the document required under a documentary credit would necessarily depend upon the means of transport intended to be used.

Second, Incoterms deal with a number of identified obligations imposed on the parties - such as the seller's obligation to place the goods at the disposal of the buyer or hand them over for carriage or deliver them at destination - and with the distribution of risk between the parties in these cases.

Further, they deal with the obligations to clear the goods for export and import, the packing of the goods, the buyer's obligation to take delivery as well as the obligation to provide proof that the respective obligations have been duly fulfilled. Although Incoterms are extremely important for the implementation of the contract of sale, a great number of problems which may occur in such a contract are not dealt with at all, like transfer of ownership and other property rights, breaches of contract and the consequences following from such breaches as well as exemptions from liability in certain situations. It should be stressed that Incoterms are not intended to replace such contract terms that are needed for a complete contract of sale either by the incorporation of standard terms or by individually negotiated terms.

Generally, Incoterms do not deal with the consequences of breach of contract and any exemptions from liability owing to various impediments. These questions must be resolved by other stipulations in the contract of sale and the applicable law.

Incoterms have always been primarily intended for use where goods are sold for delivery across national boundaries: hence, international commercial terms. However, Incoterms are in practice at times also incorporated into contracts for the sale of goods within purely domestic markets. Where Incoterms are so used, the A2 and B2 clauses and any other stipulation of other articles dealing with export and import do, of course, become redundant.