Shipping Costs When Importing from China: 7 Key Facts

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What makes the topic of shipping and logistics complicated is not really the process itself, which is the case with most other procedures importers need to deal with when importing from China. It’s the shipping costs.

Moving cargo from Country A, to Country B, involves a myriad of companies and government authorities, on both sides. For small to medium sized enterprises, especially those without previous experience, there are plenty of pitfalls.

In this article, we explain what you must know about the main shipping costs that arise from the factory floor in China, to final delivery in your warehouse.

This article refers repeatedly to Incoterms. If you wish to fresh up your memory, first read our guide on Incoterms when shipping from China


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Local Transportation (Factory to Port of Loading)

When production is completed, and the batch is approved by the buyer, the supplier shall arrange for transportation from its warehouse to the nearest Port of Loading.

The shipping cost for transporting an FCL 20’’ container range between a few hundred, up to around RMB 3,000 (Around $480), depending on the distance.

As most export oriented manufacturers are still based around the coast, and thanks to China’s infrastructure, a port is rarely more than a three to four hour drive away.

That said, local transportation is included in the FOB price. If you, like most importers, purchase according to FOB terms, the cost is already included in the price paid to the supplier.


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China Export Clearance

Before your cargo can be loaded and shipped, the goods must be cleared for exports. I can’t say that I know the exact details of this process, as such paperwork is always handled by the supplier, or its export agent.

I am, however, aware of the issues that may arise if such documents are not produced.

The Chinese Customs Authorities, the ‘Hai Guan’, tend to make routine checks on roughly 10% of the outbound shipments (probably more for inbound).

If a supplier is found, trying to export products without the proper documentation, the customs authorities may issue a fine counted in the thousands of RMB.

All export clearance documents and procedures are included in the FOB price. Importers are wise to avoid hassle and simply stick to FOB transactions.

Yet, many buyers still believe they can save a few dollars by ordering according to Ex Works (EXW) terms, which neither includes inland transportation, nor export clearance documentation.

Buyers that for some reason still insist on buying according to EXW terms may purchase the export clearance documents from a licensed freight forwarder, or export agent – at a cost ranging between US$100 to US$200.

I am quite confident that it’s both more time and cost efficient to let the supplier handle this part.

Freight Cost

With ‘Freight Cost’, I’m referring to the cost of shipment from the Port of Loading to the Port of Destination, in the buyer’s country.

This is the most complex part, as it’s always balanced towards the local charges, paid in the Port of Destination. Basically, there are two ways to pay a freight forwarder:

  1. High freight cost, low local charges
  2. Low freight cost, high local charges

When shipping Full Container Loads (FCL), the price is, at least based on my experience, almost exclusively set according to the first option.

The price for an FCL shipment, obviously depends on the destination, both in terms of distance and cargo volumes. Below follows a few FCL 20’’ price samples for various destinations in the US, EU, Australia and Asia:

  • Shenzhen – Los Angeles: $2,230 – $2,460
  • Shenzhen – New York: $2,275 – $2,515
  • Shenzhen – Felixstowe (UK): $1,435 – $1,585
  • Shenzhen – Hamburg: $1,440 – $1,590
  • Shenzhen – Sydney: $685 – $760
  • Shenzhen – Singapore: $270 – $295
  • Shenzhen – Dubai: $1,445 – $1,595

Less than Container Load (LCL) shipping is a completely different story. LCL rates are often set at rock bottom prices – sometimes as low as US$30 to US$40 per cubic meter.

What the forwarder is not telling you about is the local charges, which combined can cost three to five times as much as the ‘freight cost’. In the industry, this is called a ‘kickback rate’, and is very common.

Low freight cost, but very high local charges. Yet, importers fall for this trick time and time again.

Essentially, forwarders are driven to apply these practices, as many small businesses importing from China are quick to reject a proper freight quotation, as it’s far more pricey than a quote based on a kickback rate.

Nowadays there are tools, like this one, that allow you to compare costs from different freight forwarders with a few clicks.

shipping costs overview

Insurance

I cannot find a single good reason to not buy an insurance. Many suppliers use cheap and substandard export packaging, and few buyers bother to set any specific quality requirements – or even check the packing prior to shipment.

Without an insurance, no compensation is paid by the forwarder, in case the cargo is damaged during transportation.

Most forwarders use PingAn to insure cargo, which charge 0.02%, based on 110% of the FOB price. Assuming you buy goods worth US$50,000, the insurance will only set you back a mere US$110.

That’s a fair deal if you ask me. Based on my experience, compensation claims are fairly simple to make, and the insurance company is usually satisfied with photos and a protocol listing the quantity and value of the damaged goods.

Document Delivery

The buyer is expected to pay for any ‘additional shipping costs’ arising, including delivery of the Bill of Lading, Commercial Invoice, Packing List and other documents required, such as a Form A or Country of Origin Certificate. A FedEx or DHL delivery of the mentioned documents will set you back another US$40 to US$50.

Local Charges (Port of Destination)

The local charges often come as an extremely unpleasant surprise to first time importers. As previously mentioned, the practice of kickback rates among freight forwarders enables suppliers to offer shipping at extremely low prices, while the real profits are made upon arrival in the Port of Destination.

When shipping FCL, the local charges are set per container, rather than per cubic meters. I don’t have price data for each and every port, but the charges tend to range between US$500 to US$1000 per container.

However, that’s only for FCL. When shipping LCL, the local charges are calculated based on the volume, set in cubic meters. The price increase logarithmically, to the point where an LCL shipment of 15 to 17 cubic meters is just as costly as an FCL 20’’ shipment, the latter offering a total volume of 29 cubic meters.

Customs Bond / Clearance (US Only)

US companies importing from China, or anywhere else for that matter, must obtain a customs bond before arrival in the Port of Destination.

Kathy Rinetti, Customs Manager of Flexport.com, explained the basics in an interview we published in October 2014:

“Also, prior to importing, importers will need to have a Customs bond on file prior to their shipment’s departure if their goods are valued over $2,500. If the value is less than that, then they can import under an informal entry and without a Customs bond, but this process would require them to manually submit paperwork. They can also import under a formal entry (with a Customs bond) even if their shipment value is less than $2,500.

You can obtain a Customs bond through most Customs brokerages, which typically have the ability to purchase bonds on your behalf through surety companies. There are two types – single entry and continuous entry Customs bonds. Single entry bonds are for a one-time use and continuous entry bonds cover all your shipments over the course of a year.”

A single entry Customs bond can be purchased for around US$100 – US$200, while a continuous entry customs bond costs US$250 – US$450. The latter makes sense for importers importing multiple shipments on a yearly basis.

container unloading

Domestic Transportation (Port of Destination to Final Address)

Last, is the transportation from the Port of Destination, to your warehouse. The final delivery can be made by truck, rail or a combination of the two. The price depends entirely on your proximity to the warehouse, and on the country, so I cannot offer any price estimation.

Shipping Cost Overview

LeadCost RangeComment
Local Transportation$50 – $480Included in FOB
China Export Clearance$100 – $300Included in FOB
Freight Costn/a
1. Depends on location, volume (LCL / FCL) and local charges
2. Beware of kickback rates when shipping LCL
Insurancen/aInsurance cost = 0.2% x 110% of the cargo value
Document Delivery$40 – $50
Customs Bond / Clearance (US Only)n/a
1. Single entry: $100 – $200
2. Continuous: $250 – $450
Local Charges$100 – $450
1. Depends on location, volume (LCL / FCL) and the freight cost
2. Beware of kickback rates when shipping LCL
Domestic Transportationn/aDepends on proximity to port

Container transportation

Questions & Answers

How often to freight costs change?

Shipping costs can change on a daily or weekly basis. Hence, shipping quotes expire quickly, due to the volatile nature of the international freight market.

What do I need to get a shipping quotation?

Freight forwarders require the following information before they can provide a quotation.

  • Total cargo volume (cbm)
  • Total weight (kgs)
  • Port of loading
  • Port of destination
  • Insurance (Yes / No)
  • Supplier incoterm (i.e., FCA or FOB)
  • Delivery incoterm (i.e., DAT or DAP)

As such, the final freight cost can only be ‘confirmed’ once the products are manufactured and packed. That said, you can still get an estimate.

How can I lower freight costs?

The only way to truly reduce the shipping costs is to ship larger volumes. FCL shipping costs, on average, 30 to 40% less than LCL shipping.

The difference between FCL and air freight is even higher.

That said, this requires that the buyer can support larger orders, which is not always the case.

How can I find the cheapest freight rates?

Keep in mind that freight costs are set according to the market price. Freight forwarders rely on very slim profit margins, so there is little room for price negotiation.

Hence, you should not expect one forwarder to quote a price that is much lower than any other company.

As a matter of fact, you should watch out for “forwarders” that claim to offer freight rates below the current market price, as they may be scammers. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

Is it cheaper if I book shipping via my supplier?

Virtually all manufacturers already work with one or two local freight forwarders. As such, suppliers can, if requested, book and manage the shipment. That said, this does not result in any cost savings, as shipping costs are international.

The opposite is often true, as Chinese suppliers tend to offer CIF quotations, which doesn’t account for local charges in the port of destination. As mentioned, these are often higher than the freight cost itself.

You are in almost every case better off booking shipment via a platform like Freightos.com.

Do some suppliers offer free shipping?

Yes, in the sense that the shipping cost is already included in the product price. However, you will always pay for shipping, one way or the other.

Further, this is only applicable to Aliexpress.com, DHgate.com and similar online wholesale platforms.

When you order from ‘proper’ manufacturers, free shipping is non-existent.

Which is the best Incoterm to keep track of costs?

DAP (Delivered at Place) includes export clearance, freight and local charges (in the port of destination). Hence, I’d say that this is the best incoterm, as it is ‘all inclusive’ in terms of shipping costs.

That said, many manufacturers in China tend to not offer DAP quotations, as it involves more work. In addition, I would not count on their local forwarders to handle all the bookings required.

Instead, I advise you to buy according to FOB terms from your supplier, and then order DAP shipping from your freight forwarder. That way you can control the process in China, while confirming all the costs before the goods arrive.

Should I avoid CIF freight?

CIF (Cost Insurance and Freight) doesn’t include the local port charges, at the point of entry in the buyer’s country. The port charges (or, local charges) are often counted in the hundreds of dollars – especially when shipping LCL.

In fact, the local charges often exceed the shipping cost itself.

The problem, when shipping according to CIF terms, is that you don’t get the local charges billed until the goods have arrived in the port of destination.

At which point it is too late to find other options, or negotiate the price.

How do I estimate air freight costs?

Unlike sea freight costs, which are in most cases only based on the volume, air freight charges are based on either the volume or the weight.

In air freight, the volumetric weight apply, if it exceeds the actual weight.

Sounds too abstract? Not really. Learn more in our air freight guide.

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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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    10 Responses to “Shipping Costs When Importing from China: 7 Key Facts”

    1. Ricardo April 30, 2015 at 12:40 pm #

      Great and informative post. Keep the good work, FredriK!

    2. Kalpana January 24, 2016 at 6:33 pm #

      Great piece Fredrik

      Would you have the same details for shipment to India from Shanghai .

    3. Boris March 10, 2016 at 6:29 am #

      Is it possible to obtain export clearance documents from supplier if I want to use my own freight forwarder who does not have experience of issuing such documentation or my air express account?

      If FOB is the only way to get these documents woudl it still be possible to agree on FOB term while using my appointed freight forwarder or air express account for the purpse of obtaining documentation and handing them? Would this be misleading in sales contract/PI and you see downsides?

      Thanks!

      • ChinaImportal March 14, 2016 at 3:55 am #

        Hi Boris,

        1. I think the support documents are provided by the supplier. However, I am not 100% sure how the document issuing procedures work.
        2. Yes, and that is exactly what most importers do, when buying according to FOB terms (using their own forwarder)

    4. Sarah November 23, 2016 at 8:31 am #

      Thanks for breaking this down so well, I have zero experience with this previously and completely understand a system that I thought might take weeks to get my head around!

    5. Rich Norman December 14, 2016 at 9:34 pm #

      I’m not asking for $ amount, so much as if this sort of purchase is handled in a simpler way than large shipments. If I’m buying a small amount of products from China, say 50 boxes big enough to fit a basketball with a total value of only $800 with a price quote to the US port, what would be involved, and is it simpler than a large delivery. I hope that makes sense. I’ll take input from anybody. Thanks!

    6. Winifred Inwang August 1, 2017 at 11:37 am #

      Hello,

      I’l l like to know if there is a construction materials category or if one can be created.

      Thank you.

    7. Najma October 18, 2017 at 9:53 am #

      Its a good information. Thanks for sharing.

    8. Thola October 24, 2017 at 11:09 am #

      Great source of information. Keep up the good work

    9. Jessica January 18, 2018 at 4:31 am #

      Great information, thanks so much. Generally when shipping from China I like to use CNXtrans as this freight forwarder is able to ship from all ports in China. Therefore depending on where my supplier is located I will ship from the port closest to them and CNXtrans will help arrange everything for me.

      I think it’s important to have that flexibility as you don’t want a Freight Forwarder which can only ship from one particular port in China in which case your domestic shipping costs go up.

      Another thing to be aware of is that while most suppliers in China have export licenses, not all do. If your supplier does not have one then you will need to ship from either the Port of Shenzhen or Port of Guangzhou. This is one thing I’ve learned as well from experience.

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