Finding a Freight Forwarder in China can be challenging for international small and medium B2B and B2C enterprises who source their products in the Middle Kingdom. But don’t worry! We are here for you.
After having described the process of sourcing products in China and importing goods from China in detail, this China Gravy article focuses on the logistic aspect when transporting goods from China to their global destination, and in particular on finding and collaborating with a reliable freight forwarder in China.
Without further ado, let’s get started.
Global B2B & B2C Companies: Optimize Your Logistics from China
International B2B and B2C businesses commonly source and import products from China.
Whether dropshipping, Amazon FBA, reselling, white labeling, or creating and manufacturing their own products – global companies can select from a large variety of products when sourcing their products from China to fit their business concept and strategy.
Especially on Chinese platforms like 1688 and Baidu B2B for sourcing your products, manufacturers and suppliers offer good quality to price ratio but focus on producing and selling for the Chinese market. This means that manufacturers and suppliers often don’t have much experience with exporting and shipping goods abroad. As a result, the buyer has to take care of the whole logistics process, including proper packaging and obtaining the required certificates.
On Alibaba, the suppliers are often just retailers or wholesalers who present themselves as manufacturers but are in fact only intermediaries. While they speak English and are experienced with foreign buyers and the process of shipping from China to Australia, Europe, the US, and other international destinations, the prices are relatively high in comparison to Chinese platforms like 1688 and Baidu B2B.
Therefore, buying from Chinese platforms gives global B2B and B2C companies a price advantage, if they can fulfill the freight forwarding aspect themselves.
In China Gravy’s article on importing goods from China international B2B and B2C businesses find a step-by-step guide on the whole importing process – from making an order to incoterms, selecting a freight forwarder in China, the required shipping documents, and expected costs.
Therefore, this article specifically focuses on the specific aspects of finding and collaborating with a China freight forwarder effectively and efficiently.
What is a Freight Forwarder?
A freight forwarder is a company – or often just an individual agent with an extensive logistics network – who organizes the transport of goods from one destination to another – either by land, sea, or air.
On the other hand, 3PL (third-party logistic) companies are actually larger companies that offer more services compared to a freight forwarder, e.g. procurement and sourcing, export, and customs clearance.
Besides, you may also come across the term NVOCC (Non-Vessel-Operating Common Carrier) company. NVOCCs focus on sea transportation (they usually do not own and operate their own fleet and containers, storage, and distribution centers).
In practice, these terms are often used interchangeably.
How to Find a Freight Forwarder in China
If you are wondering how to reduce shipping costs from China, finding an affordable yet reliable and responsive freight forwarder in China is an excellent way to do so.
Generally speaking, larger reputable logistics companies will be more experienced and reliable than smaller or new companies. However, they may be less flexible and for smaller shipments, it may be more advantageous to collaborate with smaller freight forwarding companies. A freight forwarding agent will be able to advise you on your best options.
Let’s look at the process step by step:
1. Determine your Forwarding Needs
These are the questions you can ask yourself:
- Is a forwarding agent sufficient or do you prefer to work with a 3PL company to assist you more extensively (e.g. procurement and sourcing, transport from factory to export port, export clearance, transport from destination port to the final destination, inventory and returns management)?
- What are the goods and volumes you are planning to ship as well as the port of origin and destination?
- Is this a one-time shipping route or will you require regular forwarding services?
Being clear with your scope will make the process of finding a suitable logistics agent in China for your forwarding needs easier.
2. Aspects of a Freight Forwarder in China to Consider
When choosing a freight forwarder, consider the following aspects:
Ideally, you collaborate with a freight forwarding agent who can individually cater to your specific logistics needs and situation.
You can consider industry experience of the specific goods, key destinations, global setup, and offices near you as well as languages spoken when selecting a freight forwarder.
If you are researching freight forwarding companies on a platform, you can also check their reviews, how long they have been registered, as well as background information on their business.
Global transportation is influenced by a large variety of economic and political factors. Therefore, conditions are prone to change. Your freight forwarder should be knowledgeable and able to plan ahead in order to mitigate risks and handle issues that may occur.
Larger freight forwarding companies may also have cargo insurance to cover liabilities. Make sure to check this beforehand.
Depending on your requirements of logistics, you may require a combination of shipping methods, storing goods in warehouses, and other logistics solutions.
Discuss your supply chain needs with prospective forwarders/3PLs to ensure that they can meet your requirements and needs.
Services you may require include freight insurance, pickup and delivery, customs clearance, inspection, (re)packaging and labeling, and warehousing.
Communication & Customer Service
Does your selected freight forwarder speak your language? Do they respond timely, and demonstrate a proactive, transparent, and solution-based approach?
Does the forwarder offer online tracking of the shipped goods, notifications, and customer service for questions and troubleshooting?
Licenses, Certifications, and Permits
Freight forwarders are required to have various permits like import and export licenses to handle cargo, as well as special licenses for carrying sensitive and dangerous goods.
Ensure that your provider has the appropriate licenses for handling cargo as well as special licenses if your products require this.
3. Where Can You Find a Freight Forwarder in China
Once all questions have been answered and you are confident with your choice of freight forwarding agent or 3PL company, make sure to sign an agreement with them on the deliverable you agreed on with them. Freight forwarding companies typically have standardized contracts, terms, and conditions.
For Express Delivery
Get your quotes directly from the largest CEP providers, e.g. DHL, FedEx, DB Schenker, UPS.
For Land/Sea/Air Transportation
Consult the search engine of your choice or Chinese sourcing/B2B platform (see below). Alternatively, you can also contact a freight forwarding company/agent or 3PL to assist you with this.
- Google and Alibaba: search for e.g. “freight forwarder in China TARGET COUNTRY”. You can consider both organic search results and ads, but keep in mind that high-ranked organic results are established over time while every company can run ads.
- 1688 and Baidu B2B: search for e.g. “货运代理” (shipping agent)
Example: searching “货运代理” (shipping agent) on 1688
Example: searching “货运代理” (shipping agent) on Baidu B2B
Does all of this sound overwhelming? A China expert like China Gravy can help you with finding and collaborating with a reliable and affordable freight forwarder in China.
To provide a better understanding of the context and current developments, let’s take a look at the global Courier, Express, and Parcel industry (CEP), as well as logistics must-knows from China, and a more detailed differentiation between freight forwarders, 3PLs, and NVOCCs including the global key players.
The International CEP Industry
In today’s global market, fueled by ecommerce growth (and the shortcomings of traditional postal companies), the Courier, Express, and Parcel (CEP) industry is booming. The global ecommerce retail sales are forecast to double compared to 2019 and reach 7.4 trillion USD in 2025. China currently is the largest ecommerce market in the world, followed by the US, UK, Japan, South Korea, Germany, France, and India – all of which have steep growth rates.
With a quick recovery after the Covid-pandemic, the global CEP market size is projected to reach nearly 700 billion USD by 2028 at an average annual growth rate of around 6%.
Let’s first take a look at the definition of each term.
- courier: short distance deliveries
- express: delivery within 1-2 days, air shipment (fully/partially)
- parcel: non-palletized items up to 50 kg (110 lbs), land/sea shipment
Today, these terms are used interchangeably. However, they have fast and reliable delivery in common. CEP companies provide international shipping with a variety of services. The first movers and industry key players are UPS and FedEx (USA), DHL and TNT (Europe), Toll Express (Australia), and SF Express (China).
International and Domestic Shipments
Generally, CEP consists of two business parts: International and Domestic shipping. In particular Domestic shipping has surged in the face of the global ecommerce economy growth.
The two main service types of CEP are Standard and Express shipping. In particular, standard shipping has grown recently due to the production price pressure that comes with globalization.
Shift from B2B to B2C Clients
In the past, international CEP businesses including Freight Forwarders in China mainly provided their services to B2B companies (urgent high-value low volume orders). To cater to the time-sensitive needs of their clients, CEP companies created extensive networks and invested in their own air fleets to provide fast and reliable services.
Whereas today B2B is still the focus of CEP service providers, more and more B2C companies request the services of CEP companies. As the B2C business model has an exponentially higher number of shipments than the B2B business model, CEP companies had to adjust their services to cater to their customers’ needs.
Overall, B2C clients are more difficult to reach (multiple delivery attempts) and have higher return rates which result in higher shipping costs. Generally, the weight per shipment is lower in B2C and higher in B2B deliveries.
Traditional CEP companies are required to adjust their services to cater to high volume ecommerce deliveries. This includes IT solutions that link customer orders to suppliers, logistics, and payments as well as last-mile delivery.
Therefore, CEPs specialized in ecommerce have emerged (e.g. Kiala which has since merged into UPS) and traditional CEP companies like DHL are expanding their ecommerce logistics. The goal is to combine fast delivery with reduced costs for the customers and businesses.
Development of the Logistics and Freight Forwarder Market in China
In Q1/2022, it seemed like the world had recovered from the Covid-pandemic. While most of the world has returned to “business as usual” after the pandemic, China’s strict “Zero Covid” policy still sees lockdowns and factory shutdowns, resulting in production and shipping backlogs and delays.
Rising Energy Prices & Inflation
In the face of rising energy prices and inflation in Western countries, consumers’ demand due to the lack of freely disposable income results in lower demand, which increases logistics costs.
Increased Partnerships/Mergers, Less Competition
More and more freight forwarders in China and third-party logistics (3PL) providers are increasingly entering long-term partnerships or even merging their businesses. While this results in increased capacity and services individual companies can provide, this also reduces competition.
For example, Kuehne+Nagel recently acquired Apex, and Maersk acquired LF Logistics, both leading freight forwarders in Asia, to increase their logistics services in Asia in the ecommerce, hi-tech, and e-mobility sectors.
This, in turn, generally leads to a more streamlined and less competitive logistics market with higher prices and less flexibility.
Express Delivery Prices Soar
The aforementioned developments also affect express delivery services, which were in exceptionally high demand before the pandemic.
Air Cargo Demand is Booming
While traditionally the ecommerce sector relied on sea shipping, digitalization, customization, and consumer behavior demand a quicker reaction time for B2B and B2C businesses.
Air cargo is projected to increase from 1.3 million tons in 2020 to 2 million tons by 2025. This will require 15 additional freight aircrafts from China every week. This is particularly relevant as due to supply chain disruptions in China which mainly affect land and sea transport (ship waiting line, closed), air transportation is more reliable (albeit more expensive).
Automation in Logistics
With the rapid advance of digitalization and automation, this development is also taking the freight forwarder in China sector by storm.
Innovative logistics companies invest in comprehensive transportation and warehousing management solutions that will automate and ease their processes in the mid to long-term. Cainiao (Alibaba.com) and JD Logistics (by JD.com) are expected to be the first movers with significant industry impact.
For example, in 2019, JD Logistics opened an intelligent-logistics center with a 3D automation system and a single-day processing capacity of 1.6 million orders. And in 2022 JD Logistics introduced a robot to manage the last 100 meters of delivery.
We’ll first take a look at the type of containers, then dive into the different shipping methods, before we take a look at Amazon FBA shipping, shipping restrictions, and pallet packing.
Types of Containers
These are the most common standard shipping containers according to their length (external), net weight, and maximum load capacity:
- TEU – Twenty Equipment Unit: 20-foot containers (6.10 meters), 1.8 – 2.2 metric tonnes net weight (a heavyweight surcharge applies to TEU with a net weight of more than 14 tons), maximum load of 28 metric tons
- FEU – Forty Equipment Unit: 40-foot containers (12.19 meters), 3.8 – 4.2 metric tonnes net weight, maximum load of 30 metric tons
Both containers have a standard external width of 8 feet (2.44 meters) and a standard height of 8 feet and 6 inches (2.62 meters).
General Shipping Routes of Freight Forwarders in China
This map of the Chinese One Belt One Road Initiative (BRI) shows the main trade routes from China to Europe and Africa by land and by sea. It is based on the original Silk Road map/routes. All modern transportation routes to Europe and Africa are based on these original trade routes.
Next, let’s look at the general shipping methods of Freight Forwarders in China.
With more than 2,000 ports, China is also home to the largest ports in the world. In fact, the top five ports according to TEU volume are Shanghai, Singapore, Ningbo-Zhoushan, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou Harbor.
In fact, Shanghai port is the world’s largest port in terms of 20-foot containers moved. And China COSCO is the world’s largest shipping company with more than 800 vessels.
Every year, Chinese ports export millions of containers, and the top five export destinations from China are the US, Hong Kong, Japan, Vietnam, and the Netherlands.
China’s main export goods include computers, furniture, clothing and accessories, medical tools, vehicles, steel, and toys.
Principally, there are four shipping methods:
- Shipping by Land (Train)
- Shipping by Sea (Sea)
- Shipping by Air (Air)
- Express Shipping (Air)
Let’s take a closer look.
1. Shipping by Land
While transportation by rail is the most affordable method, it is only suitable for continental logistics. It accounts for about 15% of all cargo in China and may continue to grow with the revival of China’s Silk Road.
Land transportation from China is typically by train due to the large distances. Trucks are oftentimes used to transport the goods from the factory to the port or airport of export as well as from the port of destination to the final destination of the goods.
2. Shipping by Sea
This is the most common method of transportation for global B2B and B2C companies that source goods in China.
Shipping Routes (Sea Shipping)
In general, there are three different routes to transport products that are “Made in China” into the world, via the
- Pacific route to America – most direct shipping route from China to the US, Canada, and South America
- Atlantic route to Australia, Europe, and West Africa
- Indian Ocean route to Australia, India, Arabia, and East Africa
Here also China’s One Belt One Road Initiative with additional ports and infrastructure will continue to make this process smoother.
Shipping Cost (Sea Shipping)
The pricing depends on the destination, duration, and goods transported, but we have put together general price points (Q2/2022) as an orientation for you.
|From China to…||20ft container||40ft container||Duration|
|US West Coast||13,500 USD||18,000 USD||14-42 days|
|US East Coast||15,000 USD||12,000 USD||14-42 days|
|Australia||6,000 USD||10,000 USD||18-36 days|
|Germany||11,000 USD||18,000 USD||31-50 days|
Take a look at this chart below to see the price development of 40ft containers (FEUs) over the last years (average of all global routes). You can observe that the price of container shipping increased by up to six-fold within just two years.
The main reason for these steep price increases is the fragile nature of the global supply chain which observed severe disruptions caused by the Covid-pandemic, the US-Chinese trade war, soaring energy prices, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Suez Canal blockage by a large container ship, and other events.
Due to its complexity and transcontinental nature, the shipping industry struggles with port closures and congestions, labor shortages, as well as a lack of new shipping containers.
As the operating costs of container fleets have increased, freight charges also went up. Container ship operators have been reporting record-high profits since the beginning of the Covid-pandemic.
3. Shipping by Air
If you want or must speed up the delivery time, air freight is the transportation of choice. But keep in mind that it comes at a price and has more negative effects on the environment compared to slower sea shipping.
In general, air freight between China and North America (USA, Canada) may take 1-5 days and 3-5 days for Latin America. Normally, air freight between China and Europe takes 3-8 days, and air freight between China and Australia takes 1-5 days.
4. Express Shipping
Air express is a D2D (door-to-door) delivery method. While international air freight sends goods to the airport of destination, express shipping also includes the delivery from the airport to the final destination (B2C home or B2B customer warehouse/office).
Express delivery from China to the US can take as little as 1-5 days, 4-5 days to Europe, and 3 days to Australia.
To sum it up, if you are wondering how long shipping from China takes, this depends on the final destination and method of transportation. It can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. Keep in mind the Chinese holidays and festivities when planning your logistics process.
Shipping Directly to Amazon Warehouses for Amazon FBA
If you have an Amazon FBA ecommerce business, you can also ship your products directly from the supplier/manufacturer in China to the designated Amazon warehouse.
Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA) allows you to store your products in Amazon’s warehouse and distribution centers until they are sold using Amazon’s own logistics.
Here are three things to consider in this process to ensure your cargo gets delivered, safely, on time, and cost-effectively.
1. FCL vs. LCL Shipping
Regardless of land or sea shipping, forwarders differentiate between FCL (Full Container-Load) and LCL (Less-than-container Load).
FCL refers to goods from a single shipper occupying the entire container, which is typically more secure than LCL (lower risk of damage, theft, or loss as less handling of goods is required).
On the other hand, LCL shipping is when container loads are filled by multiple orders or goods. This typically is more economical but exposes your freight to additional risks (see above).
2. Packaging and Labeling
Products that are sent to Amazon FBA must be correctly labeled in accordance with Amazon’s barcode system (Universal Product Code/UPC or FBA label). Also, check that you meet the packaging dimensions of Amazon to avoid rejection of your delivery at the warehouse.
3. Consider Cargo Insurance when Collaborating with a Freight Forwarder in China
Larger forwarding/3PL companies may have cargo insurance included in their shipping terms. Make sure to check this explicitly and also if any stage of your forwarding route may require this, including Amazon.
General shipping restrictions from China to the world include goods of unusually high value, biological substances, human and animal specimens, dangerous goods, firearms, and weapons.
Depending on the country of import and destination, further restrictions may apply. While it may be strictly forbidden to export/import certain products, other goods may require special certification and documentation.
To protect your cargo, robust boxes are ideal. Heavier boxes should be backed at the bottom while lighter boxes should be stacked at the top.
For sea, land, and air transportation, portable pallets are used for additional protection of the freight. Boxes should be stacked aligned on the pallet and shouldn’t overhang. Generally, there are wooden and plastic pallets.
The standard pallet size is also called GMA pallet. The size is 48×40 inches (1.2×1 meters) and it holds up to 4,600 lbs. (2.1 tons). The GMA pallet net weight is 37 lbs. (17 kg).
For international shipping, your pallets should be wrapped and labeled. Shipping and consignee labels for your individual cargo, departure, and destination location are required. You also need to clarify with the supplier if it’s necessary for them to add certain labels, e.g. “do not double stack,” “top load,” and “sensitive items.”
Chinese Freight Forwarder vs. 3PL
First of all, there are freight forwarding, NVOCCs (Non-Vessel-Operating Common Carrier), and 3PL (third-party logistic) companies. They mainly differ in terms of service.
A Chinese freight forwarder or Chin esefreight forwarding agent is a part of the TSL industry (Transport, Forwarding, Logistics) that specializes in moving goods between two locations. Oftentimes, a freight forwarder is just one person (agent) with a large network so they can compare many offers, prices, and terms. Based on their extensive experience, they can advise their customers regarding their best option.
On the other hand, a 3PL is an expert in managing logistics needs extensively, and therefore typically offer more services than a freight forwarder. This normally also means that the services of a 3PL are more costly than those of a freight forwarder.
A freight forwarder and 3PL can be the same person/company and the terms are sometimes used synonymously. Typically, their services differentiate as follows:
|Procurement and sourcing||x|
|Planning and organizing the necessary means of transport||x||x|
|Handling of goods that require special treatment, e.g. storage||x||x|
|Completing required documents||x||x|
|Contracting cargo insurance||x||x|
|Transport from the factory to port of export||x|
|Customs clearance (import)||x|
|Transport from destination port to the final destination of the customer||x|
|Inventory and returns management||x|
NVOCCs focus on ocean transportation and usually do not own and operate their own ships/vessels and containers. They also don’t have their own storage warehouses or distribution centers. Likewise, freight forwarders in China typically do not own their transportation equipment, but they often own or lease warehouses for the storage of goods.
Supply Chain of Freight Forwarders in China
Transport from the production site to warehouse → export clearance → inspection of goods → transport to port / forwarding site → shipment to the country of destination → import clearance → storage of goods in warehouse → transport of goods to final destination.
The responsibilities of each step depend on the Incoterms you have agreed on. Typically, the first and last stages are not the responsibility of the forwarding agent.
Largest Freight Forwarders
Now, let’s take a closer look at the largest freight forwarders, which all offer 3PL services.
- Kuehne + Nagel (Germany): largest sea freight and air freight forwarder worldwide; almost 1,300 destinations in 106 countries worldwide
- Sinotrans (China): one of the largest logistics and freight forwarder company in China
- DHL Global Forwarding (USA): leading logistics provider connecting 220 countries/territories worldwide
- DSV Global (Danish): operates in 80 countries
- DB Schenker (Germany): connects more than 140 countries in the world
- Expeditors (USA): operating in more than 100 countries around the world
- Damco/Maersk Logistics (Netherlands): operating in 130 countries worldwide
- UPS (USA): offers its services in more than 200 countries/territories around the world
- Toll Group (Australia): operating in 25 countries worldwide
We’ve created an overview of the largest freight forwarding companies according to the number of TEU (twenty equipment unit containers) moved in 2021.
As freight forwarders and 3PLs often do not own their own vessel fleet (but lease warehouses and distribution centers), they collaborate with shipping companies like A.P. Moller-Maersk (the largest shipping company with more than 300 own vessels) and the Mediterranean Shipping Company (with more than 200 own vessels) to charter vessels.
This brings us to the end of this extensive article on finding and connecting with freight forwarders in China.
Finding a Freight Forwarder in China – The Takeaway
If you are a global B2B or B2C company requiring shipping from China to the US, Europe, or other parts of the world, you require a reliable freight forwarding company or agent.
Do your due diligence when selecting a freight forwarding agent or 3PL to ensure cost-effective services and on-time delivery of your goods from China. This includes considering your product group, transportation route, forwarding method, and a variety of other aspects.
Finding a freight forwarder in China for express delivery (via air to the final destination) is best done via the largest CEP providers like DHL, FedEx, DB Schenker, UPS, and the likes.
Standard transportation via land, sea, or air (to the port/airport of destination) can be found through Google or Alibaba by searching for “freight forwarder China” in combination with your target country. Alternatively, you can search for e.g. “货运代理” (shipping agent) on 1688 or Baidu B2B.
The China specialists at China Gravy are happy to connect you with reliable freight forwarders in China. Get your FREE consultation today and take a look at China Gravy’s additional China marketing solutions.