shanghai international freight port

Our Answers to the 8 Most Important Questions About International Freight

International air freight and ocean freight volumes continue to grow, despite the fact that many countries are turning to global import tariffs to protect domestic production of goods. Ultimately, this growth signals that international freight will continue to be a day-to-day reality as international business continues to thrive.

If you’re new to shipping freight internationally—or you simply want to leverage this shipping method more effectively—we’d love to help you brush up on the major concepts and get your piece of the growing global marketplace.

Below, we’ll walk you through our answers to the most frequently asked (and most important!) questions we get around international freight.

Question #1: Which International Freight Option Should I Choose?

choosing international freight

This is probably the most frequent question we get. It all comes down to 1) cost and time and 2) which one matters more to you.

Within international freight, you have two major options:

Option #1: Air Freight

Air freight offers you two main advantages over ocean freight: faster speeds and less handling of your goods.

However, that speed does come at a price. Air freight is generally more expensive than ocean freight. That being said, within air freight, you’ll have a menu of service levels to

 choose from. They range from the fastest speeds (and highest costs) of chartering a dedicated flight, all the way to the more cost-effective air freight consolidation.

When the speed and handling of your goods are a consideration, air freight is your best option. However, if you’re more concerned with cost, you’ll likely want to consider the second option.

Option #2: Ocean Freight

international ocean freight

Ocean freight is certainly the more budget-friendly option for moving goods internationally. However, at the end of the day, planes are simply faster than boats, so it will take longer to move your goods. Additionally, ocean freight is also subject to sailing schedules, meaning that you may need to wait a day or two to get your goods on a boat sailing to your destination.

Ocean freight offers you two options, based on how much you want to transport:

  • FCL: A full container load, usually best for larger loads. However, with high-value shipments, many shippers choose the FCL option so their goods get their own, dedicated container for maximum protection.
  • LCL: A less-than-container load. Freight forwarders consolidate LCLs to create a full load, which can result in extra cost savings for you.

So what’s the best way to make a final decision?

  1. Decide what matters more to you: speed or cost.
  2. Call your freight forwarder and get a quote.
  3. Keep an open mind! Depending on your shipment, a consolidated air freight shipment might fit in your budget, or you might get a great LCL rate for ocean freight. That’s what makes a good relationship with a forwarder so valuable.

And while we’re on the topic, let’s dive a little deeper into the costs of international freight.

#2: How Much Does Ocean Freight Cost? What About Air Freight?

international ocean freight cost

Ocean freight is priced on the volume of your shipment, plus associated port and delivery fees. (Take a deeper dive into the full cost of ocean freight.)

Air freight is calculated on what’s called your chargeable weight. (Discover how to calculate chargeable weight in section #3 of this article.) Air freight is also subject to a flat $20 handling fee.

Note: The $20 air freight handling fee can be significantly less than the additional fees associated with ocean freight. As a result, consolidated air freight can sometimes be your cheapest option when all is said and done. A good freight forwarder can tell you for sure, so make sure to ask about both options.

Question #3: What Documentation Do I Need for International Freight?

international freight documentation

When you’re shipping internationally, you will need additional documentation in order to ensure that your shipment passes through export and import procedures smoothly.

A good freight forwarder will help you ensure you have all the documentation you need, but, in general, you’ll want to be prepared to produce:

  • Commercial Invoice. An invoice that states the commercial price and the cost of freight, insurance, packing and other miscellaneous charges. This may also be referred to as a “pro forma invoice.”
  • Certificate of Origin. Some countries require this documentation in order to identify in which country the goods were manufactured. Customs generally uses this document to enforce embargoes or calculate tariffs and duties.
  • Packing List. This is simply a detailed inventory of items contained in a shipment. Although it’s often optional, it can facilitate inspection by customs and help buyers and shippers account for goods shipped.
  • Material Safety Data Sheet / Hazardous Goods Form. If you’re moving potentially hazardous products via ocean freight or air freight, you’ll need one of these forms for documentation.
  • Fumigation Certificate. If you’re using wooden packing materials, such as in a pallet, you may be required to provide this documentation, sometimes known as a “pest control certificate.”

Question #4: Are There Any Restrictions I Need to Know About?

international freight restrictions

When it comes to international freight, there are three you need to be aware of before signing a contract to ship goods internationally:

  1. Hazardous Materials: Double-check that any potentially hazardous materials are able to be moved by air or ocean cargo to your destination. Even if they are allowed, there will be significant restrictions and fees imposed on hazardous, so you’ll want to review the hazmat guidelines for air travel and ocean freight before committing to a purchase.
  2. Copyright and trademark infringement. Some countries take these violations more seriously than others. If you’re importing goods into a country with stiff rules and penalties, you could find yourself in a tough situation. Do your research beforehand to make sure any items you import don’t potentially violate any of the trademark and copyright holder’s rights.
  3. Customs Regulations and Fees. Know the associated import/export restrictions as well as any associated fees. Keep in mind that even items as seemingly innocuous as cosmetics may require inspection upon arrival. Doing your research up front will save you time and money in the long run.

And speaking of customs . . .

Question #5: What’s the Easiest Way to Deal with Customs?

international freight customs

Look to the experts. Your forwarder can connect you with a customs broker who will act as an intermediary between you and the customs department in the country of import.

Although you’ll pay a fee to the customs broker to handle the process for you, it’s more than worth it. Your customs broker will know exactly how to get your goods through customs quickly and easily. They can also facilitate the process if there’s some kind of paperwork snafu or inspection required.

Talk to your freight forwarder to get a recommendation for the right customs broker for you.

Question #6: Does International Freight Have Specific Packing Requirements?

international freight packaging

Other than the fact that you may need to produce a fumigation certificate, international freight doesn’t have specific packing requirements per se.

However, because international cargo is often traveling farther than domestic cargo, it will be subject to more handling. To ensure your cargo arrives damage-free, make sure you’re following best practices for packaging. We have two additional resources available on this topic:

Question #7: Should I Buy Insurance?

international freight insurance

Many air freight and ocean freight carriers offer a minimal type of coverage, called carrier liability. Generally, this coverage is offered per pound or per item. However, you should know that it’s often not enough to cover the replacement value of your item.

For example, let’s say you’re shipping a 1,000-pound solar panel, worth $1,200,000. If it’s damaged in transit, carrier liability will likely only pay out a fraction of this total value.

Even if you always turn down insurance at the car rental booth, you should still consider dedicated air cargo or marine cargo insurance. Think of it this way: If you’re shipping an entire month of inventory and it gets damaged, that loss could have a disastrous effect on your business and its bottom line.

Talk to your freight forwarder to understand your carrier’s exact liability—and to get a quote for full replacement value coverage.

Question #8: What’s the Quickest Way to Get Up to Speed with All the Terms I’m Hearing?

learn international freight terms

Shipping and logistics experts often seem to speak a language all their own. To industry newcomers, it can feel intimidating. However, once you get some experience under your belt, you’ll be throwing jargon around with the best of them.

To get up to speed, try these two resources:

  1. Use our Approved Transportation Glossary to look up any unfamiliar words.
  2. If you’re negotiating using Incoterms, check out this explanation of all eleven Incoterms.

One of the fastest ways to skillfully navigate the world of international freight is to establish a working relationship with a freight forwarder.

The right forwarder can simplify the entire process for you by taking care of all of the details. If you need to arrange for logistics in a foreign country, establish new shipping routes or even set up regular pickups and deliveries, your freight forwarder can take care of it all.

Additionally, the right forwarder can de-mystify any terms or concepts that feel new to you. They should also take the time to answer any additional questions you have, in order to help you make international freight an integrated part of your thriving business.