Document Alignment

Documentary requirements can be simplified by the alignment of trade documents based on internationally accepted standards and best practices. Alignment entails the visual aspects of documents, including paper size, margins and form design, and the alignment of the presentation of data. Standard aligned documents can be extended into electronic documents for paperless trade and Single Window systems.
Document alignment aims to limit errors in filling out the documents, reduce time and costs related to management of the documents and preparation of the information, and set the basis for automation.

Relevance for trade facilitation

Traders must provide information on goods, the means of transport and persons accompanying the goods, to various regulatory agencies and private parties. Multiple documents and forms, so-called trade documents, are used to collect and submit this information. The effort to complete these and prepare the necessary information is time consuming. Often, the documents use different definitions for the information to be provided and various formats for the presentation of data. They have different layouts and paper sizes. This increases the likelihood of errors and delays, and increases the time necessary to prepare the information.
Alignment of all documents used throughout a particular industry or in a specific country would simplify the process. If the layout of the documents is standardized, it is easier to fill them in and to read them - independently of the particular language used. Another benefit of using aligned documents is that traders can use a master document into which all the relevant consignment data is stored and can be reproduced on any required form or document.


In the 1960's, UNECE developed the a layout key for trade documents. This is known as the UN Layout Key. It has become the most important tool for document alignment in international trade. Most Customs declarations, in particular the ones used and produced by the ASYCUDA System, are aligned to the UN Layout Key. Other standardized documents used for international trade are the IMO FAL Forms , developed on the basis on the FAL Convention.
The UN Layout Key provides a model form that defines specifications such as paper size, margins and forms design sheet. It also gives the location of specific types of information, the so-called box system. It is recommended to use the UNLK together with international standards to define the information to be placed in these boxes.
One of these standards is the UN/TDED. This is a library for the definition of data objects used in international trade. It provides further clarification on the information required by giving a description of the meaning of the data. The TDED also assigns numbers to data elements. With the TDED as a reference, data becomes comparable across countries and systems.
Another aspect of defining the information to be put on forms is covered by code lists. These provide codes that facilitate inter-operability by constraining the text that can be input in a particular box on the form. This ensures all partners in the supply chain can reuse the information supplied by each other. Each form can have several code lists to constrain input on elements such as currency codes, country codes, units of measurement, and mode and means of transport. Another example of such a list is the UN/LOCODE which assigns codes to locations used in trade and transport. This ensures there is no ambiguity involved when a party receives a document with these codes. These recommended codes are maintained by a neutral agency, UNECE.

Role of document alignment for electronic documents and automated processing

Aligned trade documents are a prerequisite for the automation of documents. They provide a document data model that is defined using an international standard, the UN/TDED, and can be used by data modellers to define the data structure necessary for electronic exchange. For example, the Core Component Library (UN/CCL) includes references to the TDED elements and is therefore an extension of this process of migrating paper to electronic documents. Aligned forms also provide information for the development of style sheets that provide a standard method to render the data from a syntax-specific format into a specific form, such as pdf (i.e. to provide visualization of key data elements and make the process more user-friendly).

Implementation guidance

UNNExT has developed the Guide for the Design of Aligned Trade Forms for Paperless Trade. This provides useful guidance on the different aspects of document alignment and use of the UN Layout Key, Code Lists and the UNTDED.