Air Freight When Importing from China: A Complete Guide

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Air freight can bring your cargo from a factory floor in China, to your warehouse, in a matter of days. However, Air freight is not a viable option for all sorts of cargo.

In this article, you will learn more about Air shipping costs, customs procedures, cargo restrictions and insurance options when importing from China.

1. Air freight is the fastest mode of transportation

Air freight is superior to Sea freight in many ways. However, the primary reason to get your cargo delivered by air, is shorter delivery time.

While Sea freight can take a month from port to port (that depends of course on the destination), with a few more days spent on administration and wire transfers – Air freight can get your product from the factory floor, to your office, in only 5 days.

The specific delivery time depends, as there are various classes of Air freight, such as express and economy. Regardless, you will save plenty of time.

An interesting fact is that only 5% of the world’s international transportation, in terms of cargo volume, is delivered by air. However, if we instead look at the total value, that figures jump up to 30% of the world’s total.

2. Air freight is more expensive than sea freight

Air freight is generally more expensive than sea freight, at least for shipments with a volume larger than 0.5 cbm and weighing over 150 kgs.

In fact, you’d save quite a bit by ordering delivery by sea, rather than air, even when importing small volumes from China.

However, Air freight is all about the time aspect. Time is money, and that extra month you can save on the transit time, can be worth far more than the extra shipping cost.

This is especially true for startups, rushing to get their first batch of products to market.

One thing that many Importers do is to first get a portion, say 10%, of the products delivered by air – while the rest is shipped by sea.

Thereby you can deliver pre-ordered goods and maintain sales for the time it takes for the remaining goods to arrive by sea.

Air freight

3. A simple process and easy to track

The process is generally very simple, when compared to other modes of transportation. Everything is highly standardized, and follows a procedure that require minimal involvement from the importer.

In addition, Air freight can also be tracked in real time, online. Hence, you can get instant information about the current status and location of the cargo, as long as you have the tracking ID.

4. Air cargo price calculation when importing from China

The air freight price can be calculated using two methods. The first being the most obvious: The cost per kilogram multiplied with the cargo weight.

However, given that an Airbus or Boeing has a relatively limited cargo space, weight is not the only factor to consider. For low density cargo (i.e., low weight, high volume), you will be charged based on the volume rather than the weight.

As such, Apparel is rarely delivered by air, while expensive electronic devices often are.

Case Study A (Actual weight applies)

  • Dimensions: 0.82 x 1.2 x 0.65 m (Equals: 0.6396 cbm)
  • Weight 171 kg
  • Volumetric factor: 200
  • Volumetric weight: 0.6396 cbm x 200 = 127.92 kg
  • Rate: 4.6 USD / kg

Result: The actual cargo weight is higher than the volumetric weight and thus the actual weight is applied.

Total price: 4.6 USD x 171 kg = 786.6 USD (equals 4.6 USD per kilogram)

Case Study B (Volumetric weight applies)

  • Dimensions: 0.82 x 1.2 x 0.65 m (Equals: 0.6396 cbm)
  • Weight 91 kg
  • Volumetric factor: 200
  • Volumetric weight: 0.6396 cbm x 200 = 127.92 kg
  • Rate: 4.8 USD / kg

Result: The actual cargo weight (91 kgs) is lower than the volumetric weight (127.92 kg) and thus the volumetric weight is applied

Total price: 4.8 USD x 127.92 = 614.016 USD (equals 6.747 USD per kilogram)
Volumetric factors

  • < 5000 cm3 per kg = 200 kg per cbm
  • < 6000 cm3 per kg = 167 kg per cbm
  • < 7000 cm3 per kg = 143 kg per cbm

5. When Air Freight is a viable shipping option

As previously mentioned, Air freight can be a viable option for high value, high density and low volume cargo.

While it excludes a lot of products that can be imported from China there’s still plenty left for the various Air carriers of the world to handle. I list a few examples below:

  • Product samples
  • Electronics
  • Wristwatches
  • Jewelry
  • Plastic products

However, Air freight is only cost efficient up to a certain point and not all high value and high density products are viable to load on an Airbus.

Take an injection mold of example. It’s a large piece of solid metal worth tens of thousands of dollars. It certainly qualifies as both high value and high density, but the shipping cost for one unit is huge.

It’s hard to state an exact figure, but assuming that keeping the price down is your first priority I would recommend you to not select Air freight when either the cargo volume is larger than 0.5 cubic meters or when the weight is above 150 kgs.

Even with this in mind it’s also a matter of time. Every business owner knows that time is money and sometimes it’s not an option to wait up to a month on the home shore for a container vessel to arrive.

Back in 2011 we had a really messy order (baseball caps in case you wanted to know) that was constantly delayed due to an incompetent supplier.

By the time the caps were finished it was already mid June and shipping by sea meant that the client would have missed the whole summer season.

This is a typical situation when it’s worth considering Air freight even though it’s more expensive than Sea freight.

6. Shipping process

a. The cargo is delivered to the airport in China

  • Buyer action needed: No
  • Exception: If the incoterm is EXW you shall contact the shipping company yourself to order the pickup at your supplier’s location

b. The freight company handles the export clearance

  • Buyer action needed: No

c. The cargo is loaded on the airplane & flown to the destination airport

  • Buyer action needed: No

d. The cargo is unloaded at the destination airport

  • Buyer action needed: No

e. Customs clearance

  • Buyer action needed: No
  • Exception: Your local customs authority may require you to send a copy of the Proforma Invoice to prove that the declared value is correct

f. Final delivery to the consignee address & payment of VAT & Custom fees

  • Buyer action needed: No
  • Exception: If you have only paid for delivery to the destination airport you’ll have to arrange further transportation by yourself or through the Air freight company.

7. Common questions about air freight

Do I need to book the shipping myself, or can my supplier handle it?

The supplier can normally book the shipment via their local freight forwarder. However, we advise you to book air freight yourself, from a forwarder that is based on your country or market.

This gives you a great deal more transparency over the process and the cost. In addition, you can ensure that the cargo is properly insured.

What is the role of an air freight forwarder?

You normally don’t book freight directly from DHL, FedEx or UPS (well, technically you can but that’s a different story).

Instead, you buy freight from a forwarder, which manages logistics for a large number of customers. Often in the same region or industry.

In addition to their expertise, you’ll also get access to discounts that they pass on from their large business volumes, with the major carriers. Of course, they keep a bit of that for themselves.

But in the end, you’re likely to save money and time, by using a freight forwarder.

Can I get insurance on air cargo?

Yes, Air freight insurance is highly recommended and rarely costs more than $15 to $20 per shipment.

Are there any restrictions that I should be aware of?

Yes. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has imposed restrictions on cargo containing lithium batteries, such as power banks and other electronic devices.

To comply, the shipper need to pack the products according to IATA regulations, ensure that it is properly labeled and provide the required documentation.

If you intend to import such products from China, you are advised to only work freight forwarders experienced in shipping lithium batteries and other electronics by air.

8. Air Freight Companies

  • DHL (www.dhl.com)
  • FedEx (www.fedex.com)
  • UPS (www.ups.com)
  • TNT (www.tnt.com)
  • Hong Kong Post (www.hongkongpost.com)
  • EMS Speed Post (www.ems.com)

Do you need help with shipping and customs?

We know how hard it is to understand the shipping and customs process, especially if you have never imported from Asia before. To help startups get a grip on the process, and avoid scams and overcharging shipping agents – we created the Starter Package:

a. Tutorials, Video Walkthroughs and Task Lists that guide you step-by-step through the entire shipping and customs process

b. Import duties, taxes and calculation examples for the US, Europe, Australia & more

c. Licenses, permits and how to obtain the required documents for the US, Europe, Australia & more

In addition, you can also book quality inspections, lab testing and shipping directly from the platform. Click here to learn more.

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    35 Responses to “Air Freight When Importing from China: A Complete Guide”

    1. Amanda April 16, 2014 at 5:01 pm #

      Hi,

      I am importing a a small order of clothing from China via Air Express. What is the customs process and what do I need to do as the importer? Thank you in advance for your advice.

      • Fredrik Grönkvist April 16, 2014 at 7:52 pm #

        Hello Amanda,

        That depends on which country you’re based in. In general, it works something like this:

        1.) The supplier declares the cargo value (products + freight cost) and product name (or the HS code) on the Bill of Lading

        2.) The cargo arrives in the destination airport. The customs add X% duty (varies between different products) based on the declared cargo value (this is why the supplier must declare the true value. Otherwise you’ll end up paying too much or too little). VAT may also be added.

        There are several ways to pay the duties and the VAT / Sales Tax. In most countries, you can apply for customs credit. However, you may also receive an invoice from the customs authorities that you must pay before the cargo is released.

    2. Boris August 2, 2014 at 9:10 am #

      Hi Fredrik

      In “Case Study B” you have the following:

      Total price: 4.8 USD x 127.92 = 614.016 USD (equals 6.747 USD per kilogram)

      Why price per KG is not $4.8? Since total price is calculated based on volumetric weight of shipment, I think you mistakenly calculated value for volumetric weight per KG unit by accounting kilogram weight of 91KGs?

      Question about EXW shipping. Must I check with supplier that he included export documentation or freight forwarder will handle this or notify me in case documentation is missing?

      Thanks

      • Fredrik Grönkvist August 4, 2014 at 5:07 am #

        Hi Boris,

        USD 6.747 per kilogram refers to the “actual cost per kilogram”, rather than USD 4.8 which is the volumetric weight per kilogram.

        If you want exporting clearance, you should ask your supplier to ship according to FOB terms, which includes delivery to port of loading (in China) and freight documents needed for export clearance and customs clearance (in your country)

        • Boris August 4, 2014 at 10:16 am #

          Since air freight companies base their quotes on whichever weight total is higher and not on fixed cost per weight unit, how does finding price per KG of actual weight when quote is for volumetric weight help me when deciding between air or sea shipping?

          Despite FOB is what I should be aiming for, I actually wanted to know what to do if only EXW option is offered to me and I decide to go with it for whatever reason. In particular having export documentation available if I already arranged with my freight forwarder transportation to the port of loading and further. I assume that without export documentation freight forwarder won’t carry on?

          • Fredrik Grönkvist August 8, 2014 at 4:37 am #

            Boris,

            No, they may also base the quote on the actual weight – if the actual weight is lower than the volumetric weight. The volumetric weight is based on the volume, counted in cubic meters, times a price factor (e.g. 150 or 200). Thus, the volume is converted into a weight. It makes sense. There’s limited amount of cargo space in an airplane.

            Well, if a supplier only offers EXW, something is likely wrong. It’s fine to provide an EXW quote, but if they are unable to transport the cargo to a Port of Loading, I would walk away.

            • Boris August 25, 2014 at 2:24 pm #

              What would be the reason for them to base the quote on the actual weight – if the actual weight is lower than the volumetric weight? I had an assumption that air freight company quotes the type of weight whichever is higher but it seems this may not be always the case…

    3. Fredrik Grönkvist August 25, 2014 at 4:47 pm #

      Sorry, I got things mixed up in my previous reply. The air freight price is based on the actual weight if it exceeds the volumetric weight. If the volumetric weight exceeds the actual weight, the former applies.

    4. Boris August 25, 2014 at 6:22 pm #

      Fredrik, it was advised to have backup accounts at popular freight companies like DHL, UPS, TNT, FedEx and EMS

      Would you suggest creating personal or business account with them? I just thought air courier is more personal than commercial air freight which sounds more like business. However if I register personal account, will I be given access to commercial air freight?

      • Fredrik Grönkvist August 25, 2014 at 9:56 pm #

        Boris,

        I would rather advice small businesses to sign on to a freight forwarder, rather than dealing directly with mention companies. This way, you can get access to international freight (sea and air) and domestic transportation, from one company. It also tend to be more cost efficient.

        • Boris August 30, 2014 at 9:34 am #

          You are right but in terms of paying customs clearance fee through your own freight company’s account in case supplier’s quote does not have this included would be a good reason to have own account with freight company?

          Even better example would be DDP when supplier offers inflated rate or does not offer at all and you want to pay DDP through your own account with freight company? You just inquire freight company and ask to be charged DDP through your account. Can this be done?

    5. Kira October 1, 2014 at 11:05 am #

      Hi Fredrick,

      are there any facilitations in terms of air freights within China territory,i mean in case i deliver an imported cargo to Beijing for ex,and unload a part of it,do i have to deal with any formalities in case i deliver the other part of it to Chengzhou for ex (and leave it there) or the only thing i have to do is only to notify customs in Beijing?

      • Kira October 1, 2014 at 11:06 am #

        P/C in case the transportation is performed by the same aircraft (and no other option is avail)

      • Fredrik Grönkvist October 1, 2014 at 1:18 pm #

        Hello Kira,

        I assume you have another supplier in Changzhou that would need to use the itesms for production, is that correct? If so, then I advice you to let the 1st manufacturer in Beijing, split up the shipments in two – of which the 1st part goes to the Airport and the 2nd part to the 2nd supplier in Changzhou.

        • Kira October 2, 2014 at 6:20 am #

          Hello Fredrik,
          i beg your pardon in advance,in case my question does not comply with the topic set forth above,but i thought,if the title says “air freight”,may be you know the solution to my situation.

          no,in fact there is only one carrier and no suppliers (i mean the consignees are just in two different cities:the one in Beijing and the onther one-in Chengzhou),so the shipment is split up any way in two.the matter is that it seems rather complicated to determine what customs procedures shall be used in case of this kind of air freight delivery (for example,if its customs transit),and are there any preferences or facilitations for air freights (provided the carrier is foreign) ?

          • Fredrik Grönkvist October 3, 2014 at 2:36 pm #

            Aha, you are exporting to China? Well, if you want to split up the shipment you need to have a third party (e.g. distributor) as the legal importer in China, that then splits up the shipments in two.

    6. Darren Thomas October 13, 2014 at 7:55 am #

      We have a large volume and very heavy item to ship in to the UK. The item is 4 metres long, 2.4 metres wide and 2 metres high and weighs approx 140t. Is air freight even an option? We have had a few quotes by sea and wanted to compare options.

      • Fredrik Grönkvist October 13, 2014 at 1:59 pm #

        Hello Darren,

        No, I don’t think anything but sea freight is viable in this case

      • Boris C. October 13, 2014 at 7:18 pm #

        Did you just say 1 item weights 140 tonnes?

    7. Rick Hyne February 11, 2015 at 5:02 pm #

      When calculating rates eg air vs sea, one should also include many other costs with sea shipping. Many things within the channel can go wrong and there are many players involved.

      The biggest issue is getting the product to the shipping port, and then from the receiving port to the destination.

      With air shippment it is a very simple process, but a lot more money.

      Shipping rates are also based in US$, therefore recent costs to ship by sea have increases where the air carrier that charges in the local currency may be better value.

    8. Logistic Company In Dubai May 6, 2015 at 12:48 pm #

      Freight forwarders can ease the problem of managing volume content and quickly handle and manage all the cargo services. Through their wide range of experience, they provide complete transport remedies for freight delivery requirements.

    9. ASCO June 24, 2015 at 1:24 pm #

      Hello Fredrik,
      I contacted a chinese firm in order to import electronic devices (cars handsfree kit), Regarding my question about the freight, they answered that it will be USD 280. Could you tell me what it is?

      Thank you

      • Fredrik Grönkvist June 26, 2015 at 3:00 am #

        Hello,

        I assume that is the freight cost? Not sure if I understand the question.

        • ASCO June 26, 2015 at 9:05 am #

          Here is the response: “freight to France is USD280.
          Delivery lead time is around 15 days.”
          I think that I should ask for more details.

    10. Anita November 26, 2015 at 6:14 am #

      Hi
      Quick question. What does DDP stand for.
      Thank you kindly.
      Anita

    11. Peter L V January 19, 2016 at 3:12 pm #

      Hi Fredrik.

      Im a Swedish guy who has plans to shipping hydraulic Products from China direct to customers in USA, from a web sales. Do you know any freight Company who can manage this the whole way with flat rate shipping.
      Products weight between 100 Kg up to 5000 kg, Ore in cubikmetrics 0,5 m3 up to 3,5 m3.

      Regards

      Peter L V

    12. Jairo April 18, 2016 at 5:23 pm #

      Hello, good article.
      I have a question. I am going to ship electronics and the weight will range from 6-15 pounds, will air freight be my best option?
      Also if it is from airport to airport can I pick it up myself or do I necessarily have to hire a company like DHL or UPS?
      I am shipping both to Colombia and the US but in Colombia I know is a bit more expensive. Do you have an Idea of how i could cost and what other fees are involved?
      Thanks

    13. Vicky Liu July 13, 2016 at 2:40 am #

      As per my experience, to USA, if less than 150kgs, it is more cost-effective to ship by courier like DHL, or UPS, because no extra cost for local charges, or to clear Customs,etc. When ship by sea or air, you can not just calculate the air freight or ocean freight, there is much more for others like D/O, AMS, ISF, Customs clearance,etc.

      However, no matter in which way, there is a cost nobody can estimate, that is the import tax.

      If you are not sure how to ship, compare all the prices, and then you can know it.

    14. Amerijet November 11, 2016 at 3:24 am #

      Air freight is a great way to ship many different items. However, like with any shipping method, there are certain times when using air freight makes sense and other times when there are different shipping solutions that would work better for you.

    15. peter torrelli December 12, 2016 at 6:24 pm #

      first of all what good are the dimensions with out a basic chart on price weight and before all this it was simple $3.80 per pound and there were no other costs what is this high way robbery.

      so what is the real cost factors

    16. Shipping in USA August 8, 2017 at 2:02 pm #

      You know, there are several modes. For example, shipping by sea, by air etc. Which is the best option for Indians?

      In my opinion, sea is the most cost effective method, if you want shopping in USA and you are not in a hurry that sea way is better. If you are in a hurry, then air. Shipping by sea takes about 8-10 weeks and shipping by air takes anywhere from couple of days to 1 week. In both cases, you need to be present at the local custom office to take delivery of your items. So, it really depends on how fast you want the items shipped. For example, when someone is returning back to India, once and for all, then they probably are going to build or buy a new house in India and may not be needing the household items immediately. If they can wait a couple of weeks or sometimes months, then shipping by sea is more economical and better.

    17. Tony October 12, 2017 at 12:55 pm #

      Hi, can you please explain also other costs that these forwarding companies, such as:

      Entry the warehouse: USD40/BL
      CUS:USD35/BL
      DOC: USD30/BL

      What documents does the sender need to provide in order to avoid these costs. Honestly they seem like a ripoff.

      Regards,
      Tony

      • Fredrik Gronkvist October 15, 2017 at 11:51 am #

        Hi Tony,

        Yes, there are many fees.

        Is this really for air freight?

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