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What is International Freight Shipping?

One of the most important aspects of global trade is international freight shipping. This process allows companies to send their products across oceans and continents so that they can be sold in new markets.

Without international freight shipping, global commerce as we know it today would not be possible.

In this article, we’ll give you an overview of the international freight shipping process. We’ll explain everything you need to know to begin shipping internationally and take your business to the next level.

What is International Freight Shipping?

International freight shipping is the process of exporting and importing over-the-road, air, and ocean shipments. This complex process requires businesses to move their products across borders in a way that complies with multiple sets of government regulations—not all of which will be familiar to new importers. 

International freight shipping requires extensive knowledge of customs policies, paperwork collection, and logistics of moving freight between countries. 

With the right international shipping procedures in place, companies can expand their businesses beyond local markets—allowing them to achieve business goals they might not have been able to without expanding internationally.

Generally, the complexities inherent in navigating across several borders make international freight shipping a much more difficult undertaking than domestic transportation.

Some countries are much stricter than others when it comes to following the rules and regulations that govern international shipping. Others have specific tax regulations that can befuddle unprepared businesses. 

Shipping freight internationally requires you to either understand and comply with all the relevant regulations or work with a professional freight forwarder who does. If you don't have any freight forwarder contacts, you can ask international freight shipping companies to refer you to a forwarder they trust.

How Long Does International Freight Shipping Take?

The window for freight shipping can vary greatly, based on the mode of transport and the size and weight of your shipment. Air freight international shipping can take as little as two days on one hand, while international ocean freight shipping can take up to four weeks. 

Keep in mind that these timeframes are just general estimates. The amount of time it takes for your shipment to reach its destination can also be affected by things like port congestion and bad weather. 

There are five distinct stages of freight shipping overseas, each of which can be the source of delays for your shipment: 

  • Export haulage - This is the process of moving your products from your company’s warehouse to the freight carrier. This stage is usually the quickest and is not likely to cause any delays to your shipment.
  • Export customs clearance - This is the process of preparing your goods for export, which can include things like getting the proper permits and filling out customs declarations. This step is often where shipments can be delayed, as incorrect or incomplete paperwork can cause your goods to be held up in customs.
  • Transportation - This stage refers to the actual transportation of your goods from their origin to the destination country. Delays can occur during this stage if your goods are delayed at the border, or if there is a problem with the transportation company you’ve chosen.
  • Import customs clearance - As with export customs clearance, this process can be time-consuming and delay your shipment. This step involves making sure your goods meet all the import requirements of the destination country, including things like paying any applicable duties and taxes.
  • Import haulage - Once your goods clear the importing country's border, the final stage is transporting your products to your company’s warehouse. 

As you can see, some potential delays can occur during international freight shipping. That’s why it’s important to be aware of what to expect and to plan accordingly.

With the right knowledge and planning, though, you can successfully navigate the complexities of international shipping and get your goods to their destination on time and without any issues.

Best Methods for International Freight Shipping


International ocean freight shipping is the most common and cheapest way to ship goods overseas. Freight ships travel from port to port, making stops at various locations around the world. This type of shipping is best suited for large shipments that are too heavy or bulky for air freight shipping. 

This might be the best option for you if you or your company:

  • Are shipping a large number of goods- One container ship can hold as much as 20,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU), giving you plenty of space to work with. Ocean freight is also the only way to ship bulk dry goods like cereals, sugar, coal, minerals, ores, and metals internationally, as well as wet goods like petroleum and crude oil.
  • Wish to reduce your carbon footprint- Ocean freight shipping is currently the most environmentally friendly way to ship goods internationally due to recently imposed standards by the International Maritime Organization, which cut down on the sulfur from ships' fuel—reducing carbon dioxide emissions significantly.
  • Want to save money- Freight shipping is the most economical way to ship goods internationally when you consider the cost of air freight shipping and its limited coverage.
  • Don't require time-sensitive delivery- International ocean freight shipping takes longer than other freight shipping methods but makes up for it with its lower price tag. If time is not that big a factor for your shipment, ocean freight should be an excellent choice for you. 


Air freight international shipping is a good option if you need to send your goods overseas quickly. The main drawback of this shipping method is that it can be expensive, so it's not ideal for large shipments. 

This might be the best option for you if you or your company:

  • Need to send your goods urgently- Air freight shipping is the fastest way to transport goods internationally, so it's perfect for time-sensitive shipments. Just-in-time (JIT) inventory, for example, relies on air freight to ensure goods are delivered as quickly as possible, which helps cut down on storage and inventory costs as well. Shipping perishables (including pharmaceuticals) across borders is an excellent fit for air freight international shipping.
  • Are shipping a small number of goods- Air freight is a good option if you're only shipping a few items, as it's more expensive per pound than other freight shipping methods. A good rule of thumb is to use air freight when shipping costs are less than 20% of the total value of your goods.
  • Want to lessen cargo handling- Air freight usually involves less handling of cargo than other freight shipping methods, which can minimize the risk of theft or damage to your goods.

Both methods have clear advantages and disadvantages. 

International ocean freight shipping's cost-efficient and relatively friendlier carbon emissions profile are offset by lengthy transit times that keep out customers who want to ship time-sensitive goods and services.

International air freight shipping, on the other hand, offers quick transit at a price premium, but can only move relatively smaller shipments and takes a bigger toll on the environment. 

When choosing between the two modes, it's important to consider not just the cost of shipping, but also the weight and size of your shipment, how urgently you need your goods to arrive, and your overall environmental consciousness. 

Tips for International Freight Shipping

As we mentioned earlier, freight shipping overseas can be an intimidating process at first. This is why we recommend most first-time international shippers work with a reliable freight forwarder for their first few shipments. 

Forwarders can take care of all the paperwork for you and make sure your goods are shipped according to your specifications, so it's good to find one that has extensive experience in shipping the type of cargo you're trying to send. 

For those who want to take the easy route and work with a forwarder, we recommend shopping around and getting quotes from different companies to find the best deal. Different forwarders may have varying strengths in certain areas and this can reflect on their prices for specific trade lanes or services. 

If you're determined to go it alone, there are a few things you can do to make the process smoother:

  • Be clear about the available shipping options- When you contact a carrier or freight forwarder, be sure to ask about all the different shipping options that are available to you, given your budget and timeframe, to ensure you're making the best decision. 
  • Provide accurate, up-to-date information to your shipper- This is not only for your shipper's benefit but also your own. Being accurate about your shipment will help your shipper give you a more accurate quote, giving you or your company better flexibility later on.
  • Maintain pristine records- Documentation is key when shipping internationally. Make sure to keep all your paperwork in order so you don’t run into any issues with customs—the most likely source of delays in an international shipment. Three documents you should pay close attention to are the Bill of Lading, the Commercial Invoice, and the Certificate of Origin. 
  • Pack your cargo securely- This goes for anything you're shipping, but especially for international freight shipping. Remember that your goods will be handled multiple times during transport, so make sure they're packed securely to avoid any damage.
  • Guard against hidden fees- International shipments can come with several fees that can catch you off guard if you're used to domestic shipping, such as customs examination fees. Make sure to ask your carrier or freight forwarder about all the fees, duties, or taxes that will apply to your shipment, so there are no surprises when it comes time to pay your bill. Ask for quotes for port-to-door or door-to-door delivery to get a better sense of all the costs involved.
  • See if shipment insurance makes sense for you- Insuring international shipments can be a costly but necessary endeavor, especially if you're shipping high-value cargo. In today's economy, no company can afford to lose money because of something out of its control like damaged goods. Cargo insurance can help protect your business against these types of losses.
  • Consider customs bonds- If you import more than five times a year into the US, it might make sense to purchase a customs bond. This is a surety bond that guarantees payment of any customs duties, taxes, and fees that may apply to your shipments. You can go with a single-entry bond that covers just one shipment, or a continuous bond that's valid for an entire year.

International freight shipping may seem like a daunting process at first, but with the right planning and preparation, it can be a smooth experience.

Whether you work with a professional freight forwarder or go it alone, it's possible to navigate the complex world of international shipping with ease.

By being aware of the different options available to you and taking the necessary precautions, you can be confident your goods arrive at their destination safely every single time.

See how much time and money you'll save by having our pros help manage your freight.