• Air Freight When Importing from China: A Complete Guide

    Posted on 38 Comments

    Suggestion: Watch the 10 minutes video tutorial before reading this article

    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.


    Get 10% off on your first shipment with Freightos

    Yes, I want my 10% shipping coupon now
    The offer is valid for both sea and air freight (maximum amount: US$100)


    air cargo loading

    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.

    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.

    HK airport

    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.

    product standards

    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)

    9. Crowdfunding Fulfillment

    Many of our customers raise funds on Kickstarter.com and Indiegogo.com, before starting production. This complicates the logistics, as your backers are likely to be spread out across several countries.

    Luckily, fulfillment companies such as Exchain and Easyship help to bridge this gap.

    These companies offer so called ‘Crowdfunding fulfillment’ meaning that the goods are delivered directly from the supplier in Mainland China, to a warehouse in Hong Kong. From this warehouse, the items are repacked and delivered one by one to backers in the United States, Europe, Asia and beyond.

    lDo 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.

  • We help eCommerce companies import quality products from Asia

    Book Free Consultation