The Best Way to Ship Your Goods From China to the UK: Sea or Air?

Back in August, we reported that the partial closure of one of China’s biggest cargo ports had raised fresh concerns about the impact on global trade.

Although the disruption at Ningbo-Zhoushan in eastern China wasn’t quite as bad as some had feared, the world is still seeing some ongoing issues surrounding global supply chains, particularly with intermodal container shipping. That said, these appear to be temporary setbacks that have been largely caused by the coronavirus pandemic and are not part of a more systemic problem. Although air freight services from China might look more attractive in the short term as a means of getting goods out of the country to the West, will this be the case in a few months time?

According to one leading firm in freight forwarding services in the UK, Barrington Freight, the post-Brexit scenario in Britain has led to an upturn in interest in directly shipping from China to British ports and airports. What they point out is that changing perceptions about products and components sourced from China have helped to reshape commerce, especially electronic commerce, with the country. However, it is not just the diversity and quality of modern goods made in China that is driving up demand but the fact that shipping from there is now so commonplace for British businesses.

When it comes to shipping goods from China by sea, the principal advantage is cost. When a consignment weighs more than about 100 kilos, shipping is usually cheaper than air freight. It is often seen as the ‘go to’ option for lower value items especially when sharing container space is so commonplace among importers. What’s more, for any UK company that is concerned about its profile as a low carbon business, sea freight constitutes the best available option. Among the downsides associated with ocean-going container vessels is that they typically take six weeks to get to the UK, however. Indeed, they can take longer if problems in key parts of the world, such as the Suez Canal, occur. What’s more, the basic cost of a shipment by sea can be affected by fuel and currency price fluctuations. Although this won’t affect every consignment from China, this is a risk that importers need to manage.

By contrast, air freight from China can take as few as six days from door to door. Clearly, this is a big plus point for agile businesses that want to get one step ahead of the competition with market niches and trends. Even better, smaller consignments can sometimes be cheaper with air freight than at sea. Security and the ability to track consignment is also generally better with air freight service providers than traditional shipping. However, the general rule of thumb is that air cargo comes with both a higher cost and a greater carbon footprint.

To sum up, there is no single method of shipping to the UK from China that could be seen as better in all circumstances. Rather, there are different methods to suit different business models and commercial priorities. Remember that you may need expert advice with either approach to help you deal with insurance and import duty depending on the nature of your business.