Sea freight is the main way goods are moved around the world.
uk ports, associated british ports, major ports, british ports, busiest ports

by Sam Franklin | June 01, 2022 | 7 min read

Guide to shipping to major UK ports for eCommerce merchants

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Last updated: June 03, 2022

Around 90% of the world’s goods are transported by sea. Sea freight is a relatively low-cost way to transport large cargo over long distances, and ports are required to make this possible. A port can be defined as a harbour or an area that can accommodate several boats and vessels and where people and cargo can be transferred to dry land. 

As an eCommerce merchant, you should consider if ocean freight will be better for you than using air freight or courier by air. The main thing that you will look at here is the cost of transportation. It will nearly always be cheaper to use ocean freight than air for heavier freight. In this article, we’ll look at some of the major ports in the United Kingdom and what they have to offer.

Table of contents

United Kingdom ports overview

The United Kingdom, despite its large economy, is still an island nation. This means that the ports in the UK are key to enabling commercial activity throughout the country. 

There are about 120 commercial ports in the UK, including all-purpose ones such as London and Liverpool, others that specialise in containers, such as Felixstowe, and numerous smaller ones that handle local traffic or specialise in certain sectors such as leisure sailing.

UK ports handle around 95% of all imports and exports by volume for the country. Despite the large number, most freight traffic is concentrated among a few of the major ones – the top 20 ports account for 88% of the activity.

According to UK Port Freight Statistics for 2020, an estimated total of 82.3 thousand cargo vessels arrived at UK ports during 2020. All the ports have regular ferry services and handle all or some combination of:

  • Agribulks 

  • Containers

  • Automotives

  • Dry bulk

  • Forest products

  • Energy products

  • Metals

  • Ro-Ro (roll-on, roll-off wheeled cargo)

  • Liquid bulks

  • Project cargo

If you’re shipping goods as a UK based eCommerce merchant the first thing you’ll want to know is where your local port is. Fortunately, there are several ports in the UK that your shipment can arrive at that offer good options wherever your business or customers are located.

What are the main ports in the United Kingdom for commercial cargo?

Ports for commercial cargo are located around different parts of the UK coastline. You should be aware of several factors when making an order that will arrive by sea, such as how far the end destination is from the port, how well-serviced the port is by rail and road, and which types of cargo the port might specialise in.

Here we will provide some summary information on the busiest and biggest ports that can help you with your logistical and distribution planning as an eCommerce merchant.

Felixstowe Port

The Port of Felixstowe is Britain’s biggest and busiest port for containers and one of the largest in Europe. It is located in Suffolk, East Anglia, a location that makes it a good option for moving goods onwards to most areas of the UK by land and close to North West mainland Europe.

The port handles somewhere in the region of 4 million TEUs (Twenty-foot Equivalent Units) annually and welcomes approximately 2,000 ships each year. This port provides some of the deepest water close to the open sea of any European port and can receive the largest container vessels afloat today with dedicated berths for them.

Around 17 shipping lines operate from Felixstowe, offering services to and from over 700 ports worldwide.

Three rail lines are linked to the port and, together with its unrivalled road links, it is ideal for reaching distribution hubs in the Midlands and elsewhere in the UK. 

Check out the Felixstowe Port website for more information

Southampton Port

Southampton is one of the busiest ports, and there is a good chance that your goods will arrive here as it handles all types of cargo. It’s the second-largest container terminal in the country and handles 1.5 million TEUs per year.

Located on the southern English coast, the port is within easy reach of Southampton Airport and Gatwick and Heathrow. It’s also less than two miles away from the M27 motorway and is connected to direct rail links for freight and passenger trains. You can expect your shipment to move quickly once it has customs clearance.

The largest vessels afloat can access the port thanks to the harbour’s deep water and unique double-tide.

Bulk cargos, perishable foods, and oil and petroleum products are all cargo that is regularly shipped here.

Find out more about Southampton Port

London Gateway Port

Situated on the River Thames, this port in London has the advantage of being on the edge of the capital city. If your final delivery destination is anywhere in London, you can benefit from a more streamlined logistical flow if your cargo arrives here as most of its journey will already be completed, reducing your overall haulage costs. 

This port is well known for handling high volumes of time-sensitive and perishable goods because of the speed it can reach distributors and shops.

Being on the Bank of Thames means the port is accessible for high sea-going traffic through the North Sea.

See more on the London Gateway Port website

Liverpool Port

This port is the most centrally placed port in the United Kingdom. The port has a massive shipping terminal that accommodates mega vessels, and the facility spreads across an area of 12 kilometres divided between Liverpool port 1 and port 2.

Liverpool port handles over 900,000 TEUs annually and has over 150 km of rail services for cargo handling and transport.

This gives the Liverpool port significant diversity in handling various types of cargo, including agribulks, containers, automotives, dry bulk, forest products, energy products, metals, Ro-Ro, liquid bulks, and project cargo.

Find more information on Liverpool Port

Port of Immingham

Found on the East Coast, this port used to be the largest overall in the UK. It still has the largest tonnage capacity handling 55 million tons of the country’s cargo annually. It’s one of the Associated British Ports (ABP) along with others on the Humber at Grimsby, Hull, and Goole.

The port is special because it plays a vital role in facilitating the supply chain that maintains the country's sustainable electricity generation as it connects the Humber (known as the ‘Energy Estuary’) with the rest of the UK.

The port handles major quantities of coal and oil and also handles dry bulks and liquid bulks serving key sectors across the economy.

Find out more about Immingham Port

Other ports

There are 120 cargo handling ports in the UK. Two others worthy of mentioning on this shortlist are Tilbury and Grangemouth.

Port of Tilbury is on the banks of the River Thames in Essex and is often used for vessels arriving from countries including the USA, Australia, and the Middle East. It has the largest container terminal in Europe for refrigerated containers. 

Up in Scotland, you have Grangemouth port. It’s Scotland’s largest container port and is located midway between Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Major ports comparison table


As you can see, there are several viable options for cargo arriving in the United Kingdom. Most of those mentioned here provide excellent links by both rail and road to all other parts of the country. It makes sense that you get your cargo shipped to the port nearest to your business or your customer's address if going on directly. 

The money you can save on haulage costs by having your goods arrive at the right port can help your bottom line, especially in low-margin, high-volume businesses like much of today’s eCommerce. You can also benefit from keeping your customers happy by meeting deadlines for delivery that can build repeat purchases, and grow your reputation as a reliable eCommerce merchant.

Businesses are increasingly looking globally for better and cheaper products to use. Getting the transportation side of things right is an important part of making your business a success and should not be looked at as just an afterthought.

Written by

Sam Franklin
Sam Franklin

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.


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