There’s a simple answer to this question: Freight gets to Hawaii usually by boat but also often by plane.

In other words, when it comes to the final leg of its journey, cargo gets shipped to Hawaii either by ocean freight or air freight. As an isolated Pacific island chain, Hawaii relies heavily on these freight modes to supply food, finished goods, construction materials, business supplies—almost everything that makes island life workable.

Want a deeper look into how freight moves to Hawaii? We’ll show you exactly how Hawaii ocean freight and air freight work, as well as how these freight modes keep the state’s economy humming.

First, let’s start with some fun facts about Hawaii freight.

Did You Know? 5 Key Hawaii Freight Facts

As you’ll see from the numbers below, incoming freight keeps life moving forward for both Hawaii’s residents and visitors:

  1. More than 80% of all goods consumed in Hawaii are imported. (That’s more than any other U.S. state!)
  2. In 2021, the state imported goods worth more than $2.5 billion dollars.
  3. Some of the state’s biggest imports (by total value) include petroleum in various forms, as well as cars.
  4. The Hawaii Department of Transportation estimates that approximately one-third of Hawaii’s economic output depends on freight, including hospitality, food and beverage, retail, and construction.
  5. These freight-dependent sectors of the economy employ nearly 350,000 people. (That’s 38% of the total workforce in Hawaii!)

Now that you know how vital freight movement is to the state, let’s take a closer look at exactly how freight gets shipped to Hawaii.

How Exactly Does Freight Get to Hawaii?

As you may know, there are four major types of freight transportation:

  • Air freight
  • Ocean freight
  • Rail freight
  • Over-the-road freight

Here’s how a shipment makes its way to Hawaii, utilizing these modes:

  • First, cargo gets picked up from a warehouse or a distribution center and gets placed on a truck or train. (Or both!)
  • Next, the cargo arrives at an airport or a seaport, where it will be loaded into a plane as air cargo or onto a ship as ocean cargo.
  • Finally, once cargo arrives in Hawaii, it will travel by truck to its final destination.

If you’re shipping freight to Hawaii, you’ll also have a few different pick up and delivery options:

  • Door-to-door service – Your freight gets picked up and dropped off at an address of your choosing. Door-to-door service is often the most expensive option, but it’s also the most convenient.
  • Door-to-port service – Your freight gets picked up at an address you choose, and then it’s delivered to a specified port. You can either pick up the cargo yourself at the port, or arrange for another carrier to pick it up for you. Door-to-port service is a common choice for Hawaii freight. This is especially true on the neighbor islands, where many carriers do not offer door delivery.
  • Port-to-door service – Your freight starts at a specific port, and then gets delivered to a location of your choosing on the other side. If you’ve chosen the FOB Incoterm, this might be the service you choose. Your seller pays all the costs to get your goods loaded on a ship at the origin port, and then you arrange for the rest of the journey, right to your door.
  • Port-to-port service – You pay for your goods to move from one port to another. In this case, you might drop your goods off at one port, and then someone else will pick them up on the other end.

Now that you’ve gotten an overview of Hawaii freight, let’s take a closer look at the two dominant modes of final delivery: Hawaii ocean freight and Hawaii air freight.

How Does Hawaii Ocean Freight Work?

The majority of Hawaii ocean freight arrives at Honolulu Harbor on Oahu. In fact, Honolulu Harbor consistently ranks in the top 50 U.S. ports by tonnage. The next largest ports by volume are Kahului Harbor on Maui, followed by Kawaihae Harbor on the Big Island and Nawiliwili Harbor on Kauai.

Domestic freight largely arrives from West Coast destinations, including the ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Seattle. Additionally, crude oil shipments come in from Alaska.

Its position in the Pacific Ocean also means Hawaii acts as a stop-over point for international freight coming in from Asia and Oceana. However, these goods make up less than 5% of the overall goods moved in Hawaii.

Can You Ship Ocean Freight Direct to Maui, Kauai, and the Big Island?

Absolutely! In fact, it’s something we specialize in.

Some companies choose to ship all their goods to Honolulu. Then, they move their cargo to a warehouse or distribution center, where they segregate out items intended for neighbor islands. That freight is then moved back to the port, where it’s put on an interisland barge for Maui, Kauai, or the Big Island.

However, if you’re consistently sending freight to Maui, Kauai, or the Big Island, we’d suggest shipping direct to each neighbor island. No need to sort and segregate on Oahu or utilize interisland barge service. In our opinion, this logistics flow creates significant efficiencies, especially when utilizing our access to twice-weekly direct sails to all neighbor islands. Learn more about how direct service can save you money.

What Kind of Cargo Is Transported by Sea to Hawaii?

Practically anything can ship via ocean freight to Hawaii—even refrigerated items and hazardous materials. We’ve personally shipped cargo to support almost every business vertical, including the retail, food & beverage, construction, hospitality, energy, and automotive industries.

Special Considerations for Hawaii Ocean Freight

If you’ve never shipped ocean freight to Hawaii before, there are a couple of things you’ll want to keep in mind:

Full Containers vs. Less-Than Container Loads

You can ship both containerized freight (full container loads / FCL) and non-containerized freight (less-than-container loads / LCL) to Hawaii. For LCL shipments, you’ll need to get in touch with a freight forwarder that specializes in these shipments, which are also called consolidations.

Sail Dates

Ocean freight moves according to sailing schedules, which might mean that a ship leaves the port twice a week for your destination. (Or less frequently, depending on your origin and destination points.) Miss the cut-off date/time, and your freight will sit for a few days. If you’re shipping to Hawaii frequently, get to know the sailing schedules and the cut-offs to keep your supply chain moving. (See our Hawaii freight schedules here.)

Transit Time

If you’re used to air freight or parcel shipping, ocean freight might feel slow to you. A steamship takes anywhere from five to nine days to transit from California to Hawaii. Plus, you’ll need to add additional days on either end for the ship to get loaded and unloaded. Plan your logistics flow accordingly.


Finally, here’s some good news: Shipments to Hawaii are considered domestic, so you won’t need a ton of extra paperwork to ship freight to Hawaii. As long as you’ve got a bill of lading, you’ll be good to go.

As you can see, ocean freight shipments to Hawaii involve a number of moving parts. That’s why it’s a good idea to choose someone with experience to assist you. The right logistics partner can make Hawaii ocean freight practically seamless.

Next, let’s take a look at the other way to ship freight to Hawaii: air freight.

How Does Hawaii Air Freight Work?

Air freight to Hawaii works pretty much the same as it does for any other destination, globally or internationally:

  • Cargo gets delivered to an airport.
  • An airline loads it onto a plane.
  • Your cargo flies to its destination airport.
  • It’s made available for pickup at the cargo terminal.

Far and away, Daniel K. Inouye International Airport (HNL) handles the highest volume of air cargo in Hawaii. In fact, it regularly sees more than ten times the tonnage of the next-busiest airport—Kahului Airport (OGG) on Maui.

Several passenger airlines, including Delta, Hawaiian Airlines, Southwest, and United, handle Hawaii air cargo. Additionally, several cargo-only airlines carry Hawaii air freight, including Aloha Air Cargo, Federal Express (FedEx), TransAir Cargo, and United Parcel Service (UPS).

Most Common Origin & Destinations for Hawaii Air Freight

In terms of outbound domestic air cargo, the most common destination for Hawaii air freight is Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), which receives as much as half of all outbound domestic air cargo shipments. LAX is followed by Oakland International Airport (OAK), Ontario International Airport (ONT), San Francisco International Airport (SFO), and Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW).

For inbound domestic air freight, LAX and Ontario are the most common origin points. Memphis, Tennessee (MEM, a FedEx hub) and Louisville, Kentucky (SDF, a UPS hub) are also common origin points for incoming Hawaii air freight.

For international air freight, Sydney, Australia (SYD) is the most common destination point for air cargo exports, followed by Auckland Airport (AKL) in New Zealand. International air cargo imports most commonly come from Narita International Airport (NRT), Haneda Airport (HND), Chubu Centrair International Airport (NGO), and Kansai International Airport (KIX) in Japan, as well as Incheon International Airport (ICN) in South Korea.

What Type of Cargo Is Transported by Air?

High-value, time-sensitive goods are best suited for air freight. Electronics, precision instruments; textiles and leather; pharmaceuticals; high-end accessories like handbags and jewelry; fresh meat and seafood; and medical/surgical equipment are all common air cargo commodities that land in Hawaii.

Hawaii Freight Made Easy

When it comes to getting freight to Hawaii, you’ll have two options for the final leg: air freight and ocean freight. Now that you’ve gotten an in-depth look at both modes of transportation, you’re well-positioned to design a thoughtful logistics flow for your Hawaii-bound cargo.

Need some assistance shipping your freight to Hawaii? Our experts would be happy to help with either ocean freight or air freight options—or both. Just reach out for a complimentary consultation, and we’ll help you design a logistics flow that moves your Hawaii cargo quickly, efficiently, and cost-effectively.

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