Sea Freight

Sea freight is normally the most economical way of shipping goods abroad, sea freight is suitable for most goods that are non perishable and can be a great cost effective way of sending your goods around the globe.


Our experts are on hand to discuss the range of options for shipping your goods overseas, get a free quote by calling our team today.

Our most popular shipping services are:

:: Box & Parcels
:: Pallets & Crates
:: Commercial Cargo
:: Documents & Paperwork
:: Personal and Household Effects
:: 20ft and 40ft Shipping Containers


Sea freight


Container shipping is now the backbone of international trade and accounts for around 60% of all sea freight. At any time there are approximately 100,000 container ships at sea 1 and, apart from the occasional blip,  the number of goods we ship using containers increases year on year. In 1998 we transported just 102 metric tonnes in seaborne containers; today that figure is around 1.83 billion metric tonnes. The capacity of container ships has similarly increased, and today the total deadweight capacity is 253 million metric tonnes.

One of the largest container ships to dock in the UK is the Hong Kong-registered CSCL Globe. It delivered 18,000 containers to Felixstowe docks, though its total capacity is 19,100 containers (19,100 TEU) which laid out end to end in a line would stretch to 72 miles. The world’s largest container ship is the OOCL Hong Kong built in 2017 which has a capacity of 21,413 TEU.

We only stated using shipping containers after the Second World War. While today we take container transportation for granted, their introduction revolutionised the nature of how we transport goods. Previously all sea freight was shipped as break bulk cargo 2, which involves loading items individual and transferring them from between vehicles, such as from lorry to ship. While break bulk cargo created many jobs, it was highly inefficient and prone to high levels of theft and damage.  Sometimes, loading break bulk cargo onto a ship could take several months, while today we can load a ship in as many days. We still use break bulk cargo for items too large or too heavy to ship in containers.

Sea freight container sizes

While other materials are also used, most sea freight containers are constructed from iron and are designed to be readily loadable using cranes and forklift trucks. Manufactured to ISO standards 3, we specify their dimensions in imperial units.

While the most common sizes are 20 ft and 40 ft, other standard sizes include 45 ft, 48 ft, and 53 ft. Usually, we specify container capacity as twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU), in other words, one TEU refers to the capacity of a 20 ft container. We also use forty-foot equivalent units (FEU) where 2TEU = 1FEU.

The external dimensions of a standard 40 ft shipping container are:

  • Length: 40 feet
  • Height: 8 feet 6 inches
  • Width: 8 feet

The internal dimensions are:

  • Length: 39 feet 5 inches
  • Height: 7 feet 9 inches
  • Width: 7 feet 8 inches

The dimensions of special and refrigerated containers are significantly different from these, so always check with your container supplier.


Container designs

In addition to the more common standard dry cargo containers, several other models are available. These include:

  • Open top containers are typically used for industrial equipment
  • Open-ended or open side containers are often used for vegetables
  • Flat rack containers are suitable for transporting vehicles
  • Refrigerated containersare used for perishable food items, vaccines, and pharmaceuticals.
  • Liquid containers are used for transporting chemicals, wine, vegetable oils, etc.
  • Half height containers


Loading shipping container with palettes

As a guide to how many pallets a shipping container can hold: a 20 ft container can accept 10 standard, or 11 Euro-pallets and a 40 ft container can accept 22 standard palettes or up to 24 Euro-pallets. You can arrange the palettes in different configurations, so care is needed to achieve maximum loading capacity. Usually, they are loaded with the container mounted on the truck, but it is also possible to load them at ground level and lift them onto the truck with a crane.

Fitting your home into a container

Businesses usually have a clear idea about the capacity they need, but many haulage jobs for individuals involve relocation abroad. As a rough guide, the contents of a typical three-bedroom home can be accommodated in a 20 ft container, and a 40 ft container will take the contents of a larger home plus a couple of cars.

Full and partial container loads

If you are importing or exporting enough volume of goods to fill a container, this is known as an FCL (full container load) shipment while an LCL (less-than-container-load) refers to shipments that share a container with another party.

If you are importing an LCL, after you contract a shipping agent, the agent will arrange to collect the goods from the supplier who will first clear them through the country of origin’s customs and load them into a shared container. The container will be loaded onto the container ship which will transport it to the destination port. The goods will be cleared by UK customs, unloaded from the container, and transported by road to their destination.

The procedure is much the same with an FCL except that the whole container would be transported by road usually without breaking the seal. There are various options when unloading the container, for instance, you can elect to unload the container while it remains on the truck, or you can have the truck unloaded to the ground and unload it at another time.

Transit times

Although sea freight is far less expensive than air freight 5, it also takes significantly longer. Door to door transit times include the time spent at sea, land transport and delays caused by various procedures such as customs clearance. Some typical transit times from overseas locations are:

  • China to the UK – 6 to 8 weeks
  • India to the UK – 5 to 6 weeks
  • Australia to the UK – 9 weeks
  • East coast USA to the UK – 4 weeks
  • West coast USA to the UK – 6 weeks

Here is a useful tool for calculating the sea route,  distances and transit times between ports worldwide 5.

Finally – airfreight or sea freight; which is best for you?

For large shipments that are non-time critical and for small shipments that you need to be delivered quickly, chosing between air freight and sea freight is easy, but there are often occasions when choosing the optimum shipping method isn’t entirely clear. This is often complicated as shipping rates can fluctuate considerably depending on factors such as demand; airlines and sea lines prefer to travel with a full load so will price accordingly. A good shipping agent will be able to advise you of the best method for your shipment and get you the best shipping rates.


  1. Number of merchant ships in the world:
  2. Breakbulk cargo:
  3. Shipping container ISO standards:
  4. Air freight
  5. International port transit time calculator: