Shipping From China – Sea Freight Vs Air Freight

Shipping From China – Sea Freight Vs Air Freight

Deciding on whether to ship via sea or air from China is a crucial decision for importers. We’ve put together this guide to help importers quickly decide the best option based on cost, delivery time and complexity.  The guide covers freight methods, container types and sizing, delivery times and weight calculations.

Sea Freight

For volumes over 1 cbm and weights over 100kg, delivery via sea is definitely your cheapest option.  The downside of sea freight is slower delivery times.


There are two options for sea freight, full container loads (FCL) and less than container loads (LCL).  FCL containers are filled with your product only. With LCL containers, your product will be consolidated with other importers’ goods from the same port origin and destination.

When to Ship FCL?

As a general rule of thumb, if your volumes are over 15 cubic meters (cbm), then it makes sense to ship FCL as the freight costs per unit with FCL are lower than with LCL.  If your container load volume is above 10cbm, then consider increasing your order volumes to fill a full container load to reduce freight costs per unit.

See 7 reasons its difficult to start small when buying from China.

Container Size/Dimensions

There are three sizes of FCL containers: 20 foot, 40 foot and 40 foot high container. The practical container capacity for each size is 28cbm, 56cbm, and 68cbm respectively. The weight limit/restriction for each container is a maximum of 28000kg irrespective of container size.

Delivery Times

Approximate delivery times from a port in China:

  • Australia ~ 18 days
  • The United Kingdom ~ 30 days
  • USA and Canada (West) ~ 20 days
  • USA and Canada (East) ~ 30 days
  • South Africa ~ 30 days

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Air Freight and Courier

Shipment via air freight is best for high value – low volume goods (electronics), and for urgent deliveries (samples). When shipping small volumes (less than 1cbm), delivery via air is faster and in most circumstances more affordable than shipping via sea.

What’s the Difference Between Courier and Air Freight?

Courier is a ‘door-to-door’ service through companies such as TNT, FedEx, and DHL. These companies will arrange to pick up from the factory and handle customs clearance at both the destination and origin ports, along with payment of duty and taxes.

Air freight is similar to shipping an LCL container in that the service is port to port (airport to airport in this instance).  A forwarding agent will be required to handle customs clearance and to arrange internal delivery (haulage) to your door.

How Do I Decide Which is Best?

Delivery through a courier is the simplest method as you don’t need a forwarding agent to handle customs clearance, payment of tax and duty, and internal delivery.  Courier services are also typically faster than air freight.

When it comes to pricing, for small chargeable weights (see below for formula of chargeable weights) less than 500kg, a courier is more economical.

It’s important to note that we are talking about ‘chargeable weight’, which is the greater of either the actual weight or the volumetric weight of a shipment.

Think of it this way, a 100kg parcel of linen will have a much larger volume (box size) than a 100kg parcel of batteries.  It will, therefore, take up more space on the plane. Freight services account for this differential through the volumetric weight formula.

How Do I Calculate Volumetric Weight?

Volumetric weights for cargo in kgs/cbm are calculated as follows: total volume (LxWxH) x 167kg/cbm

Where 167 kg/cbm is the air shipment volumetric weight constant for courier (it’s 200kg/cbm for air freight).

If you have 10 boxes with the dimensions of 1.2m x 0.4m x 0.6m.  The volume is 0.288 cbm x 10 boxes = 2.88 cbm

The volumetric weight (courier) is therefore 2.88 x 167 = 480.96 kg/cbm

*For air freight it’s 2.88 x 200 = 576kg/cbm

How do I Calculate the Chargeable Weight?

As mentioned above, the chargeable weight is the greater of either the actual weight or the volumetric weight.

From the calculations above, the volumetric weight is 480.96 kg/cbm.

If each box weighs 40 kg, then the actual weight is 40kg x 10 boxes = 400 kg.

Therefore in this instance, the chargeable weight is the volumetric weight of 480.96 kg/cbm.

*as the weight is above 100kg and the volume is above 100 cbm, the best option in terms of price would be to ship this parcel via sea freight rather than air.

Final Notes

Shipping and logistics are far less complicated than most new importers imagine. It can provide you with a competitive cost advantage over your competitors if you take the time to understand the processes and plan/forecast order quantities over the medium-long term.

Sourcing agents in China generally also offer shipping management. At Easy Imex we make sure that all clients importing with us get the best rates. Contact us for more information.

Importing from China: Air vs Sea Freight

Importing from China Air vs Sea Freight

Having established the countless benefits of importing products from China, you’ll be incentivized to evaluate the practical steps necessary to get your goods across the border.

The main two options to consider are air and sea freight, which both come with a set of unique pros and cons. Despite air freight being a favourable option due to its clear time advantage, sea freight is often preferred because it works out much cheaper when dealing with large volumes of stock.

However, cost and time aren’t the only factors to consider when you’re weighing up your options. It’s important to assess the risk of damage to your product, the type of product you’re shipping, and other factors like the environmental impact of your chosen mode of transportation.

If you’re looking to import from China to UK, or to any other region for that matter, here are some critical advantages and disadvantages to consider so you can make a well-informed decision.

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Cost of Shipping

Air freight is infamous for its high cost, which, generally speaking, will set you back around 12-16 times more than sea freight does. But what exactly is the reason for this excessive difference? Well, in relation to cargo ships, most aircrafts have limited capacity, which is why roughly 90% of worldwide shipping occurs by sea.

However, when it comes to price one of the biggest contributing factors is the weight of the goods being shipped. Sea freight is usually a lot cheaper because you can ship heavier loads at a fraction of the price. If you’re looking to send lighter loads, shipping by air can be a feasible option because lower freight size will negate some of the associated higher costs.

It’s also important to evaluate your current circumstances to determine the significance of shipping time. If the components of your order are needed urgently to fulfill important orders, you’ll be positioned to benefit from the fast delivery times of air freight.

Cost aside, both air and sea shipping have the same destination and customs clearance charges, though there may be additional sea shipping charges if your order is not a full container load (FCL).

When calculating the best choice given your current situation, remember to evaluate every option so you can position yourself suitably.

Reliability and Risk of Damage

Airfreight tends to be a more reliable option because an aircraft is more likely to stay within a pre-arranged schedule. Though both air and sea freight rely on good weather to meet set deadlines, sea cargo can face greater delays because it’s more susceptible to adverse weather conditions.

It’s also important to note that flights run more frequently than ships, which means a missed flight won’t be the end of the world because another flight will be commissioned soon after. On the other hand, if a cargo ship misses a shipment there can be lengthy delays due to the weekly schedules they usually operate on.

Despite air freight often being perceived as being gentler on packages, this is a popular misconception. If you’ve ever seen cargo loaders at airports throwing packages with reckless abandon, you’ll understand this point of view. Additionally, air packages aren’t always secured as well as those shipped by sea, especially when the air cargo in question isn’t loaded into pallets. In these situations, products are more vulnerable to break than when shipped by sea.

It’s important to acknowledge that your items will encounter fluctuating air pressures and temperature differences that can put your products at risk. If you’re seeking more information on the risk of damages associated with air and sea freight, be sure to click here and check out our Import from China Guide.

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Transit Time

Airfreight generally takes 3-5 days to arrive at its destination, with 10 days being the absolute maximum you’d expect to wait. This is in stark contrast to sea shipping, which can take anywhere from 21-30 days.

However, if you’re willing to pay slightly more for reliability, some sea shipping companies promote faster shipping at a premium rate that will undercut the price of air freight.  

Remember to factor in the time it’ll take you to transport goods from the arrival destination to your warehouse or factory, whether that’s from an airport or boat port. This means you’ll have to coordinate a freight forwarder to handle transportation to your location of choice, adding time to the process.

What Are the Limitations of Both Methods?

What’s great about sea freight is that you can carry just about anything you can think of, whether you’re looking to import furniture, clothing, or cars. So, if you’ve been contemplating whether receiving furniture by boat is a real possibility, you better start looking into the import tax on furniture from China!

Shipping large shipments via plane is not impossible, just there are a limited number of large cargo planes in the world. In terms of capacity, the vast majority of cargo ships can ship more than most available air freight options. To further compound the case for air cargo, certain items are restricted and can’t be transported by air, something that’s largely dependent on country, airline, and the nature of the product in question. For example, magnetic substances, flammable and corrosive items, and chemicals often face special restrictions.

Fortunately, with air freight you won’t face the same limitations, giving air freight a slight edge in terms of which is most beneficial.

Considering Your Impact on the Environment

From a modern business perspective, it’s important to look beyond price and convenience and consider sustainability. What sort of impact will your transportation of goods have on the planet?

Airfreight has a much larger carbon footprint than sea freight, so if you’re looking to embrace a green industry standard you should use sea freight. However, shipping by sea can contribute to noise pollution, damage to marine animals, and oil pollution, meaning it’s ultimately the lesser of two evils.

Sustainable shipping initiatives are a great way to offset the high carbon footprint associated with the shipping industry.

All things considered, sea freight is a preferable option because there are fewer limitations, it’s better for the environment, and it costs less. Having established your method of choice, you’d be wise to work with a sourcing agent like Easy Imex. Companies like these are committed to scaling your business by leveraging elite sourcing services to help you secure better prices, improved product quality, and faster lead times.

Work with a sourcing agent today and you can benefit from factory-to-door services without having to commit valuable working hours to the process.

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