by Sam Franklin | June 02, 2022 | 26 min read
The comprehensive guide to shipping from China to the UKGet funded
Last updated: September 27, 2022
China is one of the UK's largest trading partners. According to the House of Commons Library, China was the UK's fourth largest source of imports in 2019, accounting for 7% (worth about £49 billion) of total imported goods and services. China is also the world’s largest exporter and the second-largest importer of goods, making it one of the most important trading countries.
There is a constant movement of goods in and out of China, and a large part of it happens through its strategically located ports in Shanghai, Shenzhen, Ningbo, Qingdao, Guangzhou, Tianjin, Dalian and Xiamen.
Meanwhile, the UK has its own well-developed port infrastructure, and most of the goods it imports arrive by ship. It also has diversified channels that importers use. The Channel Tunnel, one of the longest undersea tunnels in the world, is widely used for trade, as are air and road services.
Here we will discuss the different channels that you can use for shipping from China to the UK, the cost difference between them, the main trading ports and airports in each country, and a lot more.
Table of contents
- Sea freight from China to the UK
- Air freight from China to the UK
- Rail freight from China to the UK
- Road freight from China to the UK
- Express shipping from China to the UK
- China to UK freight forwarding
- Shipping FAQs
Sea freight from China to the UK
Did you know that almost 90% of goods globally are shipped by sea? Sea freight involves transporting large amounts of goods using carrier ships. Goods are packed in containers of various sizes and placed on vessels that transport them between ports. One large cargo ship can carry about 18,000 containers.
If you want to import a large volume of goods and want the cheapest shipping solution, sea or ocean freight is your best option.
Here's why you should pick sea freight:
1. Your shipment is bigger than 2 cubic metres (CBM) – You can use this CBM calculator
2. Your supplier is located near a Chinese port or a location well connected to a port.
3. You are not pressed for time.
Should I ship by consolidation or full container from China to the UK?
If you are using sea freight, you can choose between Less Container Load (LCL) and Full Container Load (FCL).
LCL shipping is a method used to manage space in containers. It is suitable when the quantity of goods you are shipping is smaller than the container volume. In this case, you only pay for the space you’re using. Consolidation collects LCL cargo from different shippers and packs it into one full container.
LCL shipping is ideal if you are shipping a small volume, less than 15 CMB. You can even ship goods as small as 1 CBM - the minimum chargeable volume.
An important thing to remember here is to compare the sea freight costs for small shipments with air freight services because sometimes it may be cheaper to ship by air.
In terms of speed, LCL shipping can take a few days longer than FCL. If a consignment in the same container gets stuck at customs, the whole container may be put on hold, resulting in delays.
Full Container Load (FCL) freight
FCL shipping is used for big shipments. This means that you will be renting the entire container instead of sharing space. You can use the following types of containers for FCL freight:
20-ft container: These have an internal capacity of 33 CMB.
40-ft container: These have an internal capacity of 66 CMB.
40-ft high cube container: These have an internal capacity of 76 CMB.
45-ft high cube container: These have an internal capacity of 86 CMB.
How long does sea freight take to reach the UK from China?
Depending on the origin of the journey and the final destination, load, and shipping mode, sea freight can take anywhere between 25-60 days. If the shipping is port-to-port, it will take a shorter time, but door-to-door shipping from China takes longer. You will also have to account for time spent in UK customs, delivery to and from ports, loading and unloading, or even pandemic-related disruptions like port closures.
Major Chinese and UK ports
If you are a business in the UK looking to import goods from China regularly, you should familiarise yourself with the major ports in China and the UK.
Here is a comprehensive list of some of the biggest and busiest shipping ports in China:
1. Port of Shanghai
Port code: CNSHA
This deep-sea and riverine port, managed by the Shanghai International Port (Group) Company, is in close proximity to China's major industrial and manufacturing hubs. Located in the Shanghai province, it is the busiest container port in the world, with an overall container throughput of 43.5 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) in 2020. The port, which opened its first three terminals in 1842, is now one of the largest port megacities in the world.
2. Port of Shenzhen
Port code: CNSNZ
Located in the south of the Pearl River Delta (PRD) in Guangdong Province, the Port of Shenzhen had a throughput of 26.6 million TEU in 2020. One of the largest ports in the world in terms of cargo thoroughfare, this port is formed of several ports along the coastline of Shenzhen, like Nanshan Port, Dachan Bay Port, Dachan Island, and Xiaochan Island Ports. It stretches along 260 km of coastline and is part of the Hong Kong-Shenzhen Western Corridor. About 40 shipping companies have their headquarters at this port, and 230 international container routes pass through it.
3. Port of Ningbo-Zhoushan
Port codes: CNNBO and CNZOS
Mainly owned and managed by the Ningbo Zhoushan Port Group, it is located in the Zhejiang province in eastern China. The Ningbo port includes the port areas of Yongjiang, Beilun, Zhenhai, Daxie, Chuanshan, Meishan, Xiangshan and Shipu,. The port is well connected to the mainland and has been the world's largest port by cargo tonnage for over a decade. It is also the world's third busiest port in terms of container traffic, handling about 28.7 million TEUs in 2020. As of 2021, it was connected by 287 shipping services, with 117 routes servicing China’s Belt and Road Initiatives.
4. Port of Guangzhou (Nansha)
Poster code: CNGGZ
Guangzhou Harbour is one of the busiest ports in mainland China. Managed by the Guangzhou Port Group Company, it trades with over 80 nations and 300 ports. In 2020, it handled about 23.2 million TEUs of container traffic. Port of Nansha (deepwater port) is the largest port area in Guangzhou Port. It is the geographic centre of Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area, a scheme by the Chinese government to link the cities of Hong Kong, Macau, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Zhongshan, Jiangmen, Zhuhai, Foshan, Huizhou, and Zhaoqing into an integrated economic hub.
Nansha is also the only deepwater container hub in the west PRD region, which generates a large part of China's exports.
5. Qingdao Port
Port code: CNQIN
Located between the Bohai Rim port region and the Yangtze River Delta port region in China, the port handled 22 million TEU in 2020. The fifth-largest port in China maintains shipping routes with more than 700 ports in 86 countries and regions worldwide.
(Total volume data sourced from World Shipping Council)
Busiest cargo ports in the UK
1. Port of Immingham
Port code: IMM Owned and managed by Associated British Ports, the Port of Immingham is the UK's largest port by tonnage, handling about 46 million tonnes of cargo in a year. The port also handles more than 240 rail freight movements per week and is less than 24 hours from the European market. The port also makes up one of the UK's major port complexes together with ports on the Humber at Grimsby, Hull, and Goole.
2. London Gateway Port
The London Gateway Port is a deep-sea container port developed by DP World on the north bank of the River Thames. It saw a container throughput of 1.8 million TEU in 2021 and is close to the UK’s largest consumer markets in London and the southeast.
3. Ports of Tees and Hartlepool
Port codes: MID and HTP
Tees and Hartlepool ports are located 10 km apart on the Tees River in northeastern England. Owned and managed by PD Ports, Teesport is the fifth largest port in the UK, handling 28 million tonnes a year. It supports the movement of international imports and exports throughout the North of the UK. It is the only major port in England that handles more exports than imports.
4. Port of Liverpool/Merseyside
Port code: LIV
Located on both sides of the River Mersey, the Port of Liverpool is one of the largest and busiest in the UK. It handles 75,000 TEU's per month. The port operates two container terminals: the Royal Seaforth Container Terminal and Liverpool2.
5. Port of Felixstowe
Port code: FXT
The Port of Felixstowe is the UK's biggest and busiest container port. Also, one of the largest ports in Europe, it handles more than 4 million TEUs and about 2,000 ships each year. About 17 shipping lines operate from this port, offering 33 services to over 700 ports around the world. The port is well-connected by rail and road to distribution hubs in the Midlands and other parts of the UK.
What documents do I need for shipping from China to the UK?
For a smooth shipment journey, you must ensure all your important documents are in order. Here is a list of all essential documents you may need:
Commercial invoice: This is a legal document between the buyer and the seller. It serves as proof of sale and has to be submitted for customs clearance.
Packing list: The packing list contains details about how the goods were packed for shipping. It includes a description of goods, cargo dimensions, total volume, and packing details. It also contains information about the shipper and the consignee.
Country of origin certificate: As the name suggests, this document confirms where a product was manufactured. It also has the name of the destination port and other details about the product.
Bill of Lading (BOL): BOL is a legal document that details the type, quantity, and destination of goods being shipped. It acts as a contract between a freight carrier and a shipper.
Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS): Prepared by the manufacturer, this document contains information about the physical, chemical, and hazardous characteristics of a product.
How much does it cost to ship to the UK from China?
The cost of shipping between the two countries varies depending on the product and the shipping or forwarding company. Before the pandemic, the cost of shipping from China to the UK in a 40ft container would average $1,500, but this has increased to $9,000. Shipping costs have soared post-pandemic. In an article by the Guardian, Pickering’s Gin, an Edinburgh-based spirit maker said the price of bringing a shipping container from China jumped to $18,000 (about £14,233), from $2,500 – $3,000 (£1976 – £2,372) before the pandemic.
How much does it cost to bring a 40-ft vs 20-ft container from China?
As we mentioned, costs may vary, but here are some approximate figures that may help you get an idea:
Shipping in a 40-ft container from China to the UK?
The cost depends on the delivery location and the shipping terms with your supplier. On Free on Board (FOB) shipping terms, which indicate whether the buyer or seller is liable for damages during shipping, the cost to ship a 40-ft container will be around £13,000 – £15,000, excluding UK Duty & VAT.
Shipping in a 20-ft container from China?
On FOB shipping terms, the cost will be £9,000 – £10,000, excluding duty and VAT.
Read more about container dimensions
You can use shipping calculators to calculate how much shipping from China to the UK would cost. Here are links to some:
Ocean freight rates fluctuate, but these are the factors you should be aware of when getting a quote for your shipment:
Type of product you want to ship
Volume of freight
Available freight capacity in the market
Mode of shipping (LCL or FCL)
Type of service: door-to-door, port-to-door, port-to-port, or door-to-port
Information you need while seeking a quote for shipping
You can ask a shipping company for a quote. Here is all the information you need to keep on hand when seeking a quote:
Volume of goods (Weight and dimensions)
Type of product you want to ship
Terms of shipping offered by the supplier
The name of the outbound port (Address and shipping mode if the shipping is door-to-door)
Freight charges explained
The cost of goods includes the cost paid to the supplier, the cost of transportation paid to the shipping company or freight forwarder, and duty and VAT (if applicable), paid at customs and to the tax authorities. When you receive a quotation from a freight forwarder, here are the charges that they will include:
Inland haulage: This is the transportation cost to move freight from the inland container depot to a seaport of loading or vice versa.
UK Terminal Handling Charge (THC): These are charges for container handling at the port or the consolidation warehouse.
Freight: This is the base rate for ocean freight
Import customs clearance
Documentation: This is an admin charge for shipping documentation.
Origin handling: This is a charge for handling containers at the port of origin before being loaded on a vessel.
Value-added tax (VAT) on an import
VAT is applicable to goods if they are imported from countries outside of the UK, including European Union (EU) countries.
Import VAT is applicable on all purchased goods, excluding excise goods priced over £135. If your business is registered for VAT in the UK, the VAT rate is normally 20%. Import VAT is paid on the total amount of the shipment, which includes the value of the goods, duties, and shipping and handling costs.
Here is the estimated shipping time between popular ports in China to the UK:
Guangzhou/Shenzhen (South China): 3-4 weeks on water; 6-7 weeks from door-to-door (from the supplier’s factory to your delivery address).
Shanghai/Ningbo (central China): 4-5 weeks on water; 7-8 weeks from door-to-door.
Qingdao/Tianjin/Xingang (northern China): 4-6 weeks on water; 8-10 weeks from door to door.
Air freight from China to the UK
Shipping goods by air is a faster mode of transportation, but it is also more expensive.
Air freight shipping works best when:
1. Your shipment is less than 200 kg or 2 CBM
2. You can't wait too long to receive or send your shipment
3. Your goods are valuable
Cargo airports in China and the UK
Before we get into further details, here are lists of the major cargo airports in China and the UK.
Main cargo airports in China
1. Shanghai Pudong International Airport
Located about 30 km east of the city centre of Shanghai, the Shanghai Pudong International Airport is an important cargo airport. It is a hub for China Cargo Airlines, China Southern Cargo, DHL Aviation, FedEx Express, and UPS Airlines. Founded in 1999, the Shanghai Pudong International Airport Cargo Terminal (PACTL) is one of the largest single air cargo terminal operators of the world.
2. Hong Kong International Airport
Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA) is the world’s busiest international cargo airport. In 2020, it handled 4.5 million tonnes of total cargo throughput.
3. Beijing Capital International Airport
The third-largest cargo airport in China, it handles about 2 million tonnes of cargo in a year. Forwarding companies like Air China Cargo, DHL Aviation, FedEx Express, and Lufthansa Cargo operate at the Beijing Capital International Airport.
4. Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport
The Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport serves the city of Guangzhou, which is not just a major industrial centre but also a trading port located on the Pearl River Delta.
5. Shenzhen Baoan International Airport
The airport, which opened in 1991, is located 32 kilometres from downtown. The Centre for Aviation (CAPA) calls it the gateway to Shenzhen and an important airport in the Guangdong Province, China’s main manufacturing hub.
The other important cargo airports in China are:
Hangzhou Xiaoshan International Airport in Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province. Hangzhou is a major city in the Yangtze River Delta region.
Fuzhou Changle International Airport in the Fujian Province on the southeastern coast of China.
Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, is an important industrial sector in western China.
Main cargo airports in the UK
1. Heathrow International Airport
One of the world's busiest international airports, Heathrow International Airport handles over 500,000 tonnes of cargo every year.
2. East Midlands International
East Midlands Airport is the UK's largest dedicated air cargo operation. It is the most important airport for express freight in the UK. It handles about 440,000 tonnes of goods each year and is a hub for DHL, UPS, FedEx, and Royal Mail.
3. London Stansted Airport
London Stansted Airport is the UK’s third-largest cargo airport. It handles more than 258,000 tonnes of cargo annually.
4. Manchester Airport
Manchester Airport is the UK’s third-largest airport and fourth-largest pure freight airport. It handles more than 120,000 tonnes of freight every year, including 5% of the country’s belly-hold cargo. The airport, which offers direct access to the UK’s motorway network, has about 100 logistics companies based in and around it.
The other important airports for cargo are:
1. Belfast International Airport - an important regional airfreight centre in the UK.
2. London Luton Airport: Luton Airport’s cargo centre handles about 28,000 tonnes of cargo each year.
Air freight: Pros and cons
Here are the main benefits of air freight:
It is better for sensitive and valuable cargo
It can be more affordable for small volumes.
The disadvantages of air freight are:
For less than a full container’s load, the shipping cost is calculated in CBM. Sometimes, this can be more expensive than air freight.
Air freight is more expensive and has added costs. It will include the cost of transportation from the manufacturing site to the airport, and to the delivery address.
It offers less capacity than ocean freight.
Air freight has a long list of restrictions on materials that are considered hazardous. For example, it restricts products with gasses like lightbulbs, corrosive items like batteries, or products that are considered flammable like perfumes.
How long does air freight take from China to the UK?
Air freight from China to the UK can take anywhere between 4-15 days. Here are some examples of approximate time taken for shipments between different airports in China and the UK:
Shenzhen – Heathrow: 4 days
Shenzhen – Manchester: 7 days
Shenzhen – Birmingham: 7 days
Shanghai – Heathrow: 5 days
Shenzhen – Birmingham: 7 days
Shanghai – Glasgow or Birmingham: 4 days
Shanghai – Manchester: 5 days
Guangzhou – Glasgow: 7 days
Beijing – Manchester: 4 days
What is air freight's chargeable weight?
While searching for air freight rates, you may come across the term - air freight chargeable weight. Air freight chargeable weight is different from the gross/actual weight or volumetric weight. It is the weight you will be charged for - it can either be actual or volumetric. Gross (actual) weight is the weight of the shipment and the pallet, whereas air freight volumetric weight is based on a package’s length, width, and height.
Air freight chargeable weight is used to measure the amount of space a package will take. Its calculations vary depending on the mode of transportation and sometimes by trade lane. To calculate the air freight volumetric weight, the length is converted into metres, and volumes are in cubic metres.
Why do we need air freight chargeable weight of shipments?
Carriers need to calculate the air freight chargeable weight because different products have different characteristics. A shipment of cotton may need more space, but a shipment of iron ore will be heavier. They will be charged differently. Shippers will choose the higher value out of the two: actual weight or volumetric weight.
Rail freight from China to the UK
If you are not pressed for time, rail freight from China to the UK can be a more sustainable and affordable way to ship your goods. Rail freight from China to the UK has LCL and FCL shipping options. The Yiwu–London Railway Line isabout 12,000 km long, the second-longest railway freight route in the world. (The first is the Yiwu–Madrid railway line, which is close to 13,000 km). Yiwu in Eastern China is the world's largest wholesale market.
The train passes through central Asia and Eastern Europe. The journey includes Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, Poland, Germany, Belgium, France, and through the Eurotunnel to London and other cities.
How long does it take?
The train journey from Yiwu to London is 18 days, but that does not include the time taken for the goods to reach Yiwu from the suppliers and to the receiver’s address in the UK. In total, the shipment might take up to 30 days.
Road freight from China to the UK
Road freight is a good alternative for faster transportation of goods to the UK compared to sea freight and is more affordable than air freight. If you choose to send your goods from China to the UK by road, it can take about 14-20 days, making it faster than both rail and sea freight while considerably more affordable than air freight.
Express shipping from China to the UK
If you have a small amount of goods of high value, you can simply use express delivery or a courier service. It's also the best option for door-to-door delivery of small shipments.
How long does it take?
On average, express delivery from China to the UK will take about 3-5 days. Unless something gets stuck in customs, the maximum amount of transit time should not exceed about nine days.
Do I have to pay customs and duties?
Customs duty is levied on items priced more than £135. For gifts worth £135-£630, you will pay an import duty of 2.5%. For gifts about £630 and goods over £135, the duty will depend on the item and the country of export.
An item is considered a ‘gift’ if the sender describes it as a gift in the customs declaration. These parcels have to be sent by a person (not a company) to another person on a special occasion (birthday, anniversary etc.).
How long does customs clearance take?
Customs clearance in the UK varies depending on the type of shipment. A route 6 import customs clearance takes about 10 minutes to process if there are no reasons for delay like outstanding duty and VAT payment or additional checks and inspections.
It can take a few days for clearances that are marked for additional examination.
Here are the common routes of customs clearance in the UK:
Route 1: This requires your documentation to be sent to the National Clearance Hub (NCH) before the clearance is processed.
Route 2: In this case, customs require a physical examination of the goods and a documentation check.
Route 6: Straightforward clearance. The clearing is done as soon as taxes and any additional checks from border authorities are complete.
Route 3: This is a combination of route 1 and 6. The clearance is not postponed, but the documents must be sent to the NCH for checks.
Route 0 – This is a less common route. Route 0 applies when customs are waiting for a declaration from another agency to assign a route to your package. This means that your customs clearance requires further action from a government agency like the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA).
Read more about UK customs clearance
China to UK freight forwarding
What is freight forwarding?
Freight forwarding is organising the movement of goods across international borders on behalf of shippers. Freight forwarders are intermediaries or companies that arrange the shipping of goods using different transport modes like sea freight, air freight, road, or rail freight, on behalf of cargo owners. They also plan and provide shipment tracking, cargo insurance, customs brokerage, and warehousing services.
How to find a freight forwarder?
There are many freight forwarding companies available for shipping from China to the UK. Here are the key things to consider before choosing a freight forwarder:
For efficient shipping of your goods, you should look for someone who can:
Track your shipments
Prepare documentation related to the import of goods
Provide packaging and storing facilities
Book cargo space based on the unique needs of the products you are shipping
Negotiate freight rates
Offer maritime insurance for your goods
2. Product specialisation
Some freight forwarders may have expertise in different cargo and shipping methods, while others provide product-specific services. Find a freight forwarder that specialises in and has a good track record in commodities you need to ship. This is especially important if you are shipping products that are subject to strict regulations like flammable liquids, alcohol, perishables, batteries, drugs, or alcohol.
3. Spend wisely
The cheapest service provider is not always the best service provider. Pick a provider with a good track record that will ship your products safely, without damage, and follow regulations. If your cargo gets caught up in customs or at a port because of a lack of paperwork or other negligence, it could mean higher fees and even fines.
For hassle free shipping from China, where language can be a barrier, pick a forwarder with the right network in the region. It will help you get a good price for your shipment and may even help you build a long term relationship with the forwarding company.
Do I need insurance for shipping from China to the UK?
Insurance is not always included in the freight service. Your shipping company can arrange for a marine insurance policy to cover your goods from breakage and damage in transit.
Read more about marine insurance
How many pallets fit into a container?
Here are the sizes recognised by the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) and how many can fit into a 40-ft shipping container:
Size (Width x Length): 1200 x 1000mm (47.24 x 39.37in)
Number of pallets: 20-21
North American Standard/GMA
Size (Width x Length): 1016 x 1219mm (40 x 48in)
Number of pallets: 20
Size (Width x Length): 800 x 1200mm (31.5 x 47.24in)
Number of pallets: 23-24
Number of pallets that can fit into a 20-ft shipping container:
Size (Width x Length): 1200 x 1000mm (47.24 x 39.37in)
Number of pallets: 10
North American Standard/GMA
Size (Width x Length): 1016 x 1219mm (40 x 48in)
Number of pallets: 10
Size (Width x Length): 800 x 1200mm (31.5 x 47.24in)
Number of pallets: 11
Read more about how many pallets can fit into a container
How long does it take to ship from China to the UK?
The average transit time for sea freight is about 40 days. By air, the average transit time is a week, while express shipping from China takes 3-5 days.
How to keep your shipping costs and transit time low?
For businesses, time is of the essence, and every penny counts. Here are ways to save time, shipping costs, and any wastage while shipping from China to the UK.
1. Book early
Always plan the shipping of your goods way in advance. If you have placed an order with a supplier, you should start planning the shipping simultaneously or even before. You can also plan for seasonal shipping about six months early. For example, if you are importing Christmas ornaments, you may want to start planning the shipment during summer to avoid any last-minute delays.
2. Get insurance
Cargo insurance will cover you for damage to your shipment or any other potential losses during transportation.
3. Get quotes from different providers
Different forwarding and shipping companies may quote different rates based on their services and available capacity. Always get quotes from different providers and pick the one that suits the products you are looking to ship and your timelines.
4. Avoid the holidays
Here is a list of the biggest holidays in China; it is advisable to avoid shipping from China during this time because you may face delays.
Chinese New Year
Chinese New Year, or the Lunar New Year, is a 15-day festival which begins with the rising of the second new moon after the winter solstice (Dec 21). It can occur on any date between 21st Jan and 20th Feb.
Also known as the Spring Festival, it is the most important festival in China. A majority of workers in China's industrial cities take this time off to travel to their home towns and villages. For many of them, this is the only time they visit their homes. Manufacturing facilities are closed, and terminals are crowded during the time.
The time before the Chinese New Year is also busy for Chinese suppliers who are trying to service as many orders as they can before the break. There are often delays at ports, and the rates shoot up.
Qingming or Tomb Sweeping Day is a time for people to visit the graves of friends, family, and loved ones. It is celebrated 15 days after the Spring Equinox (around the first week of April).
Even though the International Labour Day is celebrated on May 1st, in China, Labour Day holiday is from April 30th to May 4th. It is also one of the country’s busiest tourist seasons.
Dragon Boat Festival
Duanwu Jie, or the Dragon Boat Festival, falls on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar (May or June).
Also known as the Moon Festival or Mooncake Festival, this falls on the 15th day of the eighth month of the Chinese lunar calendar (September or early October).
The National Holiday takes place on October 1st, but many Chinese workers take the week off from the 1st to the 7th of October. This is called the Golden week, and many factories remain closed during this week. This is also a time when shipping prices shoot up, and you may face delays.
Sam founded his first startup back in 2010 and has since been building startups in the Content Marketing, SEO, eCommerce and SaaS verticals. Sam is a generalist with deep knowledge of lead generation and scaling acquisition and sales.