May 7, 2024

Letter of Credit : Definition, Types, and Practical Process

Embarking on international trade often entails navigating a complex web of financial transactions and assurances. At the heart of this intricate process lies the Letter of Credit (LC), a fundamental instrument in global commerce. Essentially, an LC serves as a binding document issued by a financial institution, guaranteeing payment to a seller, provided that certain conditions are met. This financial tool not only facilitates trust between buyer and seller but also mitigates risks associated with cross-border transactions.

In this comprehensive guide, we delve into the intricacies of Letters of Credit, exploring their definitions, offering real-world examples, and elucidating their indispensable role in the modern trade.

What Is a Letter of Credit?

A letter of credit, also known as a credit letter, stands as a formal assurance from a bank, ensuring that the seller will receive the buyer's payment punctually and in the correct sum. Should the buyer encounter difficulty in fulfilling the payment obligation, the bank assumes responsibility for covering either the entire purchase amount or the outstanding balance. Often presented as a financial facility, akin to a loan, this mechanism serves to bolster trust and security in transactions.

Given the complexities inherent in international commerce, such as geographical distances, varying legal frameworks across nations, and the challenge of establishing personal connections with all parties involved, letters of credit have emerged as a cornerstone of global trade, safeguarding the interests of both buyers and sellers.

How It Works

In significant transactions, buyers often seek a letter of credit to provide sellers with assurance of payment. Issued by a bank, this document serves as a financial guarantee to the seller, effectively assuming responsibility for ensuring their payment. However, before the bank commits to guaranteeing payment, the buyer must demonstrate to the bank their financial capability, either through sufficient assets or a reliable line of credit.

Banks typically require collateral in the form of securities or cash to secure the issuance of a letter of credit. Since a letter of credit is generally considered a negotiable instrument, the issuing bank disburses payment to the beneficiary or any bank designated by the beneficiary. In cases where the letter of credit is transferable, the beneficiary may opt to assign the right to draw funds to another entity, such as a corporate parent or a third party.

The governance of letters of credit in international transactions falls under the purview of the International Chamber of Commerce's Uniform Customs and Practice for Documentary Credits, ensuring standardization and adherence to established protocols.

The Cost of a Letter of Credit

When obtaining a letter of credit from a bank, it's essential to factor in associated fees. Typically, banks levy a charge for this service, often calculated as a percentage of the total credit amount guaranteed. The exact fee structure varies between banks and is influenced by factors such as the size and type of the letter of credit. For instance, a bank may impose a fee equivalent to 0.75% of the guaranteed amount.

Moreover, fees can fluctuate depending on the specific type of letter of credit. In scenarios involving import-export transactions, an unconfirmed letter of credit generally incurs lower costs. Conversely, opting for a confirmed letter of credit might result in higher fees, reflecting the issuing bank's creditworthiness.

Types of Letters of Credit

Letters of credit come in several forms, each tailored to different financial needs and circumstances. These include :

Commercial Letter of Credit : Directly facilitates payment from the issuing bank to the beneficiary.

Revolving Letter of Credit : Allows multiple draws within a specified period, ideal for frequent merchandise shipments.

Traveler’s Letter of Credit : Ensures the honoring of drafts made at designated foreign banks for travelers.

Confirmed Letter of Credit : Involves a secondary bank guaranteeing payment, typically requested in international transactions.

Standby Letter of Credit : Functions as an insurance contract, providing payment if specified conditions are not met.

Preparing to Apply for a Letter of Credit

While Letters of Credit offer robust security in payments, they come with significant administrative burdens and expenses, primarily due to associated bank fees. They are particularly advisable in scenarios of elevated risk, such as when the importer's credit is unsatisfactory, when establishing new trade relationships, or when accommodating extended payment terms.

The meticulous nature of the requisite documentation makes it susceptible to errors and discrepancies. To circumvent payment delays and avoid additional charges, it is imperative that professionals well-versed in the process prepare the required documents.

Furthermore, prior to the importer initiating the Letter of Credit application, the exporter should engage with their bank for guidance. Essential inquiries include :

  1. What types and magnitudes of export transactions warrant a Letter of Credit?
  2. What are the associated costs of procuring a Letter of Credit, and who bears these expenses?
  3. How are disputes between the importer and exporter

The Application Process

Applying for a letter of credit requires meticulous attention to detail to avoid payment delays and additional fees. Trained professionals are often best equipped to handle the intricacies involved.

The application process typically involves :

  1. The importer's bank drafting the letter of credit based on the sales agreement terms and conditions.
  2. The exporter's bank reviewing and approving the letter of credit before forwarding it to the exporter.
  3. The exporter shipping the goods as per the letter of credit instructions and submitting the necessary documentation to their bank.
  4. The exporter's bank verifying compliance with the letter of credit terms and forwarding approved documents to the importer's bank.
  5. The importer's bank making payment to the exporter's bank, enabling the importer to claim the shipped goods.

Navigating the letter of credit process demands diligence and expertise to ensure seamless transactions and mitigate potential risks.

Pros and Cons of Utilizing a Letter of Credit

Navigating the realm of banking, trade, and commerce often necessitates the acquisition of letters of credit, a practice accompanied by its share of advantages and disadvantages.


Fosters Security and Trust : Letters of credit serve as a cornerstone in building confidence and trust between buyers and sellers in trade transactions, providing a secure framework for financial dealings.

Precision in Transaction Specifications : By clearly defining the terms and conditions governing transactions, letters of credit facilitate smoother and more transparent exchanges, minimizing misunderstandings between parties.

Tailored Terms : Offering flexibility, letters of credit can be customized to accommodate the unique circumstances of each transaction, ensuring that the contractual obligations align with the specific needs and preferences of the involved parties.

Efficiency in Fund Transfer : Streamlining the transfer of funds, and letters of credit contributes to enhanced efficiency in financial transactions, reducing delays and administrative burdens.


Buyer Incurs Costs : Typically, the burden of obtaining a letter of credit falls on the buyer, entailing additional financial obligations for initiating the transaction.

Incomplete Transaction Coverage : Despite their comprehensive nature, letters of credit may overlook certain transactional aspects, leaving room for potential oversight or error in the agreement.

Tedious Establishment Process : The process of establishing a letter of credit can be arduous and time-consuming for all parties involved, requiring meticulous attention to detail and adherence to procedural requirements.

Limited Adaptability to External Factors : The terms outlined in a letter of credit may lack provisions for accommodating unforeseen changes in the political or economic landscape, potentially posing challenges in navigating dynamic global environments.

By weighing these advantages and disadvantages, stakeholders can make informed decisions regarding the utilization of letters of credit in their trade and business endeavors, ensuring a balanced approach to financial management and risk mitigation.

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The Letter of Credit (LC) stands as a pivotal instrument in international trade, providing a secure framework for financial transactions while mitigating risks for both buyers and sellers. Through its defined terms and meticulous process, the LC fosters trust and transparency, albeit accompanied by associated costs and administrative burdens.

Understanding its nuances and weighing its pros and cons enables stakeholders to navigate the complexities of global commerce effectively, ensuring smoother transactions and enhanced risk management in the dynamic landscape of international trade.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What is the cost of obtaining a letter of credit?

Banks typically charge a fee for issuing a letter of credit. The exact amount of this fee depends on various factors, including the level of risk involved and the specific type of letter of credit being utilized.

How Does a Letter of Credit Work?

In international trade, a letter of credit ensures timely and full payment to the seller, guaranteed by a bank. Banks charge a fee, usually a percentage of the letter of credit amount, and require collateral from the buyer. Types include revolving, commercial, and confirmed letters of credit

Is there a Difference Between a Commercial Letter of Credit and a Revolving Letter of Credit?

Yes, Commercial letters of credit, a prevalent type, involve banks facilitating direct payments to the beneficiary or seller. Revolving letters of credit, on the other hand, offer versatility by allowing multiple payments over a designated period. They are favored by businesses with recurring transactions, often lasting up to a year.

Additionally, revolving letters of credit streamline financial transactions and foster long-term partnerships between parties. This revolving mechanism enhances financial fluidity, as it eliminates the need for repeated credit applications for each transaction.

When Does Payment take place with a Letter of Credit?

Similar to an escrow arrangement, payment to the beneficiary is contingent upon the fulfillment of specific obligations or criteria outlined in the letter of credit agreement.

What benefits do sellers get from a letter of credit?

A letter of credit provides sellers with assurance of payment, particularly in scenarios where the buyer is unable to fulfill the full outstanding amount. In such cases, the issuing bank is obligated to settle the payment to the seller.

What benefits do purchasers get from a letter of credit?

While letters of credit are often seen as protecting the seller, they also benefit purchasers. If a seller fails to meet their obligations, such as delivering goods on time, the purchaser is reimbursed through the letter of credit, protecting them from financial losses.