How to Ship from China to US – A comprehensive guide

For many years, the average American had no clue that corporations like AT&T, Dell Electronics, Gap Stores, J.C. Penny’s, Avon, Petco, Johnson & Johnson, Acer, Nestles Foods, Revlon,  Pfizer, Inc. and hundreds of others were outsourcing the complete manufacturing of their products or the production of parts or ingredients to factories in China. Some of the more observant ones may have noticed that the shelves of many retail giants are stocked with products sourced from China. This practice helps them reduce costs, keep their customers happy and increase profits (a win-win situation if there ever was one). However, while these big guys smiled to the banks, the story wasn’t quite as wonderful for competitors who couldn’t afford who didn’t know about it, afford such operations or the China to US shipping. Well, that was until mini importation became a thing and anyone with internet connection could make money buying and selling – wholesale or retail – online from the comfort of their homes (and we’re not talking peanuts but cool cash, up to the tune of millions from mini importation from China).

Importing goods from China to the US is as profitable a venture as it is complex; with shipping being the diciest part of the process. Shipping is also referred to as freight, freighting, carriage, conveyance etc. It is generally the movement of goods from suppliers to buyers via sea, air or land and this one process alone can make or mar your profit margin. Some of the problems small and medium business owners, especially those who are new to the trade, seeking to ship goods from their suppliers in China to destinations in the US encounter include communication difficulties due to differences in language, cultural differences, documentation etcetera. The aim of this post is to guide you through the complexities of the process that is shipping from China to the US of A.

Let’s start with the different ways buyers in the US can get cargoes shipped to them from China. We’ll also look at how each compares with the others. There are basically three ways to achieve this and they are:

  • Sea freight
  • Air freight
  • Courier services

Sea Freight:

The transportation of goods by sea is as old as the advent of international commerce. It is the preferred mode of shipping for corporations and merchants (must be why it’s also called merchant shipping) with large volumes and sizes of cargoes. Thanks to China’s increasing relevance in world trade, its sea freight industry has been a force to reckon with in recent decades. This means of freighting goods offers greater economies of scale as it allows for large volumes of goods at lower cost. As much as we love the prospect of big profits, we only recommend sea shipping when time is not a deciding factor in the your profit-making plan. Another problem with sea freight lies in the fact that cargoes may get damaged due to the number of loading and unloading cycles it’ll undergo from port to port. Overall, we recommend sea shipping as the cheapest method of freighting goods that weigh more than 500kg and advice that you plan your shipment months ahead of the desired arrival date.

Air Freight:

This refers to the use of air carriers for the transportation of goods or cargoes. It’s a faster and the more flexible means of shipping goods from China to the US than sea. The airplanes used to convey cargoes can either be commercial or chartered. When compared to sea freight, air shipping is the best option for buyers in time-sensitive situations such as is seen the case of perishable goods and availability of demand for the products. This is because products shipped via air will always get to their destinations faster than those shipped via sea. Other advantages that air shipping has over sea shipping include better security (one doesn’t have to worry about pirates) and better time efficiency (as less time is spent queuing on arrival and a problem with documentation of other people’s goods will not result in a delay for you as is seen in LCL sea shipping). On the flip side, when compared to sea freight, it can be costlier and is less suited for bulky goods.

Courier Services:

A buyer can choose to have a private courier handle the shipping of his/her goods from China to USA. Courier services, also known as express shipping services, are offered by companies that specialize in the transportation of parcels and cargoes internationally, with speedy delivery as a core value. In addition to being fast, they’re also safe, secure and provide specialized transportation and tracking services. If you’re looking for the shipping method with the shortest possible China to US shipping time, this is your best bet. While shipping goods by air is fast and all that, it’s an airport-to-airport service, couriers on the other hand, offer door-to-door delivery services. However as with all great things, it doesn’t come cheap and can be quite expensive when one compares them to other methods of shipping. This isn’t the most viable means of China to US shipping for a mini importer as it makes it difficult for him/her to sell at competitive prices and make profit. Some of the more popular courier agents in China include: DHL, TNT, FedEX, UPS, EMS and China Post. Each has its own unique sets of offers and we advise you check them out before deciding, you might find one that’s just right for your business plan.

Here’s a table summarizing all we’ve said so far:

ModeShipping Time Shipping CostRecommended  Weight
Sea Slow Cheap Over 500kg
Air Fast Expensive 150 – 500kg
Courier Fastest Most expensive No Limit

Factors Influencing China-US Shipping Cost:

The factors that influence the cost of shipping are also things you need to know as a China to US importer. This will help you to better understand how different details combine to determine the final or total cost of shipping your goods from your supplier to your desired destination. These factors are:

  • Cargo type
  • Weight/bulk (dimensions) of cargo
  • Shipping lead  time
  • Location and destination

The authorities of China and USA, at all levels, each have their own set of rules and regulations that not only determine the type of cargoes that leave and enter their territories but how those goods are measured and transported as well. Understanding all of this information is critical to a successful and frustration-free importation experience. We know this and with our vast network of experienced hands in both countries, we’re proud to say we get the job done.

 Now on to a closer look at each of the factors. Ready? Dive.

Cargo Type:

As an importer, you need to know what type of good you’re importing and what class it falls under. This is important for a number of reasons. For one, it’ll help you calculate (using HTS codes – more on this in a bit) import tax, tariff and duties that you’ll be paying thus enabling you to estimate costs and profits. Another way knowing your cargo helps you is that it makes you aware of the legal implications of importing certain goods into the US as products are classified differently and will be handled in a manner specified by the laws of the land. Any violations may lead to delayed shipping and an increased cost for you.

There’s also the issue of insuring the cargo to think about. The official term is cargo insurance or freight insurance. This provides importers with protection against loss that may occur when their cargo or goods are damaged or lost in transit. A rethink is in order for anyone considering skipping this part of the shipping process because, trust us, it’s super important. Due to certain provisions in the law, shippers cannot be held completely responsible for any damage that occurs to your goods while in transit – and there are provisions that completely absolve them of any liabilities. What this means is that if anything thing happens to goods while they being transported the importer will bear the loss. However, with an insured cargo, you can be sure of recovering your losses. There are different type of insurance for different types of cargoes and you’ll need an expert (or be one) to navigate through each type and choose what works best for your business – or you can do something way easier: entrust us with this responsibility by partnering with us.

Traded products are classified and their tax, duties and tariff rates determined using an established and internationally recognized set of codes known as the HS and HTS codes. As a matter of fact, more than 98% of internationally traded goods are classified using these codes. HS Code means Harmonized Commodity Description and Coding System. It is the global standard used in describing the type of goods being shipped and it makes it easy for cargo to be identified in any part of the world. It is arranged in sections, chapters, heading and sub-headings. HTS Codes, on the other hand, is short for Harmonized Tariff Schedule Codes. It’s made up of about 8 to 10 digits with a product’s HS code making up the first 6 digits while the last 2 or 4 digits are additional information or classification codes assigned by the importing country. The USA’s HTS codes are made up of 10 digits and are managed by the USITC, the United States International Trade Commission. The US Customs and other relevant agencies use HTS codes to determine how much an importer pays in duty rates for imported goods. HTS codes are readily available on the USITC website.

Weight/bulk (dimensions) of cargo:

It is general knowledge that the weight of cargo influences the freight. Here’s a rule of thumb for weight as an influencing factor of freight: the heavier the cargo, the costlier the shipping cost ( which is why you should check out the post we put together on why and how lightweight products are the secrets to a mini importer’s success) .That aside, it’s equally important for an importer to understand how the calculation of shipment weight for sea freight differs from that of air freight – yes, you read correctly, the weights of air and sea cargo are calculated differently.

It is general knowledge that the weight of cargo influences the freight. Here’s a rule of thumb for weight as an influencing factor of freight: the heavier the cargo, the costlier the shipping cost. That aside, it’s equally important for an importer to understand how the calculation of shipment weight for sea freight differs from that of air freight – yes, you read correctly, the weights of air and sea cargo are calculated differently.

The weight of sea cargo is measured by its volume i.e. in cubic meters and the greater the volume, the higher the cost. Sea freight is usually transported in containers and depending of the quantity, size or bulk of the cargo, an importer can either use FCL (full container load) or LCL (less than container load). In FCL, an importer fills up a container (or more) with his/her goods. Filling up a container is something big merchants and corporations would do and it’s actually the most effective means for them as it makes it a lot easier for them to track their goods and less so for goods to be lost or damaged in transit. For smaller businesses, LCL is a better option for sea freight. A retail business in the US for instance, can buy their goods from different suppliers in China, consolidate them, get a pallet (or more) in a container and have them shipped to the US at a fraction of what it would have cost to ship via air in a situation where time is not a constraint.

Calculating air freight is a different kettle of fish. Air carriers calculate their rates based on the space or volume occupied by the cargo. You’re probably thinking “well, so do sea shippers” but before you go off on us hear this: air shippers use something called chargeable weight or billable weight, a practice that makes air freight more expensive than sea freight. So, you might be wondering, how do these guys arrive at the chargeable or billable weight? Here’s a breakdown of that process below:

Chargeable weight is arrived at by comparing the actual weight of the cargo with its dimensional or volume weight. The heavier of the two is used by the shipper as a basis to charge the importer – interesting, right? Who would have thought?

The actual weight of a cargo is the value we get when we place it on a weighing scale. This value is often given in a product description on online Chinese stores like 1688.com, Alibaba, Aliexpress etc. A cargo’s dimensional weight, on the other hand, is calculated by multiplying its dimensions in inches (.i.e. L x W x H) and dividing the result by 166. Why 166, one might ask? 166 is a dimensional factor; it represents a parcel’s volume allowed per unit weight. In stores like 1688.com, some sellers list the dimensions of the packaged details, the “packing details”.

Let’s have an example, shall we?

Cargo A weighs 10 pounds on a scale. It’s 12 inches long, 20 inches wide and 25 inches high. Its volume will be: 12 X 20 X 25 = 6,000 cubic meters.

Now we divide the cubic size (6,000) by the dimensional factor (166): 6000/166 =36.1 pounds.

36.1 pounds is heavier than 10 pounds; therefore 36.1 pounds is the chargeable or billable weight.

Shipping Lead Time:

This refers to how long it takes for goods to be moved from a point of shipping to the point where the buyer receives them. It differs with each mode of freighting cargo. Generally, with China to US shipping, sea freight has a shipping lead time of about 30 to 40 days, 8 to 10 days for air freight and 3 to 5 days for express or courier services. The general rule in this case is that the faster and shorter the shipping lead time, the costlier the service.

This refers to how long it takes for goods to be moved from a point of shipping to the point where the buyer receives them. It differs with each mode of freighting cargo. Generally, with China to US shipping, sea freight has a shipping lead time of about 30 to 40 days, 8 to 10 days for air freight and 3 to 5 days for express or courier services. The general rule in this case is that the faster and shorter the shipping lead time, the costlier the service.

Sea freight obviously has the longest shipping time; some freight agents offer special expedited shipping, but it comes at an extra cost. Depending on how urgently an importer needs their goods delivered to the US and how much money they are prepared to part with, courier or express services can arrange overnight freight services for them. Air freight and courier services are similar in the sense that they both transport freight by air (courier services freight cargo by sea as well) but they differ in the fact that couriers are able to shave off 2 to 3 days from the standard transit time of air freight, thanks to their established relationships and network and personal handling of the goods.

Location and destination:

There’s an aspect of shipping that most importers seem to be unaware of and that is inland shipping. It refers to the movement of goods from the supplier(s) warehouse to the airport or seaport from which the goods will leave China. Now, the farther away a supplier is from a port, the more expensive inland shipping will be. It’s even more expensive when an importer buys from different stores in different parts of China, especially those far from ports. Some of the port cities in China include Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Ningbo-Zhoushan etc.

When it comes to destination, there are 2 terms that one will come across: port-to-port shipments and port-to-door shipments. The former describes a freighting process that makes use of a single mode of transportation (planes or ships) to transport cargo from the loading port to the discharge port. Here, the supplier pays for and provides the documents necessary for getting the goods out of China an into the US while the seller provides all the necessary documents, clearances, unloading and transportation to his/her warehouse after the cargo lands in the US. In the latter, i.e. port-to-door shipments, the cargo is shipped directly to the importer’s warehouse, office or any other desired address from the port of origin. This process is undertaken by a single carrier and often involves more than one mode of transport (multimodal). Air and sea carriers offer port-to-port services while couriers offer port-to-door services – and we already know which costs more, don’t we?

We know this is probably a lot of information but knowledge, they say, is power. You know what else puts the power to avoid the many pitfalls in shipping goods internationally and to make good profits in your hands? Handing the reins over to folks who know the ropes; folks with a trusted network of skilled, knowledgeable and experienced hands in the China to US shipping routes. We are at your service and ready to partner with you.

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