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January 24, 2024

How Does International Ocean Freight Shipping Work?

Martin Damboldt

What is Ocean Freight? 

Ocean freight, often referred to as sea freight, is the backbone of international trade, serving as a fundamental method for transporting goods across the world’s oceans and seas. This mode of transportation involves the loading and shipment of cargo on ships, which come in various types, including container ships, bulk carriers, and specialised vessels for specific cargo types.  

Breaking Down the Ocean Freight Process: A Detailed Overview 

International ocean freight shipping is a complex process that involves several crucial steps, each of which plays a vital role in ensuring the successful transportation of goods across the world’s oceans and seas. Let’s break down this process into detailed subheadings: 

Cargo Preparation 

  • The journey of an ocean freight shipment begins with the shipper or exporter preparing the cargo for transport. 
  • Effective packaging is vital for safeguarding goods during transportation, guaranteeing they arrive at their destination in prime condition. 
  • Labelling is crucial to identify the cargo and its destination accurately. 
  • Documentation must comply with international regulations and requirements, including bills of lading, invoices, certificates of origin, and other necessary paperwork. 

Cargo Transportation to the Port of Origin 

  • Once the cargo is ready for shipment, it is transported to the designated port of origin. 
  • This involves coordinating the logistics of moving the cargo from the shipper’s location to the port, which can include various modes of inland transportation such as trucks or trains. 

Customs Clearance at the Port of Origin 

  • At the port of origin, the cargo undergoes customs clearance procedures.  
  • Customs officials review the paperwork and examine the cargo to ensure that it adheres to export regulations and that the provided information is accurate. 

Cargo Loading onto Ocean Vessel 

  • After customs clearance, the cargo is loaded onto the selected ocean vessel. 
  • This process requires careful handling and organization to optimize space within the vessel and secure the cargo for the journey. 

The Ocean Voyage 

  • Once on board the ocean vessel, the cargo embarks on its voyage across the ocean. 
  • The vessel follows a predetermined route, navigating through various international waters and making stops at different ports of call along the way.

Arrival at Destination Port

  • Upon reaching the destination port, the cargo undergoes customs procedures once more. 
  • Customs officials at the destination review the documentation, inspect the cargo, and ensure that all import regulations are met. 

Customs Clearance at Destination Port 

  • The cargo’s clearance at the destination port is critical for entry into the destination country. 
  • Any necessary duties, taxes, or tariffs must be paid, and import documentation must be completed accurately. 

Delivery to the Consignee or Importer 

  • Once customs clearance is obtained at the destination port, the cargo is released for delivery. 
  • The consignee or importer receives the goods and takes possession of the cargo.

Ocean freight vs. air freight: What are the differences? 

Cost Efficiency: Ocean freight offers cost-efficiency for shipping large volumes over extended distances. While air freight is more expensive, and suitable for time-sensitive shipments. 

Transit Time: Ocean freight involves longer transit times and is ideal for flexible schedules. Air Freight entails rapid delivery, perfect for urgent or perishable goods. 

Cargo Type and Volume: Ocean freight handles large volumes, suited for bulk cargo and oversized items. Air freight is suitable for high-value or time-sensitive cargo. 

Environmental Impact 

Ocean freight has a smaller carbon footprint, making it an eco-friendly choice, while air freight produces higher emissions and may not align with sustainability objectives. 

What Services Can International Ocean Freight Companies Provide? 

International ocean freight companies have a crucial role in enabling the cross-border movement of goods. They handle the complexities of logistics, including documentation, customs procedures, cargo tracking, and more. Collaborating with a dependable ocean freight forwarder can streamline the shipping process, guaranteeing the seamless arrival of your cargo at its destination. 

Major Ocean Shipping Lines 

Several major ocean shipping lines dominate the industry, providing extensive networks and services. These reputable companies, such as Maersk Line, Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC), CMA CGM Group, COSCO Shipping Lines, Hapag-Lloyd, Evergreen Line, Ocean Network Express (ONE), and HMM (Hyundai Merchant Marine), provide diverse container choices and flexible sailing schedules. This empowers shippers to select the most fitting options for their cargo when utilizing ocean freight cargo services

Ocean Freight Cargo Services 

Ocean freight cargo services refer to the various services provided by shipping companies, freight forwarders, and logistics providers to facilitate the transportation of goods via ocean vessels. These services are essential for businesses engaged in international trade and shipping. Here are some key ocean freight cargo services: 

Booking and Reservation: Assistance in reserving cargo space on a specific vessel and route, considering the type and volume of goods to be shipped. 

Cargo Packing and Labelling: Assistance with proper packaging, labelling, and marking of goods to ensure they meet international shipping standards and regulations. 

Container Loading and Unloading: Efficient loading and unloading of cargo into/from shipping containers at ports or warehouses, including container stuffing and de-stuffing services. 

Customs Clearance: Managing all customs documentation and procedures, encompassing import and export declarations, to guarantee adherence to the customs regulations of both the origin and destination nations. 

Freight Rate Negotiation: Skilfully bargaining for competitive freight rates with ocean carriers on behalf of the shipper or consignee, aiming to optimize shipping expenses. 

Route Planning and Optimization: Selecting the most suitable shipping routes and methods, considering factors such as transit time, cost, and cargo type. 

Port Services: Providing services at both origin and destination ports, including cargo handling, storage, and coordination of loading and unloading activities. 

Documentation Services: Efficiently creating and overseeing all essential shipping documents, including bills of lading, certificates of origin, packing lists, and any other mandatory paperwork. 

Tracking and Visibility: Providing live tracking and visibility of cargo throughout its voyage, enabling shippers to continuously monitor its whereabouts and status. 

Consolidation and De-consolidation: Consolidating multiple smaller shipments into a single container (LCL) or de-consolidating cargo at the destination (LCL) for efficient transportation. 

Hazardous Materials Handling: Specialized services for shipping hazardous or dangerous goods, including compliance with international regulations for their safe transport. 

Temperature-Controlled Cargo (Reefer): Services for goods that require temperature-controlled shipping, such as perishable items or pharmaceuticals, including the use of refrigerated containers. 

Heavy and Oversized Cargo: Handling of heavy or oversized cargo, often requiring specialized equipment and expertise for loading and securing. 

Project Cargo Handling: Customised solutions for complex or large-scale project cargo shipments, including engineering, planning, and execution. 

What types of cargo are commonly transported by ocean? 

Ocean freight can accommodate a broad spectrum of cargo types from around the world. This versatility allows ocean freight to meet the varied requirements of multiple industries, making a significant contribution to the interconnectedness of the global economy. Here’s a closer look at the typical cargo that traverses the world’s oceans: 

1. Consumer Goods: 

  • Consumer goods, ranging from clothing and household items to electronics and appliances, frequently make their way across the oceans in vast quantities. These goods serve markets worldwide, and ocean freight offers a cost-effective means of transporting them in bulk. 

2. Machinery and Equipment: 

  • Heavy machinery, industrial equipment, and manufacturing machinery are often shipped via ocean freight. The robustness of cargo vessels allows for the transport of oversized and heavy equipment efficiently. 

3. Electronics: 

  • The electronics sector heavily depends on ocean freight for transporting components, devices, and appliances. This includes everything from smartphones and laptops to large-scale electronics used in various sectors.

4. Raw Materials and Commodities: 

  • Ocean freight holds a crucial position in the global supply chain for essential raw materials and commodities, including minerals, ores, steel, and agricultural products. These essential resources move in significant volumes to meet the demands of industries worldwide. 

5. Automotive:

  • The automotive industry relies on ocean freight to transport vehicles, auto parts, and components. This encompasses a wide range of items, from automobiles and trucks to motorcycles and spare parts required by assembly plants across the globe. 

6. Energy Resources:

  • Ocean vessels transport energy resources like oil, natural gas, and coal across vast distances. These resources are critical for powering industries and generating energy in different parts of the world. 

7. Chemicals and Pharmaceuticals: 

  • The chemical and pharmaceutical sectors depend on ocean freight for transporting various chemicals, pharmaceutical products, and raw materials needed for manufacturing drugs and chemical products. 

8. Agricultural Products: 

  • Agricultural commodities, including grains, cereals, fruits, and vegetables, are shipped via ocean freight to access global markets and meet consumer demands. 

9. Construction Materials: 

  • Construction materials like cement, steel, timber, and building components are transported by sea to support construction projects in different regions. 

10. Specialized Cargo: 

  • Ocean freight is also equipped to handle specialized cargo, including refrigerated and temperature-controlled containers for perishable goods, hazardous materials, and oversized cargo like heavy machinery and industrial components. 

What Cannot Be Shipped by Ocean? 

While ocean freight is incredibly versatile, there are restrictions on certain goods, including hazardous materials and perishables. It’s crucial to be aware of these limitations when planning your shipments. 

How Long Does Ocean Freight Take? 

The transit time for ocean freight varies based on factors such as the chosen shipping route, distance, and weather conditions. Generally, ocean shipments take longer than air freight but offer significant cost savings. 

When is opting for ocean freight a good choice? 

Cost-efficiency: Ocean freight frequently proves to be a more cost-effective option when compared to alternative transportation modes like air freight. In ocean freight, the cost per unit of goods tends to decrease as shipment volumes increase. This makes it economical for businesses shipping large quantities of goods. 

Large and non-urgent shipments: If you have bulky or heavy cargo that is not time-sensitive, ocean freight is a suitable choice. Containers can accommodate a significant volume of goods, making it ideal for large shipments. 

Long-distance and international shipments: Ocean freight is the preferred choice for international shipping, especially for destinations across oceans. It’s a reliable and efficient way to transport goods globally. 

Eco-friendly shipping: Ocean freight is generally regarded as a more environmentally sustainable choice in comparison to air freight, as it results in lower greenhouse gas emissions per unit of cargo transported. 

Bulk commodities: Ocean freight is commonly used for transporting bulk commodities like raw materials, grains, minerals, and vehicles. These shipments do not demand swift delivery times and take advantage of the cost efficiencies provided by sea transportation through economies of scale.inco 

When is opting for ocean freight not the best choice? 

Time-sensitive shipments: If you need your goods to reach their destination quickly, ocean freight may not meet your delivery timeframe, as it typically has longer transit times compared to air or land transport. 

Fragile or perishable goods: Ocean freight involves handling and longer transit times, which may not be suitable for delicate or perishable items that require careful handling and quick delivery. 

Seasonal demand: If your business experiences seasonal fluctuations in demand and requires fast inventory replenishment, ocean freight might not be the most responsive option. 

Incoterms Used in Ocean Shipping 

Incoterms, or International Commercial Terms, define the responsibilities of buyers and sellers in international trade. Understanding these terms is crucial for successful ocean freight transactions. 

Here are some common Incoterms used in ocean shipping: 

FOB (Free On Board): Seller delivers goods to the named port of shipment, and risk/cost transfers to the buyer at that point. 

CIF (Cost, Insurance, and Freight): Seller pays for cost, insurance, and freight to the named port of destination; risk transfers once goods are on the vessel. 

CFR (Cost and Freight): Seller covers cost and freight to the named port of destination; buyer arranges insurance. 

EXW (Ex Works): Seller’s responsibility ends at their premises; buyer bears all subsequent costs and risks. 

DAP (Delivered At Place): Seller delivers goods to a named place of destination (unloaded); buyer assumes risk and cost from there. 

DDP (Delivered Duty Paid): Seller handles all costs, risks, and duties/taxes to deliver goods to the buyer’s premises or named place. 

DAT (Delivered At Terminal): Seller delivers unloaded goods to a named terminal at the destination; risk transfers upon unloading. 

DPU (Delivered at Place Unloaded): Seller delivers unloaded goods to a named place of destination; risk transfers upon unloading. 

What affects ocean freight rate? 

Fuel Costs: Fuel prices, particularly the cost of bunker fuel, have a significant impact on ocean freight rates. Fuel prices can fluctuate due to global oil market dynamics and regulatory changes in environmental standards. 

Demand and Supply: The basic principle of supply and demand plays a crucial role in ocean freight rates. When demand for shipping space exceeds supply (e.g., during peak seasons), rates tend to rise. Conversely, in periods of oversupply, rates may decrease. 

Vessel Capacity: The size and availability of container vessels affect rates. Larger vessels can carry more cargo, potentially reducing rates, while shortages of vessel capacity can drive rates higher. 

Economic Conditions: Economic factors, including GDP growth, trade volumes, and consumer demand, impact the flow of goods and, consequently, ocean freight rates. 

Geopolitical Events: Political instability, trade disputes, sanctions, and other geopolitical events have the potential to disrupt shipping routes, introducing uncertainty and altering trade patterns, which can subsequently impact shipping rates. 

Port Congestion: Congestion at ports, caused by factors like labor strikes, infrastructure limitations, or adverse weather conditions, can lead to delays and increased costs, affecting rates. 

Trade Routes: The specific trade routes used for shipping can affect rates, as some routes may be more efficient and cost-effective than others. 

Type of Cargo: The nature of the cargo being shipped can also impact rates. Cargo characteristics such as size, weight, value, and special handling requirements can affect the cost of shipping. 

Environmental Regulations: Environmental regulations, including emissions standards and carbon pricing, may raise operational costs for shipping firms, potentially resulting in increased rates. 

How are ocean freight costs calculated? 

Calculating ocean freight costs can be complex, as it involves multiple components that contribute to the final price. Here’s an overview of how ocean freight costs are typically calculated: 

Base Freight Rates: Base freight rates are the core charges for transporting cargo from one port to another. Ocean freight rates are determined by several factors, including supply and demand dynamics, port-to-port distances, vessel specifications, and chosen trade routes. Base rates are usually quoted per twenty-foot equivalent unit (TEU) for containers or per freight ton for bulk or breakbulk cargo. 

Surcharges: Surcharges are additional costs applied on top of the base rates. They can significantly impact the total freight cost. 

Common surcharges include:  

Bunker Adjustment Factor (BAF): Reflects fluctuations in fuel prices.  

Currency Adjustment Factor (CAF): Compensates for currency exchange rate variations.  

Peak Season Surcharge (PSS): Applied during peak shipping seasons.  

Low Sulphur Surcharge (LSF): Levied to comply with environmental regulations.  

Emergency Bunker Surcharge (EBS): An additional fuel surcharge in response to extraordinary fuel price increases. 

Accessorial Charges: These are fees for additional services or specific cargo handling requirements. Examples include demurrage (charges for exceeding free time at the port), detention (charges for holding containers longer than allowed), and reefer (refrigerated container) charges. 

Container Costs: Shippers may need to pay container-related fees, including container leasing costs and container handling charges at the ports. 

Terminal Handling Charges (THC): THC fees are assessed by the port or terminal for loading and unloading cargo from the vessel. These charges vary by port and can depend on cargo size, weight, and handling requirements. 

Bill of Lading (B/L) Fees: The issuance of a bill of lading, which serves as the contract of carriage, involves associated fees. 

Documentation and Administration Fees: Costs related to customs documentation, cargo insurance, and other administrative tasks may apply. 

Destination Charges: These are fees associated with transporting cargo from the destination port to its final delivery location, including drayage (local transportation) and delivery charges. 

Additional Services: Charges for special services, such as cargo inspection, fumigation, or customs clearance, can also be part of the overall cost. 

What is the country-specific requirements in ocean freight shipping? 

Customs Documentation: Every nation has its specific customs documentation and paperwork prerequisites. These usually encompass items like the commercial invoice, packing list, bill of lading, certificate of origin, and any obligatory permits or licenses. 

Tariffs and Duties: Import duties and tariffs vary widely from one country to another. Shippers need to understand the specific duties applicable to their goods in the destination country and plan for these costs. 

Restricted and Prohibited Goods: Different countries have restrictions or prohibitions on the import or export of certain goods. Shippers should check the destination country’s regulations to ensure their cargo is compliant. 

Product Standards and Labelling: Some countries have specific product standards and labelling requirements that must be met for imports. These may relate to safety, quality, and product labelling in the local language. 

Documentation Language: Some countries may require that all shipping and customs documents be in their official language or translated accordingly. 

Sanitary and Phytosanitary Requirements: For agricultural and food products, there may be strict sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) requirements that must be met to prevent the introduction of pests and diseases. 

Licensing and Certification: Certain goods may require special licenses or certifications for importation, such as pharmaceuticals, chemicals, or hazardous materials. 

Import Quotas and Restrictions: Certain nations implement import quotas or restrictions on particular products, constraining the allowable quantity for importation during a designated timeframe. 

Compliance with International Trade Agreements: Countries that are party to international trade agreements may have specific requirements for goods originating from member countries, such as preferential tariff rates. 

Inspection and Examination: Some countries may conduct random inspections or examinations of imported goods, which can add time and costs to the shipping process. 

Customs Brokerage: Utilising the services of a licensed customs broker who is familiar with the destination country’s regulations can help ensure compliance and expedite customs clearance. 


International ocean freight shipping is a complex yet essential aspect of global trade. Understanding the process, making informed decisions about cargo type and container options, and staying abreast of industry trends and regulations are key to successful international shipments. With the demand for ocean freight services steadily rising, businesses must adapt and optimize their logistics strategies to remain competitive in the ever-expanding global marketplace. 

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