Sea Freight

Large black and red cargo ship carrying goods

Sea freight is the shipment of large quantities of goods using cargo ships. The goodsintransit is usually stored in containers or in the hold of the ship. 

It is typically regarded as one of the cheapest ways to transport bulk goods over long distances.

  • Sea freight is the transportation of goods from port A to port B via ocean carriers.
  • It is typically a cost-efficient and safe way to ship large quantities of goods over long distances.
  • Sea freight is usually calculated per container or by chargeable weight in cubic meters (CBM). Chargeable weight is the greater of the following measurements:
         ◦   Actual weight of cargo in tons, converted to CBM, where 1 CBM = 1 ton = 1000kg (~2205lbs)
         ◦   Volumetric weight (CBM) = Length x width x height (in meters)
  • Common Sea Freight Routes

    Some of the most common sea freight routes take place between these countries:

    • China and United Kingdom (UK)
    • China and the United States (US)
    • USA and Australia
    • USA and India
    • USA and Singapore
    • USA and UK 

    On average, shipments between these countries may take anywhere from 4 to 10 weeks. Transit times may vary depending on factors such as weather conditions and transshipment routes.

    Benefits of Sea Freight


    Ocean freight is one of the cheapest ways to ship a large volume of goods over long distances, like when shipping from,

    Some estimates have shown that it is generally four to six times less costly than air freight.

    Some carriers, like NVOCCs, may even have special arrangements with other companies to obtain the best rates for clients.

    Large Space Capacity

    The large size of cargo ships allow them to carry high volumes of heavy, bulky cargo with large dimensions. This may include large quantities of motor vehicles and heavy machinery.

    Safe Carriage of Dangerous Goods

    Many sea carriers are equipped to safely transport dangerous goods such as batteries, fuel and crude oil, chemicals and explosives. Regulations surrounding transporting these goods are also less stringent for ocean freight, compared to other modes of shipment.

    Sea Freight Containers

    In sea cargo shipping, freight may be:

    • Stored in containers, then loaded onto ships
    • Stored in the hold of the ship (dry bulk shipping)
    • Rolled on and off RoRo ships

    Shipping containers are most commonly used for their space-efficiency and ability to protect goods from weather damage. Larger ships may carry between 18,000 to 21,000 20ft containers or 9,000 to 10,500 40ft containers.

    Shippers (consignors) may choose to opt for full container loads or less-than-container loads.

    Less-than-container Load (LCL) vs Full Container Load (FCL)

    An LCL shipment is a type of consolidated freight where multiple consignors share container space to ship smaller quantities of goods.

    An FCL shipment is when a single consignor books a full container for their own goods only. They may choose to use the full space of the container or not.

    Some ways LCL and FCL shipments differ include:

    • Cost – For smaller volumes of goods, LCL is cheaper than FCL as consignors only pay for the space they use
    • Speed – LCL takes a longer time to complete than FCL as consolidation and deconsolidation is required
    • Availability – LCL may be more readily available than FCL during busy shipment periods

    How is Sea Freight Calculated?

    Sea freight rates are typically calculated based on chargeable weight (LCL shipments) or container size (FCL shipments). Carriers may also quote their own flat shipment rate.

    Cost may also vary based on the type of container used (e.g. refrigerated, tank) and additional charges such as:

    • Bill of Lading (BoL);
    • Documentation;
    • Container freight station (CFS) fees.

    Sea Freight Calculation for LCL Shipments

    For LCL shipments, sea freight is calculated by taking the chargeable weight of goods multiplied by a base rate quoted by carrier companies.

    Sea freight = Chargeable weight (CBM) x base rate ($)

    Chargeable weight is measured in cubic meters (CBM), and is determined by the actual weight (in tons) of cargo or its volumetric weight (CBM), whichever is greater.

    • Actual weight

    This is the total weight of cargo (in tons) measured on a weighing scale. 1 ton of cargo is equivalent to 1 CBM.

    1000kg (~2205lbs) = 1 ton = 1 CBM

    • Volumetric weight

    Volumetric weight is calculated by multiplying the length, width and height of cargo in meters.

    Length x width x height (in meters) = volumetric weight (in CBM)

    Example of Calculating Sea Freight by Chargeable Weight

    For example, you are engaging the services of sea carrier company ABC that charges a base rate of $55 per CBM. Your cargo has the following measurements:

    • Weight = 5000kg (11023lb)
    • Length = 1m (3.28ft), width = 2m (6.56ft), height = 3m (9.84ft)

    Actual weight = 5000kg = 5 tons = 5 CBM
    Volumetric weight = 1m x 2m x 3m = 6 CBM

    As volumetric weight is greater than actual weight, the chargeable weight will be 6 CBM.

    Sea freight = 6 CBM x $55 = $330

    You would thus have to pay $330 to ship your goods via sea carrier ABC.

    Sea Freight Calculation for FCL Shipments

    For FCL shipments, sea freight may be calculated in terms of twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs). Many carriers have a base rate per 20ft container. This means that a 40ft container is counted as 2 TEUs.

    For example, you are doing an FCL shipment with sea carrier company XYZ that charges a base rate of $600 per TEU. You want to ship 2 x 40ft containers with them.

    1 x 40ft container = 2 TEUs
    2 x 40ft container = 4 TEUs

    Sea freight = $600 x 4 TEUs = $2400

    You would thus have to pay $2400 to ship your containers via sea carrier XYZ.

    Sea Freight vs Air Freight

    Another common mode of transportation in shipping is air freight. It is the shipment of goods via air carriers like cargo or charter planes. 

    When deciding between ocean and air freight, consignors and freight forwarders often weigh the following factors:

    • Cost

    Sea freight is typically much cheaper than air freight for larger quantities of goods. However, the difference in cost may be significantly lower for smaller quantities, depending on LCL prices.

    • Carbon footprint

    Sea freight generally leaves a lower carbon footprint than air freight as planes generate greater carbon emissions than ships.

    • Speed

    Air freight is typically much faster than sea freight, especially for longer distances. The former may take days to reach a destination whereas the latter may take weeks. The speed may vary based on factors like door to door shipment arrangements.

    Start learning about freight forwarding.
    Get free freight forwarding tips and resources delivered directly to your inbox.
    No charge. Unsubscribe everytime.