Ocean Freight Shipping from China: FCL and LCL

Ocean freight shipping is the best option for bulk goods transportation, sometimes it’s the only option. When importing from China, you can choose FCL, or LCL if your overall cargo volume does not meet one full container requirements.

LCL is a critical component of modern supply chains, allowing businesses to efficiently move smaller quantities of freight without the need for full-container shipments.

Sounds easy enough. But in our years forwarding practical experiences, we have heard many sad stories about how importers are shocked by the invoice they had to pay at the LCL destination. Since there are LCL destination fees, more than you prepaid in most cases.

container doors

Keep reading and find out how to make the right choice between FCL and LCL, from its definition and benefits to its challenges and best practices.

FCL/LCL Definition

International transportation has been under pressure to support additional demands in freight volume and the distance at which this freight is being carried. Few other technical improvements than containerization have contributed to support the growing mobility of freight.

The benefits of containerization are reflected in three main aspects:

  • Transportation costs. The principle of economies of scale is particularly prevalent in container shipping, resulting in lower unit costs. Insurance rates are typically lower because containerized cargo is subject to less damage and has lower rates of theft. Another significant benefit is that the container itself becomes the smallest loading unit and more exporters and importers can enter the international market.
  • Inventory costs. A container is its own storage unit, meaning warehousing can take place during transportation, at docks and warehouses, reducing packaging costs. All of this has to do with faster inventory turns and cash flow.
  • Service level. Container shipping chains tend to be more reliable and intermodal operations can be done much faster, meaning the same assets can be used more frequently. Therefore, containerization services are more frequent and beneficial to supply chain management.

Since containers and their intermodal transport systems improve the efficiency of global distribution, a growing share of general cargo is containerized.

  • FCL = Full Container Load
  • LCL = Less than Container Load, aka Groupage or Consolidation

They are two of common shipping terms used in the international logistics industry for export and import ocean freight cargo.

fcl-lcl-cargoLCL means you share space with others, also share cost

LCL enables importers to ship smaller amounts of cargo that’s not of a large enough volume to make FCL a viable option. This means your cargo is combined with other shipping consignments headed for the same destination.

Unlike FCL, which usually has a flat rate per container, LCL is charged based on the volume, set in cubic meters. LCL shipping is a cost-effective solution for smaller shipments as you only need to pay for the volume space used. At the same time it almost always cheaper than air freight.

When it comes to FCL, three most common container types list below for your evaluation. Most businesses importing from China are only concerned with these three standard sizes that make up most of the container volume shipped worldwide.

FCL Types

20ft Container40ft Container40ft High Cube
Inside Length5.89m12.01m12.01m
Inside Width2.33m2.33m2.33m
Inside Height2.38m2.38m2.69m
Door Width2.33m2.33m2.33m
Door Height2.28m2.28m2.56m
(28 cbm in practical)
(58 cbm in practical)
(68 cbm in practical)
Tare Weight2229kg3701kg3968kg
Maximum Load28000kg28000kg28000kg


  • 20ft container = 20′ container = 20’GP
  • 40ft container = 40′ container = 40’GP
  • 40ft high cube container = 40’HQ = 40’HC

You may have to learn to be comfortable with CBM measurements (cubic metres = Length*Width*Height in meter), if you do not use the same unit in your country.

Most Chinese suppliers could advise the exact quantity loading in a full freight container. You can always ask the rough packaging data including weight and volume before the final finish. Please allow the data change in theory and in practical.

FCL Container Identification

Container Identification

The container identification system is an ISO standard (ISO 6346) consisting of a series of letters and numbers. Example above:

  • Owner code. Consists of three capital letters and is used to identify the owner of the container. For brand recognition purposes, shipping and container leasing companies often promote their logos on containers, which are often painted in different colors.
  • Product group code. Appears after the owner code and consists of an uppercase letter. “U” means general freight containers.
  • Registration number (or serial number). A sequence of 6 digits with a unique value for each container belonging to the owner. Therefore, each owner code can have up to 1 million containers.
  • Check digit. This single number is used to cross-validate that the identification sequence is accurate.
  • Size and type codes. The 4 letter or number sequence usually appears directly below the container identification sequence. Its purpose is to provide information about the size and type of the container; the first character relates to the length of the container, while the second character relates to the height of the container. In the image above, the first two numbers, 45, mean that the container is 40 feet long (4; usually the length of a container) and 9 feet 6 inches high (5; a tall cube). The remaining two elements of the sequence (G1) indicate that it is a general container.

The operating characteristics of the container are also usually displayed. They include maximum weight, container weight, payload weight, and cubic capacity.

FCL/LCL Differences

LCLs in one containerLCLs in one container like this

1. FCL shipment will be loaded and sealed at origin by your supplier or the manufacturer, then shipped by a combination of ocean, road or/and rail to your final destination.

The LCL shipment will be exposed for consolidating once at the loading port, and for sorting out again at the destination port.

2. The bill of lading of FCL shipment will be issued directly by the official shipping line.

The bill of lading of LCL shipment will be issued by the freight forwarder.

3. LCL service charges more than FCL when it comes to shipping cost per unit.

4. Shipping mark – “Made in China” label, which is written symbol or symbols that are printed on outer package, is mandatory for LCL shipment.

The purpose of the marks is to identify your goods from those of other shippers. They should be made boldly, with waterproof ink, so that they can always be easily read. They should be in black, with red or orange for dangerous cargo.

The marks should be in both English and the language of the country of destination. The package can be easily identified with the corresponding shipping documents and easily located for customs inspection, warehouse sorting and truck delivery.

Why LCL charges more than FCL?

Most times, using LCL logistics, the freight agents often charge 2~3 times as much per cubic meter, compared to FCL logistics.

Sometime the prepaid rate is cheap, but there are various destination fees to be collected, which listed below for reference only.

  • PSC fee (Port Service Charge)
  • SCA fee (Service Charge due Agent)
  • D/O fee (Deliver Order)
  • THC fee (Terminal Handling Charge)
  • TSF fee (Terminal Security Fee)
  • IPF fee (Import Processing Fee)

For the steamship carriers, they only accept full container booking.

A freight agent has to combine several LCLs into a full container. It makes sense. The workload is actually higher when managing LCL transportation.

While FCL shipments can be unloaded and delivered directly to the buyer’s location, LCL shipments must be unloaded at the Port of Destination. Especially for the split process at the port of developed countries, owing to many manual labor which is necessary for different kinds or shapes of goods.

Advantages when you buy FCL

Importing by the container load is not always as expensive as one might think, and a full container load results in lower shipping costs compared to small volumes.

1. FCL can be tracked directly from the shipping company.

You can track the location and estimated arrival date of your container shipment from China, through the shipping carriers’ websites.

In order to track your goods, you need to know which shipping line is transporting your cargo, and the container number, booking number or document number (any of them is usually good enough).

2. Buy FCL means your shipment will be safer.

In the LCL arrangement, the shipper is required to deliver the cargo to the forwarder’s warehouse for containerisation. The forwarder will use the same container to pack in more cargo from other shippers to make a complete container load at the warehouse. This action is also called freight consolidation.

Your cargo will be exposed to a higher risk of damage or loss, as it will be exposed when the carrier consolidates it with other cargo at the port of loading, and exposed again at the destination.

If you choose LCL cargo shipping, make sure your goods prepared and packed properly to be able to withstand sharp or heavy objects as well as chemical fumes or liquids.

3. LCL shipments will take longer to process.

This is because the carrier can load FCL containers without any fuss, whereas cargo for LCL needs to be consolidated first. Same situation at the destination.

4. FCL unit freight cost will be cheaper.

Lower price per cubic meter compared to an equivalent volume or weight of cargo shipped by air freight or LCL sea freight. Because it’s more convenient to optimize your quantity and packaging to maximize the space usage inside a 20 feet or 40 feet container.

There are numerous rates, surcharges and tariffs which are adjusted to the size of your LCL shipment.

Advantages when you buy LCL

Rather than importing a large quantity of goods from China, you may want to start with a small shipment to learn the problems and issues that will inevitably arise. Your knowledge of restrictions, taxes, Chinese society, finances and professional resources will be greatly tested.

1. MOQ

Cargo with a volume as small as less than one cbm (taken as one cubic meter) can be shipped by sea. The idea is to maximize the use of container space and reduce transportation costs for businesses with smaller shipping needs.

2. Lower sourcing risk

LCL shipping is a cost-effective solution that offers significant savings for businesses. By sharing the cost of transportation with other shippers, companies can reduce their shipping expenses substantially. Instead of paying for an entire container, shippers only pay for the space and weight their cargo occupies within the container.

A trial order with LCL shipping can prove if the product is qualified and the supplier is experienced.

3. Shorten delivery time

LCL provides businesses with unparalleled flexibility and scalability. This flexibility is particularly beneficial for companies with fluctuating shipping volumes due to seasonal demand, enabling them to adjust their shipping capacity as needed to optimize costs.

For example. LCL will arrive sooner than FCL, since you do not need to wait until your supply have enough stock to fill a complete container alone.

4. Minimum inventory management

Whether you are new to a niche market, or just on a budget, choose LCL shipment at first can lower your financial risk, and keep you out of large inventory trouble. Therefore your supply chain suffers fewer bottlenecks, allowing your operations to run smoothly.

The cost of inventory is not solely determined by the direct expenses associated with storing, managing, and maintaining the goods, but also by the opportunity costs that arise when money is tied up.

Goods represent a store of value; keeping resources tied up in products or components that are not being utilized or sold immediately restricts a company’s overall cash flow and may reduce the amount of liquid capital available.

How to choose FCL and LCL cost-effectively?

At first, you should request your supplier quote you a price based on a predetermined quantity (which is often the case when importing from China). However, the supplier should still calculate how many product units fit inside the container.

There are also situations when you need to go even bigger than a 20′ container. A 40′ container is more than twice as long as a 20′ one, but the freight charge for a 40′ container is less twice than a 20′ one.

But if small cargo like the volume under a full container loading,

  • If 1cbm~8cbm, choose LCL.
  • If 8cbm~15cbm, do some research to see what’s the most effective solution.
  • If over 15cbm, choose FCL without any hesitation.

Some points to keep in mind:

1. Plan ahead

If you are interested in consolidating orders, make sure to schedule accordingly and allow enough time to plan the shipments in line with the consolidation requirements. Sometimes, this will help save a lot.

2. Efficient Packaging

Proper packaging plays a crucial role in minimizing the risk of damage during the transit. Use sturdy and durable materials and secure your cargo effectively to pallets. Ensure that fragile items are adequately cushioned with appropriate packaging materials like bubble wrap or foam.

Additionally, label your shipments clearly with information about their contents and handling instructions. Effective packaging not only protects your goods but also facilitates smoother loading, unloading and storing.

3. Size matters

Accurate measurement and documentation of the weight and dimensions of your shipments are fundamental to successful shipping. Inaccurate data can lead to billing adjustments, shipment delays, and potential disputes with carriers. By consistently providing precise weight and dimensions, you can streamline the shipping process and prevent costly errors.

When considering the size of your products, you must remember that the dimensions of the packaging (and any further packaging carried out on your behalf) are the values that are used to calculate the cost, and in some cases this packaging can add up to 30% to each dimension.

If your products are too delicate, or cannot be tightly packed and therefore takes up more space, it will obviously affect the cost.

Taking away

Some importers try to optimize their freight costs. The rate of one unit product is definitely lower when choose FCL. Some importers, however, simply buy what they need. Not only considering landed cost, but also avoiding extra inventory that might not get sold.

If you’re intending to ship a large amount of imported goods regularly, then it would be worth looking at FCL, as it enjoys greater economies of scale; If your shipment is relatively small, stick to LCL.

CFC’s suite of comprehensive 3PL services is the catalyst for seamless logistics, efficient supply chains, and unparalleled client success. You can always rely on us for your all-in-one freight service partner.

CFC News - Jun. 18, 2024

$3,000/40HQ, Apr. 15
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$6,200/40HQ, Jun. 1
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To be continued...

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