Ocean freight, also called sea freight, is the movement of goods internationally by sea. Ocean freight is far and away the most popular option for shipping goods internationally.
Roughly 90% of goods are transported around the world by sea. But while it’s popular, that doesn’t mean it is the only option or the best one for that matter.
Whether you are just starting or are a veteran in international shipping, most business owners find that they need to review their shipping options from time to time.
If you’re currently at that point where you need to ask “Does ocean freight make sense for me?”, we’re here to help.
What is ocean freight?
Ocean freight is the method of transporting goods through the sea. It is an important part of cross-border trade that lets people move massive amounts of goods between countries.
The goods are typically transported on ships through the open ocean. There are many kinds of shipping options available for different kinds of goods. One of the most popular is container shipping, technically named containerization. With this option, goods are shipped using containers with standard sizes of 20 to 40 feet.
Apart from ocean freight, there are other international freight transport modes, which include courier, express air freight, and standard air freight. All of these transport modes involve shipping by air and are therefore much faster than ocean freight. They typically take between 1 to 2 weeks. But they are also far more expensive than ocean freight and can only take smaller shipments.
Air freight vs ocean freight: how to choose
While ocean freight certainly is not cheap when shipping small quantities, it scales really well. For larger shipments, it produces a better overall cost. This is why it has become such an important part of international trade. Despite this, ocean freight is much slower, as the typical time for the arrival of most shipments is between 40 to 60 days.
Types of ocean freight services
As mentioned earlier, container shipping is one of the most popular options for ocean freight. This is largely due to its relative safety and ease of handling. Containers can be moved very easily without disturbing the goods being shipped. However, they are only a good option for certain kinds of goods, such as dry or already packaged goods.
When it comes to container shipping, there are essentially two types of shipping services that are available – LCL or FCL. LCL means less than container load, while FCL means full container load.
FCL shipments basically involve shipping your goods via one or more containers that you use exclusively. Only your goods will be in the container, ensuring that your shipment will be undisturbed until you open the container by yourself. This option makes the most sense when you have goods that can fill a container or that nearly fill it up.
With LCL shipments, the goods intended to be shipped are usually less than it takes to fill a container. So, instead of having a container all to yourself, which can be relatively expensive, you can split the cost and share the container with goods belonging to other people. But the downside to this option is that your goods may be more vulnerable to mishandling or damage during the voyage.
How to ship using ocean freight
Ocean freight relies heavily on the services of third parties called freight forwarders. Freight forwarders usually mean a third-party individual or company who pick up your goods, properly arrange them to be loaded and onboard for shipping, and eventually correctly delivered to the final destination. This is because it is usually necessary to have trusted eyes and hands that can help collect your goods from the seller, arrange shipping and place your goods aboard the ship.
The shipping contract is also an important part of the process you should know about. There are standard international shipping terms that govern ocean freight contracts. These are called “Incoterms”, short for international commercial terms. It defines how far along the process will the seller be held responsible for the goods, and at what point will the buyer takes over the liability for the shipment.
The most popular incoterms are:
FOB (Free on Board): Under the FOB agreement, buyers and sellers share the responsibility of the delivery process. Seller takes obligations to make sure the goods are packaged, labeled appropriately, and loaded correctly ready for shipping. Once the goods have been loaded onboard, the obligations transfer to the buyer.
EXW (Ex Works): An EXW contract places the majority of responsibility on the buyer. The buyer picks up goods at the manufacturer’s and is responsible for the transit of the goods to their final destination.
DDP (Delivered Duty Paid): With DDP, the seller takes the maximum obligations and buyers take minimum obligations. The terms dictate that the seller will be responsible for the costs of shipping, insuring the goods and inland transportation.
There’s obviously a lot to learn about how these Incoterms work and which makes the most sense for you.
After deciding your shipping terms, the process of concluding the ocean freight will involve the following stages:
Export haulage: This is the start of the shipping journey. At this stage, your goods will be transported from the seller’s warehouse to your freight forwarder’s warehouse.
Export customs clearance: Most countries require goods that are meant for export to first go through clearance. Clearance will include providing a detailed declaration of the cargo, along with supporting documentation.
Origin handling: This stage covers all the activities that will be necessary to prepare your goods for shipping. The cargo will be put in a staging area for inspection and confirmation. Once confirmed, the freight forwarder will issue a cargo receipt confirming that they have received the goods as described. If the shipment is FCL, the goods will be stacked in their container. If LCL, they will be placed in the warehouse to await consolidation with other goods in a container headed for the same destination port. Finally, the container will be trucked to the port of departure to await loading on the ship.
Ocean freight: This is the actual transportation of the goods across the ocean. The stages up to this point may take days or weeks, depending on several factors. Ocean freight itself will likely take anywhere from 20-60 days, depending on where the goods are headed.
Import customs clearance: Once the goods arrive at their destination port, they will await import clearance. It also involves completing the necessary forms, declaring the cargo and paying the necessary fees.
Destination handling: This stage covers all the activities necessary to confirm the goods, check the documents including the bill of lading and transporting the container to the freight forwarder’s warehouse. Here, the goods will be opened, checked and then sorted for import haulage.
Import haulage: This is the final stage of the process. At this stage, the goods will be transported inland by train or truck to the final destination determined by you.
The freight forwarder can be charged with handling every stage of the process. Or you may decide to make alternative arrangements for certain stages to save costs.
How are ocean freight rates calculated?
Ocean freight rates are usually determined based on a number of charges, such as the cost per weight of goods and the space they take up. For instance, ocean freight typically costs around 50 cents per kilogram (kg)2.
Other charges that may be included in the freight rate include:
Customs security surcharge
Container freight station (this applies to LCL consolidation only)
Pickup and delivery at ports and warehouses
Ocean freight charges are not static. Depending on a number of factors, the price may go significantly higher, or may fall even lower. Some of these factors include:
Fuel costs: Fuel is critical to shipping goods via sea freight, and the prices can sometimes be volatile. When prices rise, you can expect rates to rise as well.
Exchange rates: Slight fluctuations in exchange rates can result into a severe loss for shipping lines, especially considering how long a single trip can take.
Supply and demand: Festive holidays often mean people work less, and this also affects the shipping industry. As a result, just before festive holidays like Chinese New Year, there is usually a spike in demand that can drive freight rates up.
Size of shipment: Obviously, larger-sized shipments will include a lot more work and will cost significantly more.
Type of vessel required: Containerised shipping is quick, easy and effective, which makes it relatively cheap. Other vessels, such as tankers for liquid cargo, or bulk carriers for unpackaged dry goods may cost more.
ocean freight charges
What are the pros and cons of ocean freight?
As you have learned already, ocean freight may be popular, but it has both its high points and low points. Some of the advantages you can expect from ocean freight include:
Higher shipping capacity: Sea freight is perfect for bulky shipments. Other shipping options are only viable for lighter products that are not being shipped in bulk.
Cheaper costs: Overall, ocean freight is much cheaper than other options, costing just 50 cents per kg. Compare this to standard air freight which costs roughly $4 per kg and express air freight, which costs $6 per kg.
Fewer restrictions: Shipping by air freight is subject to several restrictions relating to the type of goods you can ship. For instance, you cannot ship flammable products like perfumes or biochemical products like some medicines on air freight. There are fewer restrictions for shipping by sea.
Lower carbon footprint: Ocean freight produces relatively lower emissions than air freight. New regulations introduced by the International Maritime Organisation will reduce these emissions even further.
Despite the positives, here are some negatives to keep in mind：
Longer shipping time: Ocean freight is so much slower than air freight, which is usually five to six times faster. Taking the example of the freight between the US and China, shipment by sea will take about 30-40 days, whereas shipment by air only takes about a week, and express air may only take 3 days.
Unpredictable shipping: Ocean freight is more vulnerable to external shocks like bad weather, customs delays and port congestion. This can easily add days or weeks to your delivery.
Less protection: Since they are in transit for much longer, goods shipped by ocean freight are more susceptible to damage.
Less reliable: Due to the many moving parts involved in ocean freight, goods are at a greater risk of being mishandled or misplaced.
When does it make sense to choose ocean freight?
You should consider going with ocean freight if you are shipping large or bulky goods, or when it is vital to reduce your shipping costs to save money. Ocean freight also works very well when you have a high volume of orders within the same period.
But if you are deciding to go with ocean freight, you should generally leave more than enough time for the goods to arrive. If you do not have flexible delivery dates, then you may be better off looking elsewhere. The complexity of the process and the potential for delays may put you in a less than ideal situation otherwise.
Overall, ocean freight represents a great option for international shipping, but only in the right circumstances. It can be a relatively cheap option, but this is often offset by the ambiguity in the process.