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Ocean & Air Shipping From China to UK

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Updated on 16 Feb 202222 min read

In 2019, the UK imported goods worth almost $65 billion (USD) from China, making it the ninth-largest of China’s export trade partners worldwide. This sum also makes the UK China’s third-largest export destination in Europe, behind Germany and the Netherlands.

Maybe your business is involved in importing electronics, toys, games, or sporting goods from China to the UK, and want to reduce supply chain costs and complications. Perhaps you're planning to ship commercial products between the two countries and need some professionals' guidance.

In either case, you should find plenty to pique your interest on this page. It’s full of tips and hints to help you enjoy success with ocean and air shipping from China to the United Kingdom.

Know Your Options for Shipping From China to the United Kingdom

Logistics warehouse operative pushing a shipment of cartons from the flag of China to the flag of the United Kingdom

Although it is technically possible to import from China to the United Kingdom via overland rail services, most shippers prefer to ship their imports by sea or air. For that reason, this page is focused entirely on the use of ocean and air freight services as a way to export from China to the United Kingdom.

Most commercial organizations importing from China to the United Kingdom opt for ocean freight, since it is typically the most economical way to ship cargo over such a long distance.

Assuming your goods can be shipped in a container, LCL and FCL ocean freight present the two most logical options. Alternatively, air freight is faster than sending a shipping container from China to the United Kingdom by sea. However, the benefit of speed does come at quite a high cost.

Ocean Freight From China to the United Kingdom

Less than Container Load (LCL): When shipping smaller freight quantities from China to the UK and finding air freight too costly, you can send your imports by sea as a less-than-container-load (LCL).

LCL is a form of containerized shipping that allows small consignments belonging to multiple shippers to share a shipping container. It saves you from the costs of renting and transporting a container from China to the United Kingdom, as you only pay for the space occupied by your goods.

Full Container Load (FCL): Another way to get your international shipments to their destination is to send them in full-container loads. FCL is ideal if your consignment will fill a shipping container, or you can wait to accumulate enough orders to make a full load. Flat-rate, per-container pricing makes FCL the most affordable way to send large quantities of freight in a shipping container from China to the United Kingdom—or even in several shipping containers.

Air Freight from China to the United Kingdom

Perhaps the sedate pace of ocean freight just won’t get your goods for export from China to the United Kingdom to their consignee on time. That’s a common enough reason for businesses to opt for air freight instead. Flying your cargo will cut transit time from weeks to days. However, it will cost considerably more than sending it in a container from China to the United Kingdom by sea.

How Much Does it Cost to Ship From China to the United Kingdom?

Freight shipping rates rise and fall all the time. Therefore, the only accurate way to assess transportation costs when importing from China to the United Kingdom is to get a freight forwarder's quote. All forwarders will base their quotes on calculations that take the following factors into account:

  • The demand for, and availability of, freight capacity in the market
  • Fuel costs
  • The type of freight you wish to ship
  • The amount of freight that makes up your shipment
  • The mode of shipping you want to use
  • Your choice of door-to-door, port-to-port, port-to-door, or door-to-port service

A range of other conditions will also be factored into the forwarder’s pricing calculations, so it’s unrealistic to offer any real indication of shipping cost on this page. However, the following rough guidance can at least help you to gain an idea of the comparative costs of different shipping modes and freight quantities.

  • While air freight is often costly, shipments of under 100 kilograms may not cost much more to import from China to the United Kingdom by air than as LCL ocean freight.
  • For a consignment with a weight greater than 100 kilograms, ocean freight will almost certainly be more economical than sending it as air cargo.
  • FCL shipping is the most affordable way to transport large shipments of freight from China to the United Kingdom. It may sometimes be cheaper than LCL shipping even if your goods won't fill a shipping container.
  • For shipments over 100 kilograms, but comprising less than six pallets, LCL will be your lowest-cost freight shipping option.

If you're planning a shipment weighing less than 35 kilograms, there's probably little point in engaging a freight forwarder. Most forwarders won't handle loads that small. In any case, an express courier company will transport your consignment at a more affordable rate.

How Long Does it Take to Ship From China to the United Kingdom?

When importing from China to the United Kingdom, you'll need to plan for lengthy transit times. That's unless your business can afford the high rates associated with air freight's speed advantages. As air cargo, your commodities can be ready for collection or onward shipment from a UK airport in a matter of days. Conversely, it takes several weeks of maritime voyaging for a carrier to bring a shipping container from China to the United Kingdom.

How Long Does It Take to Ship Cargo by Sea From China to the United Kingdom?

The overall transit time for ocean freight shipping between China and the UK will depend on the specific ports of loading and discharge through which you route your shipments. The following transit time examples will give you some idea of what to expect, depending on whether you choose an LCL or FCL freight service:

  • Guangzhou to Southampton or Felixstowe – 34 days LCL, 46 days FCL
  • Ningbo to Felixstowe - 33 days LCL, 41 days FCL
  • Shanghai to Felixstowe - 36 days LCL, 34 days FCL
  • Shanghai to Southampton – 37 days LCL, 33 days FCL
  • Tianjin to Felixstowe – 59 days LCL, 43 days FCL
  • Dalian to Southampton – 42 days FCL
  • Ningbo to Liverpool or London Gateway – 46 days FCL
  • Ningbo to Southampton - 41 days FCL
  • Qingdao or Xiamen to Southampton - 46 days FCL
  • Shekou to Felixstowe - 37 days FCL
  • Shekou to London Gateway - 38 days FCL
  • Qingdao to Felixstowe - 40 days FCL
  • Qingdao to London Gateway - 42 days FCL
  • Tianjin to Southampton - 38 days FCL
  • Zhongshan to London Gateway - 41 days FCL
  • Zhuhai to Felixstowe - 36 days FCL

How Long Does It Take to Ship Cargo by Air From China to the United Kingdom?

Typical transit times for air cargo from China to the UK range from four to seven days. Of course, the freight spends just a fraction of these durations in transit. Flights are completed in hours, but at least a day or two is required for freight consolidation (before shipment) and customs clearance on arrival in the United Kingdom.

The following are some examples of routes and transit times for air shipping between airports in China and the British Isles:

  • Guangzhou to Glasgow - 7 days
  • Guangzhou or Shanghai to London Heathrow - 5 days
  • Zhengzhou to London Heathrow - 7 days
  • Beijing to Manchester - 4 days
  • Shanghai to Glasgow or Birmingham - 4 days
  • Shanghai to Manchester - 5 days
  • Shenzhen to Birmingham - 7 days
  • Shenzhen to London Heathrow - 4 days
  • Shenzhen to Manchester - 7 days
  • Xiamen to London Heathrow - 6 days

Customs Clearance in China and the United Kingdom

Customs clearance is often a source of consternation for companies that ship goods across international borders. In particular, SMEs sometimes have a hard time navigating the complexities of this necessary and sometimes mystifying aspect of global logistics.

For that reason, it can be a good idea for your business to put customs clearance and compliance in the hands of a freight forwarder. Some forwarders have in-house clearance agents working for them. Others partner with customs brokers to handle customs formalities on their customers' behalf. Either way, they can save you a lot of heartache and effort in return for an appropriate fee.

While having a freight forwarder on your side can ease the pain of customs clearance, your business will still have some tasks to perform to meet formal requirements. Some of the documents necessary to clear your goods will remain the responsibility of your business. You will either need to complete and file them or make sure you have them available for inspection by the customs authorities.

The documents (or in some cases, electronic files) that customs officials in China and the UK typically expect to see are as follows:

  1. Commercial Invoice

  2. Packing List

  3. Certificate of Origin

  4. Letter of Credit or other payment terms (depending on the contract between the parties involved)

  5. Bill of Lading for ocean freight or Airway Bill for air freight (Your freight forwarder should provide this)

If you'd like to look at some examples of these documents, you might want to pay a visit to our documents list page.

Sometimes, you may find additional documents are required by customs, depending on the type of goods you are shipping. The British or Chinese government may, for example, insist on a certificate, permit, or license of some kind. It’s always worth checking requirements with your freight forwarder, therefore, especially if you are shipping a specific product or material for the first time.

Should You Choose Ocean Freight or Air Freight?

Ocean Freight

Ocean freight is the most economical way to ship cargo globally. Hence, it is the most common transportation mode used by businesses with goods to import from China to the United Kingdom. Sea freight is transported from port to port using a variety of methods. For many commodities, though, containerized ocean shipping is the standard approach.

You can choose to ship your goods as a full container load (FCL) if you have a sufficient quantity. Otherwise, you can use a less-than-container-load (LCL) service. Either way, they will be loaded into a shipping container, which will protect them from the elements during the long voyage from the orient to the British Isles.

The most commonly used container types are standard units of either 20-feet or 40-feet in length, with doors at the end for loading and unloading.

Considerations for LCL Freight Shipping

When you just have a few pallets of goods to export, it's rarely cost-effective to send a full container from China to the United Kingdom. These are the circumstances under which LCL shipping comes into its own. It’s often a little slower than FCL, due to the consolidation and deconsolidation steps that take place during shipping. However, it’s also less expensive.

LCL shipping fees are based on the volume and weight of your goods consignment. Perhaps your freight will occupy no more than half the capacity of a shipping container. In that case, LCL is an affordable and convenient solution. You won’t need to worry about choosing container sizes and types, as your freight forwarder will take care of those issues.

Of course, LCL shipping is not the best approach in every case. It has its drawbacks as well as benefits. Therefore, before you decide that LCL is for you, consider the following questions:

  • Are you comfortable with your goods sharing a container with those of other shippers? LCL shipping is inexpensive because several shippers' consignments are packed together to make up a full container load.

  • Are your goods required urgently, or does the recipient need a guarantee of a specific delivery date? LCL shipping has more stages than FCL and can make the transit time a little longer, and delays, while rare, are slightly more likely to occur.

  • Are your goods robust and resilient enough to stand up to frequent handling during transit? Your shipment will be handled several times. First, they will be loaded onto a truck, then unloaded and placed in a warehouse. Then they will be packed into a shipping container. After arrival at the port of unloading, they will be unpacked from the container. They will then be loaded onto another truck for delivery to their destination.

  • Is the volume of your freight more than 14 cubic meters? If so, it could be worth comparing LCL and FCL quotes to see which option offers the most value.

Considerations for FCL Freight Shipping

It might be worth paying to have a container to yourself for larger consignments to avoid the requirement for your goods to be consolidated with those of other shippers. Indeed, FCL will be the shipping mode to choose if you think your freight will fill (or nearly fill) a shipping container.

Another way to benefit from the lower cost-per-unit offered by FCL shipping is to accumulate freight until you have enough to fill a container.

Of course, this is not possible for some businesses. They might be obliged to send small quantities quickly to fulfill customer orders, for instance. However, suppose you can use the accumulation method. In that case, you can save a considerable amount of money by shipping when you have enough freight to use an FCL service, to avoid the more expensive volumetric pricing of LCL.

With FCL shipping, you will pay a flat rate for a shipping container's use and transportation. Your container can be sealed before shipping, and the contents will not be handled excessively. Shipping containers are intermodal, so they can be used to move your freight all the way from its origin in China, to its final destination in the UK. That's an excellent way to reduce the risks of loss or damage during transportation and at handovers.

Other good reasons to choose an FCL freight service include the ability to have a container that holds your freight alone, and shorter transit times when compared to LCL.

Air Freight

Air shipping your cargo from China to the UK will not be cheap, although, for small consignments, it may not cost too much more than ocean freight. That said, there are other reasons why some shippers prefer to use air freight. For example:

  • It is much faster than ocean freight, meaning you can get a shipment of just a few pallets from China to the UK in a matter of days.
  • Its speed makes it ideal as a hedge against ocean shipping delays during peak seasons. You have the option to split a large consignment and send a small portion of it as air freight.
  • It’s convenient when the shipment’s supplier and the consignee are close to international airports, and far from ocean container gateways.
  • Airport operators and airlines maintain tight security, making air freight ideal for high-value cargo.
  • The short transit-time makes it ideal for perishable products or fragile goods requiring minimal exposure to loss or damage risks.

Ocean Cargo Port Guide

Cargo Ports of Origin in China


Port Facts:

  • In 2019, Shanghai was named as the world’s best-connected port
  • It’s the busiest and largest container port in the world
  • This port was the first in the world to handle 40 million TEUs in one year
  • Offers easy access by rail and road to destinations across China
  • Houses the world’s largest automated container terminal

Owned By: Shanghai International Port Company Ltd.

Annual Container Volume: >40 million TEUs.



Port Facts:

  • A critical shipping hub and the eighth largest container port in China
  • The 15th-busiest container port in the world
  • Houses nine container terminals
  • This port is capable of hosting and handling sixth-generation container vessels
  • A planned digital upgrade will transform Xiamen into China’s first fully intelligent container port by the end of 2021

Owned By: Xiamen Port Authority.

Annual Container Volume: >10.3 million TEUs.



Port Facts:

  • Located just 170 kilometers southeast of Beijing
  • The ninth-largest container port in the world
  • North China’s largest container port
  • Facilities include six container terminals
  • Boasts 159 berths, including 102 for vessels over 9,000 tonnes
  • As part of its transition into a smart port, Tianjin’s 31 ship-to-shore gantry cranes have been converted to remote control, and can handle 32 shipping containers per hour

Owned By: Tianjin Port Group Ltd.

Annual Container Volume: >16 million TEUs.



Port Facts:

  • Facilities include one of the world’s most efficient container terminals
  • Known for its rapid vessel loading and discharge capabilities
  • Popular with shippers wishing to keep transit times between China and the UK to a minimum
  • An ideal alternative to the nearby Port of Shanghai
  • The world’s fourth-busiest container port
  • Funds are currently being raised to strengthen container handling operations at the port

Owned By: Ningbo Zhoushan Port Co., Ltd.

Annual Container Volume: >26 million TEUs.



Port Facts:

  • Infrastructure includes 244 berths
  • Located where the Hanjiang and Yangtze Rivers intersect
  • The port is made up of 15 areas, each of which specializes in a specific type of ocean freight
  • Wuhan Port handles 80% of the containers moving into and out of the province of Hubei

Owned By: Wuhan Port Group Company Ltd.

Annual Container Volume: > 500,000 TEUs.


Other Ports in China

Aside from the five Chinese ports documented above, you can also use the following gateways to export to the United Kingdom:

  • Shenzhen
  • Fuzhou
  • Lianyungang
  • Shantou
  • Qinzhou
  • Guangzhou
  • Zhongshan
  • Zhuhai
  • Qingdao
  • Dalian

Cargo Ports of Arrival in the United Kingdom


Port Facts:

  • Situated in Scotland, the northernmost of the UK’s constituent nations
  • Has efficient rail and road links to all Scottish regions
  • Scotland’s largest commercial port
  • 70% of the Scottish population lives within an hour’s drive of this container gateway
  • Container facilities at Grangemouth Port include 16 straddle carriers and three gantry cranes

Owned By: Forth Ports.

Annual Container Volume: >250,000 TEUs.



Port Facts:

  • Handles almost half of the UK’s containerized goods
  • Located in Suffolk, a county northeast of London
  • The seventh-busiest container port in Europe
  • The UK’s busiest and largest container port
  • 17 shipping lines connect Felixstowe Port to more than 700 ports around the world

Owned By: Hutchison Port Holdings.

Annual Container Volume: >3.8 million TEUs.



Port Facts:

  • The UK’s northern international shipping gateway
  • Situated on the River Tees, not far from Middlesbrough in Northeast England
  • Two container terminals are in operation at Teesport
  • Facilities at the port also include a total of 12 cranes for handling containerized cargo

Owned By: PD Ports.

Annual Container Volume: >500,000 TEUs.



Port Facts:

  • Nearly 20% of Ireland’s ocean trade passes through the Port of Belfast
  • Northern Ireland’s leading logistics hub
  • Facilities include six cranes for vessel loading and discharge
  • The port handled 24.6 million tonnes of freight in 2018
  • Container traffic in 2019 exceeded 130,000 TEUs—a first since 2008
  • Currently undergoing a £250 million investment program

Owned By: Belfast Harbor Commissioners.

Annual Container Volume: >125,000 TEUs.


London Gateway

Port Facts:

  • Situated on the River Thames’ north bank
  • State-of-the-art cranes are available to unload containerized goods from around the world
  • Strong road/rail connections enable rapid goods transportation across Southeast England
  • The most technologically-advanced port in the UK—and its fastest-growing cargo hub

Owned By: DP World.

Annual Container Volume: >1.3 million TEUs.


Other Container Ports in the United Kingdom

Along with the ocean cargo gateways detailed above, you can also ship your containerized freight from China via ports at Southampton and Liverpool.

Flying Your Freight: Airport Guide

Airports of Origin in China


Airport Facts:

  • Has served China’s Hubei Province for over 25 years
  • Located 26 kilometers from Wuhan City
  • Central China’s busiest airport

UK Airports Served: London-Heathrow.

Wuhan to UK Cargo-Only Operators: None.



Airport Facts:

  • Situated close to Beijing city center
  • A variety of transport connections link Beijing Capital Airport to the rest of China
  • Over 1.8 million tonnes of air cargo are handled here every year
  • Facilities include three cargo terminals

UK Airports Served: London-Heathrow, Manchester.

Beijing-Capital to UK Cargo-Only Operators: None.



Airport Facts:

  • One of the world’s three busiest airports for freight throughput
  • 3.35 million hectares of freight was handled here in 2018
  • Excellent road and rail links connect the airport to most major Chinese cities
  • Several airlines operate direct flights from Shanghai to the United Kingdom

UK Airports Served: London-Heathrow.

Shanghai-Pudong to UK Cargo-Only Operators: None.



Airport Facts:

  • Serves Zhengzhou City, the capital of Henan Province, and the surrounding areas
  • In Henan Province, this is the only international airport
  • Central China’s busiest airport for cargo operations
  • Connected by at least one direct flight to the United Kingdom

UK Airports Served: London-Heathrow

Zhengzhou to UK Cargo-Only Operators: Cargolux.



Airport Facts:

  • Qingdao’s Liuting airport was China’s 15th-busiest airport in 2018
  • Surrounded as it is by Qingdao City, the airport has no space to expand further
  • A new airport, Jiadong, will soon replace Liuting as Qingdao’s principle air-freight gateway
  • You can fly your freight from here directly to London Heathrow Airport

UK Airports Served: London-Heathrow.

Qingdao to UK Cargo-Only Operators: N/A.


Other Airports in China

In addition to the five airports described in detail above, you can also export from China to the United Kingdom using other Chinese air-freight terminals. For example, you might wish to ship your air cargo from Chengdu, Xiamen, Guangzhou, or Shenzhen.

Airports of Arrival in the United Kingdom


Airport Facts:

  • Situated 11 kilometers southwest of Central Manchester
  • A £1 billion expansion program is currently underway, and should be complete by 2024
  • The third-largest airport in the United Kingdom
  • 70 airlines connect Manchester Airport to some 210 international origins and destinations.
  • The airport operates two runways and a single cargo terminal.

Connected Airports in China: Beijing-Capital.

China to Manchester Cargo-Only Operators: None.



Airport Facts:

  • One of the world’s busiest airports
  • Situated to the West of Central London
  • Infrastructure includes an extensive range of modern cargo-handling facilities
  • Cargo to the value of £133 billion passes through Heathrow airport annually
  • Offers robust connections to the UK road and rail network
  • Served by several direct flights to and from airports in China

Connected Airports in China: Shanghai-Pudong. Beijing-Capital, Chengdu, Qingdao, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Wuhan, Zhengzhou.

China to London-Heathrow Cargo-Only Operators: None.



Airport Facts:

  • Situated in Central England, with useful road connections to all UK regions
  • The airport has been in existence for over 80 years
  • Annual freight throughput totals more than 8,000 tonnes
  • No direct flights from China currently in operation

Connected Airports in China: None.

China to Birmingham Cargo-Only Operators: None.



Airport Facts:

  • Located 15 kilometers from the center of Glasgow, In Paisley, Renfrewshire
  • Good road and rail connections for freight headed to Northern English and Scottish regions
  • Scotland’s Second-busiest airport, after Edinburgh
  • Eighth-busiest airport in the UK
  • No current direct flights to or from China are in operation

Connected Airports in China: None

China to Glasgow Cargo-Only Operators: None


Why Ship From China to the United Kingdom With Shipa Freight?

Many freight forwarders will be pleased to handle your goods for import from China to the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, few currently offer the convenience and simplicity of our digital platform.

Shipa Freight is a digital freight forwarding platform that puts ocean and air freight shipping right at your fingertips. Our industry-leading software and extensive presence in more than 100 countries mean we can serve all your international logistics needs, including import and export clearance.

We offer instant online freight quotes and fast, straightforward booking for your freight shipments from China to the UK. You can manage the entire shipping process via a digital dashboard.

When you need a little human help, our specialists are just an email, call, or live chat away.

Here's a summary of the key advantages to be gained from engaging us as your international freight forwarding partner:

  • Fast online ocean and air freight quotes
  • Quick and simple online bookings for your ocean or air freight shipments
  • Digital payment processes and real-time shipment tracking
  • A customer support team available around the clock to help with all aspects of shipping
  • Integrated compliance software to help you meet regulatory requirements
  • Dedicated export and import customs clearance specialists to help you avoid border issues and delays

Know Your Shipping Terminology

Whatever your native language, the commercial language of shipping can be confusing. To help build your understanding, Shipa Freight is cutting through the complexity and explaining industry jargon in plain English. Two potentially baffling shipping terms are explained below, and there are more definitions on each of our country-to-country pages.

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