Incoterms Explained: Cost, Insurance, and Freight (CIF) – A Complete Guide for eCommerce Businesses

May 14, 2024
16 min read

If you are involved in cross-border trade, you will undoubtedly understand the importance of selecting the right international shipping agreement. Making the right choice can greatly impact your business's bottom line, affecting insurance coverage, risk management, and cost efficiency. Besides, you will have a clear understanding of who pays for what and when. 

One such agreement is the CIF Incoterms. These International Commercial Terms (Incoterms) are crucial for businesses engaged in global trade, ensuring clarity in shipping agreements and responsibilities. Understanding them is essential for companies to successfully navigate transnational shipping agreements effectively, minimising risks and clarifying costs and responsibilities. To this end, we have written a comprehensive guide on the CIF Incoterms, offering insights into their application and benefits for global commerce. 

The International Commerce Terms (Incoterms)

Established in 1936, the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) introduced Incoterms to standardise the shipping policies, responsibilities, and risk management strategies for buyers and sellers in global trade. These terms are tailored for transnational application, ensuring clarity and consistency across many borders.

The latest iteration, Incoterms 2020, comprises 11 rules divided into categories based on the modes of transport. These regulations meticulously outline the tasks, costs, and risks assumed by buyers and sellers, facilitating smoother cross-border transactions by providing clear directives on each party's responsibilities. Furthermore, the Incoterms 2020 are categorised into two groups: seven rules applicable to any mode of transport and four specifically for sea and inland waterway transport. 

More specifically, the four Incoterms 2020 rules tailored for sea and inland waterway transport include: [1]

  • Free Alongside Ship (FAS): Specifies the port of loading where the seller places the goods alongside the buyer's vessel.
  • Free on Board (FOB): The seller's responsibility ends when the goods are on board the vessel at the named port of loading. This means the risk passes to the buyer when the goods are loaded onto the ship.
  • Cost and Freight (CFR): Requires the supplier to cover the costs and freight required to get the goods to the named port of destination.
  • Cost, Insurance and Freight (CIF): This is like CFR, but with the added requirement that the merchant procure insurance in case the goods are damaged during carriage.

Understanding these Incoterms, especially CIF, is essential for businesses. They offer a blueprint for navigating the complexities of shipping agreements, insurance coverage, and risk management in global transactions.

What Are CIF Incoterms in Shipping?

CIF Incoterms are a pivotal agreement in global trade. As also highlighted above, they delineate the responsibilities and risks between purchasers and merchants during the transportation of goods across the sea or inland waterways. 

Under CIF agreements, the seller assumes the costs of shipping, insurance coverage, and freight charges up to the destination port, ensuring the cargo is insured. These arrangements are typically employed when the supplier has direct access to the vessel and are applicable exclusively to ocean freight and inland waterway transport, not air freight.

What Do CIF Terms Include?

CIF terms include several key components, such as:

  • Destination Acknowledgment: Both parties must agree on the delivery port, ensuring clarity on the final stopping place.
  • Seller's Obligations: Suppliers become aware of their responsibilities. This includes ensuring the goods are properly packaged and loaded for sea or inland waterway transport.
  • Insurance: This is a crucial aspect of CIF. It should cover at least 110% of the goods' value, aligning with the sales contract to safeguard against potential loss or damage. 
  • Buyer's Responsibilities: Like sellers, buyers become aware of their responsibilities under this arrangement. This includes paying for any onward carriage import formalities and additional purchase insurance if required for better cargo insurance coverages.

This framework is essential for businesses engaged in bulk cargo shipping or utilising ocean freight, providing a structured approach to international commercial terms.

CIF vs CFR: The Differences 

The table below highlights the key differences between CIF and CFR Incoterms, providing a clear comparison for businesses engaged in international trade.

AspectCIFCFR (Cost and Freight)
DefinitionCIF is an Incoterm where the seller pays for the cost, insurance, and freight of the goods transported to the buyer's destination port.CFR is an Incoterm where the merchant pays the cost and freight to bring the goods to the buyer's destination port, but not the insurance.
Risk TransferRisk transfers from the seller to the buyer once the goods are loaded onto the shipping vessel, but the seller must secure insurance to cover the journey.Risk transfers from the seller to the buyer when the goods are loaded onto the vessel, similar to CIF, but without the seller arranging for insurance.
Cost ResponsibilityThe supplier covers all costs associated with transporting the goods, including insurance, until they reach the destination port.The seller covers the costs of transporting the goods to the destination port, excluding insurance.
SuitabilityCIF is suitable for sea and inland waterway transport, particularly beneficial for bulk cargo shipping where the seller prefers to manage insurance.CFR is preferred when the buyer wishes to control the insurance aspect or when the goods are less susceptible to damage and suitable for sea and inland waterway transport.

The primary distinction between CIF and CFR lies in the insurance responsibility: CIF requires the seller to insure the goods during transit, while CFR places this obligation on the buyer. Comprehending these disparities is crucial for businesses to select the most appropriate Incoterm for their international shipping needs.

Where Is the Risk Transfer in the Cost, Insurance, and Freight?

CIF agreements delineate specific points at which the seller's responsibilities for costs and risks shift to the buyer, which is essential for both parties to comprehend.

Risk and Cost Transfer Points

Under CIF terms, the supplier is obligated to cover shipping, insurance, and freight charges until the cargo reaches the agreed-upon terminus, marking the cost transfer point. However, the risk transfer occurs earlier, when the goods are loaded onto the shipping vessel. This means that while the merchant arranges and pays for transportation and insurance, the importer assumes responsibility for the goods once they are aboard the ship. If damage occurs during transit, the buyer will initiate an insurance claim with the seller's insurance company.

When to Use CIF

This shipping agreement is ideal for moving goods across oceans or major waterways internationally. Plus, it is preferred by importers seeking to avoid the hassle of freight charges or insurance fees and exporters willing to cover transportation costs while transferring risk to the buyer post-loading. This term is particularly applicable for direct loading onto vessels and is best suited for non-containerised goods.

When Not to Use CIF Incoterms

It's important to recognise situations where CIF might not be the best fit. For instance, in the case of containerised or bulk cargo shipping, there could be a delay between when goods are prepared for shipment and when they are actually loaded onto ocean freight or inland waterway transport. 

During this interval, the goods are technically under the buyer's risk but not yet covered by the insurance purchased by the seller. This gap highlights a potential vulnerability for the importer, suggesting that CIF agreements may require careful consideration or additional insurance for certain types of shipments.

Therefore, for containerised freight, alternatives like FCA (Free Carrier), CPT (Carriage Paid To), or CIP (Carriage and Insurance Paid To) are advisable. These alternatives cater to all transport modes, including air and land, avoiding the limitations of CIF's sea and inland waterway focus.

Example of CIF Incoterms

Let’s take a hypothetical example to better understand the concept. Imagine a company in Italy purchasing coffee beans from a supplier in Brazil. They agree on CIF Incoterms for the shipment of 10 tons of coffee beans to the Port of Genoa, Italy.

Under CIF terms, the Brazilian supplier is responsible for covering the costs, insurance, and freight needed to get the coffee beans safely to Genoa. This means the supplier pays for the transportation of the goods across the ocean, including insurance to protect against loss or damage to the cargo until it reaches the port specified in the sales contract.

Once the shipment arrives at the Port of Genoa, the responsibility shifts to the Italian company. They will handle all further costs and responsibilities, including unloading, customs clearance, and any further transportation from the port to their facility. This arrangement provides the Italian buyer with the convenience of receiving goods at their nearest port without worrying about the complex logistics and risks of international shipping up to that point.

How Does CIF Work? A Breakdown of Seller and Buyer Responsibilities

Understanding the division of responsibilities between the seller and the buyer is crucial for smooth international transactions. Under CIF Incoterms, these roles are clearly defined to avoid any ambiguity. 

Let's break down what each party is responsible for:

Responsibilities of the Seller

Cost of Goods and Initial TransportationResponsible for the cost of the goods and their shipment to the destination port. This includes packing, handling, and any local transportation charges.
Freight ChargesBearing the cost of freight charges to transport the items to the port of destination.
Insurance CoverageProcuring a minimum level of marine insurance to cover potential loss or damage during transit.
Export DocumentationProviding all the necessary documentation, including the commercial invoice, packing list, and any export licences or permits.
Loading ChargesAssumes all risks associated with loss or damage to the goods until they have been loaded onto the shipping vessel at the port of origin.

Responsibilities of the Buyer

Import Duties and TaxesBuyer assumes responsibility for all import duties, taxes, and other charges upon the products' arrival at the port of destination.
Unloading ChargesBearing the costs of unloading the containerised freight from the shipping vessel.
Further TransportationTransportation costs to move the consignment from the port to its final destination.
Import DocumentationAcquiring all necessary documentation, such as import licences or permits, to clear the cargo through customs.
Risk Transfers After LoadingAssumes all risks associated with loss or damage to the goods once they have been loaded onto the shipping vessel at the port of origin.

CIF in eCommerce: The Seller’s Perspective

In the context of eCommerce, the use of CIF can be particularly significant for sellers. This section explores some of the associated pros and cons.

Advantages for the Seller

For eCommerce businesses, especially those using platforms like Shopify or WooCommerce, CIF offers several advantages, such as:

  • Optimised Inventory Management: When the seller assumes responsibility for shipping and insurance, it allows eCommerce businesses to maintain leaner inventories. This is particularly beneficial for SMEs that may not have extensive warehousing facilities.
  • Real-Time Tracking and Transparency: In a CIF agreement, the seller usually provides real-time tracking options, offering both the business and the end customer the ability to monitor the shipment. This feature is particularly beneficial for platforms where customer expectations for timely and transparent delivery are high.
  • Risk Mitigation: While the risk is transferred to the buyer once the goods are on board, the mandatory insurance in CIF provides a safety net. This is especially important for high-value items where any loss or damage could significantly impact the business.
  • Regulatory Compliance: CIF terms often include compliance with local and international trade regulations, reducing the legal burden. This is particularly important for companies operating in multiple jurisdictions, including the UK and Europe.

Disadvantages for the Seller

CIF terms also come with specific challenges that sellers must navigate carefully. Below, we explore the nuances of these challenges and their implications:

  • Upfront Financial Commitment: Sellers are required to bear the cost of freight and insurance before receiving payment from the buyer. This upfront financial commitment can strain cash flow, particularly for sellers with high shipping volumes or those dealing with expensive freight rates.
  • Insurance Constraints: The insurance provided under CIF terms typically only covers the minimum level required by the contract. This basic coverage may not be comprehensive enough for high-value or delicate goods, which are more susceptible to damage. Additional expenses can erode profit margins and complicate the pricing strategy of different products.
  • Reliance on Third-Party Carriers: Sellers must depend on external carriers for the transportation of cargo. Any logistical hiccups, such as delays or mishandling, can directly impact delivery timelines and product integrity. Since the seller's reputation is closely tied to the delivery experience, any negative incidents during transit can lead to customer dissatisfaction and potential harm to the brand image.

CIF in eCommerce: The Buyer’s Perspective

Just as CIF holds particular relevance for sellers, it carries equal weight for buyers. This section will outline the advantages and disadvantages of CIF from the buyer's perspective.

Advantages for the Buyer

Here's a closer look at the benefits that CIF Incoterms bring to the table for buyers in the eCommerce landscape:

  • Financial Clarity and Planning: CIF terms consolidate the cost of goods, insurance, and freight into a single price, which simplifies the buyer's expense management. With a clear understanding of the total cost upfront, they can more accurately forecast their financial outlays and avoid unexpected charges that can arise from transportation and insurance.
  • Logistical Simplicity: Since the seller arranges the freight and insurance, the buyer is spared the administrative complexity of negotiating with shipping lines and insurance providers. This hands-off approach to logistics frees up time for buyers, allowing them to focus on other critical aspects of their business, such as sales, marketing, and customer engagement.
  • Risk Management: The insurance and regulatory requirements that come with CIF terms safeguard the buyer, ensuring that their goods are protected against transit risks such as loss, damage, or theft. It can also offer additional peace of mind regarding the lawful handling of their shipments.

Disadvantages for the Buyer

On the flip side, there are also some disadvantages to using CIF Incoterms for buyers. These include the following: 

  • Limited Control Over Shipping Costs: In a CIF agreement, the seller selects the freight forwarder and shipping route, which means the buyer has limited control over these costs. This can sometimes lead to higher expenses, especially if the seller marks up these services.
  • Potential for Hidden Costs: Since the seller handles all the shipping arrangements, there may be additional costs like port charges or handling fees at the destination that are not included in the CIF price. These can come as an unpleasant surprise for the buyer.
  • Regulatory Hurdles: While the seller is responsible for export duties and taxes, the buyer is responsible for import ones. This division of responsibility can create confusion and lead to delays in customs clearance. If the buyer is not well-versed in the import regulations of the destination country, they may face unexpected costs and administrative challenges.

Bezos: Your Gateway to Seamless International Trade

The logo of Bezos.

When it comes to navigating the intricate world of CIF Incoterms, Bezos stands as a beacon of efficiency and reliability. As a full-service fulfilment provider, we understand the complexities involved in international shipping, especially for eCommerce businesses.

Why Choose Bezos?

  • Real-Time Visibility: Our intuitive portal offers real-time tracking of your orders, ensuring complete transparency from warehouse to customer.
  • Automated Solutions: Our proprietary AI technology identifies and resolves logistics issues before they become a problem, saving you time and reducing costs.
  • Cost-Effectiveness: With Bezos, you can save £1 to £2 per order and up to 80% on international orders, making your CIF transactions more economical.
  • Expert Support: Our dedicated account managers ensure that your orders are in safe hands. Plus, we offer a two-hour ticket response time because we value your time as much as you do.
  • Flexible Terms: No long-term contracts, no hidden fees, and no minimum order volumes. We believe in complete transparency and flexibility.

Ready to simplify your CIF transactions and take your international shipping to the next level? Get your free quote from Bezos today and start saving now!


Understanding CIF Incoterms is crucial for any business involved in international trade. From outlining the responsibilities of buyers and sellers to offering a framework for shipping costs, insurance, and freight, CIF provides a structured approach to global commerce. 

However, it's essential to be aware of both its advantages and limitations. By doing so, you can make informed decisions that align with your business objectives. The latest Incoterms 2020 rules further refine these guidelines, making it even more critical to stay updated.

Also, when it comes to navigating the complexities of CIF Incoterms, Bezos offers a streamlined, cost-effective solution that puts you in control. With real-time visibility, automated solutions, and a global fulfilment network, we make international shipping hassle-free.

Eager to elevate your global shipping game? Get in touch with our team now.


What are the differences between CIF and Delivered Duty Paid?

CIF (Cost, Insurance, and Freight) requires the seller to cover cost, insurance, and freight to the destination port, whereas the DDP (Delivered Duty Paid) includes all fees, risks, and duties until the goods reach the buyer's premises.

What is the difference between FOB and CIF?

FOB (Free On Board) requires the buyer to be responsible once goods are on board the vessel at the origin port, while CIF (Cost, Insurance, and Freight) requires the exporter to manage cost, insurance, and freight to the destination port.

Is CIF an Incoterm used for air or sea shipments? 

CIF is specifically designed for sea and inland waterway transport. It is not used for air freight, where other terms are more appropriate.



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