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The Best Way to Ship from China to UK

The Shipping Options Available

There are 3 shipping options for sending your shipments from China to UK:

  • Shipping by Air from China to UK
  • Shipping by Sea from China to UK
  • Shipping by Train from China to UK 

Shipping by Air from China to UK

Sending your China shipment by air to UK is the quickest method to get your goods from China to your UK warehouse.

Typically this can take between 3 – 10 days, depending on the method you choose. 

  • Air Cargo (Airport to Airport)
  • International Courier (DHL, UPS, FedEx etc)

Sending your goods by Air Cargo, will mean you will have to arrange the China consignment to be China Customs cleared and delivered to the airport of departure. Your China supplier or your UK forwarding agent can handle this for you. When the goods arrive at the UK airport, normally London Heathrow, Your UK forwarder will clear UK Customs for you and arrange delivery to your warehouse. There will be Import Duties to pay on your shipment.

It’s possible for you to arrange the UK Customs clearance yourself and collect the goods from the airport, but this may cause you headaches and a much longer timeframe than you anticipate to handle all the procedures. 

My advice is to use a UK forwarder from Door to Door.

If you decide to use an international courier to send your China shipment by air to UK, then this is a very straight forward process and you’ll need to do very little, as all the Customs formalities will be handled by your China factory and the international courier, this will be delivered directly to your door.

Given that shipping by Air from China to UK is the quickest method, the costs involved will also be higher than sending by either sea freight or by train from your supplier factory to your door.

Shipping by Sea from China to UK

Shipping your China consignment by ocean freight from China to UK is the most cost effective way, but also the longest from a timeline viewpoint. Typically this can take an average 30 – 45 days from the point of leaving the factory to arriving at your door. This does not take into account any delays, due to COVID, or other world issues which may affect sea shipping.

Shipping by ocean freight, can be sent by FCL (Full Container Load) or LCL (Loose Cargo Load).

Generally, your China shipment will leave from the nearest departure port to your factory and will arrive at either the 2 main ports in UK, Felixstowe or Southampton. There are other smaller local ports around the UK, but they may require a transshipment to these ports.

Using ocean freight for your shipping method is more complex than using an international courier by air, as arrangements need to be made  for container loading and transportation of the container to the vessel. Paperwork is also more elaborate as details need to be included for the Bill of Lading, which is more complex than documents required when shipping by air.

Container costs since the start of COVID have risen sharply, typically 10 times the normal cost. At the time of writing this post (2022.3.24) current costs are approximately 6 times that of ‘normal pre-COVID’ rates.

A good shipping agent will be able to find the best ocean freight prices for your consignment. It’s also advisable to ask your agent to quote for a door-2-door service.

Shipping by Train from China to UK

Shipping by train from China to UK & Europe has become increasingly popular over the past 2 years. From a cost point of view, it falls in between air freight prices and sea freight prices. Transit times are typically 25 – 40 days, door2door.

As with ocean freight, you can send by FCL (Full Container Load) or LCL (Loose Cargo Load).

Train freight will normally arrive at a European railway hub, then continue to the UK by road.

There are options to have your shipment sent by train with all Duties paid (DDP). Check with your agent for feasibility for your shipment and the process involved.

Which Shipping Method Is Best For Your Shipment

Choosing the best shipping method for your shipment will depend on many factors, but the 2 most important, are the costs involved to get the goods to your door, as well as the timeline for each shipping method, whether by sea, air or train.

This will depend entirely on your shipping budget as well as the urgency to get your China shipment from China to UK.

In a few circumstances, the shipping method may be restricted to certain products that include batteries or other components deemed to be hazardous by the shipping companies.

In all circumstances, choosing your shipping mode, should start by getting quotations for all 3 shipping methods, then selecting the method that’s best for your shipment.


Calculating Your Landed Costs

Calculating your total landed costs for your China shipment will include the following factors:

  • Product cost from the China factory
  • FOB costs
  • UK Forwarding costs
  • Import Duty
  • VAT

It should be noted that Import Duty & VAT is calculated on your product cost PLUS your shipping costs.

The above does not include development costs, sampling costs, QC inspection costs, certification costs as well as other processes associated with developing your product in China.

Why Insurance Is Strongly Advised

Insuring your goods during the shipping element from China to UK is not an expensive outlay and is strongly advised for all your China shipments, whether sending by air, sea or train.

Preparing Your Shipping Documents

Your shipping paperwork must be filled in correctly and should always be checked before confirmation. Some of the elements to check:

  • Exporter details
  • Consignee details
  • Notify Party
  • Product description
  • Product quantity
  • Carton qty, weights & dimensions
  • HS Code
  • Shipping Mark

The Best Way to Clear UK Customs & Pay Duties to HMRC

When your China shipment arrives at the UK port, (air port or sea port), you’ll need a UK Forwarder to clear UK Customs and facilitate your Import Duty & VAT payments to HMRC. They will also arrange the delivery of your shipment direct to your door.

Why It's Best to Use A Shipping Agent

When arranging your shipping from China to UK, it’s best left to the professionals. A good shipping agent can benefit you in the following ways:

  • Compare quotes from multiple carriers
  • Advise transit times from different carriers
  • Pass discounted rates to you
  • Arrange all import and export documents
  • Keep you informed of progress and shipment tracking
  • Arrange UK Forwarding

Incoterms & How They Affect Your Shipment

The shipping terms you arrange with your China supplier, called the incoterms will affect your total shipping costs.

There are a number of different incoterms, the main one’s include the following:

  • EXW – Ex Works (from the your supplier address)
  • FOB – Free on Board (to your supplier’s nominated port)
  • DDP – Delivered Duty Paid (to your named place of destination)
  • CIF – Cost Insurance and Freight (to your named port of destination)
  • DAP – Delivered At Place (to your named address – receiver is responsible for all Import Duties)
  • DDU – Delivered Duty Unpaid

There are other incoterms, albeit less frequently used, which your shipping agent can advise you of.

UK Forwarding & Delivery of The Shipment to Your Warehouse

When your goods arrive in the UK, by sea freight or by air cargo, you’ll need the services of a Freight Forwarder to facilitate the Customs Clearance, payable Import Duties & delivery to your warehouse.

I would strongly advise against trying to do this yourself to save money. It will probably end up in false economy.

10 Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is the cheapest way to ship from China to UK?

The cheapest way to ship from China to UK is generally by sea, however over the past few years sending goods via train from China to UK should also be explored as this method is generally a quicker way to send goods, while keeping shipping costs low.

2. How much does it cost to ship from China to UK?

This will vary on the shipping method. Generally the longer the transit times, the cheaper it will be. So as an example, shipping by sea will generally be the cheapest, shipping by train will be the next cheapest and shipping by air will be the most expensive. Other factors to take into account is the weight and volume of your shipment. Due to weekly fluctuations in shipping prices, it’s not possible to quote for specific shipments.

3. Do I have to pay import tax from China to UK?

The general answer is yes. VAT will be charged (at time of writing) @ 20%, unless your product has a lower rating. You will also be required to pay Import Duty and this will depend on the tariff for your product. Some products will be exempt from paying Import Duty.
It’s important to note that all import duties are calculated on the shipment value as well as all shipping costs.
If the shipment value is below the threshold for paying VAT, then there will be no VAT to pay. The following links will give you up-to-date information:

4. How do I arrange shipping from China?

The best way to ship your goods is via a shipping forwarder who can quote for a door2door service. This way you’ll be aware of all related costs, without any hidden surprises. If your incoterms with your supplier are FOB, then ask your shipping forwarder to quote from the departure port to your door.

If your shipments are small, it’s best to send by an air courier, who will provide a direct door 2 door service.

5. How long does a shipment take from China to UK?

Below are general timelines for the 3 most common methods of shipping door2door from China to UK.

Shipping by sea – 35 – 50 days
Shipping by train – 25 – 40 days**
Shipping by air – 5 – 10 days

** At time of writing, train services are suspended due to the Russia-Ukraine situation.

6. How long does UK customs take to clear packages from China?

UK Customs clearance can be a very quick process and will differ whether you’re send goods by sea or air. Typically by sea the time it takes your consignment to clear is about 1/3 days. By air it should be cleared the same day.

However, if your shipment is flagged for checking, then this will delay any Customs clearance.

7. What is a freight forwarder?

A freight forwarder will arrange your shipment from your supplier to your warehouse including Customs clearance in your country. They will look after all the shipping and Customs formalities and can keep you updated on the shipping progress.

8. What’s the best way to get the cheapest shipping quote from China to UK?

The best way to get the best quote is to use a shipping agent who can compare the ocean freight prices of all the available shipping lines and is not affiliated to just one shipping company. They will also find the cheapest company to Customs clear your goods and deliver to your warehouse.

9. What are Incoterms?

Incoterms are the terms your supplier has agreed to the shipping element of your order. The most common Incoterms are the following:

EXW – Ex Works (from the your supplier address)
FOB – Free on Board (to your supplier’s nominated port)
DDP – Delivered Duty Paid (to your named place of destination)
CIF – Cost Insurance and Freight (to your named port of destination)
DAP – Delivered At Place (to your named address – receiver is responsible for all Import Duties)
DDU – Delivered Duty Unpaid

There are other Incoterms, albeit less frequently used, which your shipping agent can advise you of.

10. What documents are required to ship from China to UK?

For a general shipment from China to UK, you’ll need the following documents:

  • Commercial Invoice
  • Packing List
  • **MSDS report & Product Certificates.

**This will depend on the products you’re shipping

I would advise asking your shipping forwarder, what documents they will require for your shipment to clear UK Customs.

It’s important to know that if the documents are incomplete or mistakes contained within a document, this is likely to delay the Customs clearance and can add additional costs.

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