What is FCL shipping?
FCL describes sea shipping for cargo loads large enough to fill a 20’ or 40’ shipping container.
Unlike LCL – less than a container load – where shipments share container space with other goods, FCL shipments use the entire container. That means the container is loaded and sealed at the factory and unloaded when it reaches the destination warehouse.
What does FCL stand for?
FCL stands for a full container load.
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The benefits and drawbacks of shipping FCL
There are a number of benefits to shipping FCL:
- FCL shipments don’t need to be loaded and unloaded together with other shipments, which saves transit time.
- Sealing containers at the factory means less handling and fewer opportunities for damage.
- Price per unit on LCL is high, so for larger shipments, paying the FCL flat fee saves money.
- Air freight is the fastest way to ship. But if you have the time, you’ll save big choosing FCL instead.
Here are some drawbacks of shipping FCL:
- Shipping larger quantities means finding and paying for more inventory space.
- For small loads (approximately 13 CBM or less) FCL will probably be more costly.
- Delivering a full container means you’ll need equipment and personnel that can handle the job, which not every factory has.
- When you ship FCL, delivery can get more complicated as you’ll be dealing with large shipments in small windows of time.
How much does it cost to ship a shipping container?
When you ship FCL, you pay a flat fee for the entire container, regardless of how much is in it.
But, once your shipment gets to be large enough – usually around 13 CBM, depending on your goods – it becomes well worth paying the flat fee because cost per unit on LCL is much higher.
Here are some other factors that affect FCL pricing:
- GRIs (General Rate Increases). These are container price increases that carriers can implement at the beginning and middle of each month, usually in response to demand. Learn more here.
- Peak season price spikes. Peak season hits when businesses ship at higher volumes to make sure their supply is ready for the holiday shopping season. For FCL, peak season is typically between August-November.
- Holiday delays. Shippers from China need to account for the Chinese New Year, usually in February, and Golden Week in fall, which are week-long holidays that impact demand and prices. Wherever your origin and destination, make sure to check the local calendar for important holidays.
FCL rates & prices throughout the year
Here’s an illustration of how FCL prices can fluctuate throughout the year:
The above is an illustration of 40’ FCL prices from East Asia to the US West Coast. Notice that these FCL prices range from around $1200 to as much as approximately $2100, for all the reasons mentioned.
It’s worth noting that LCL prices are not subject to the same price fluctuations as FCL, instead remaining largely stable throughout the year. This is mostly due to the fact that pricing structures for LCL and FCL are very different: in an FCL shipment, the majority of the cost comes from the actual sea journey, whereas for LCL, the most significant costs cover loading and unloading. That means that for LCL, actual freight price changes are not as impactful.
To learn about FCL price changes or get updates on pricing trends that could affect you, head on over to the Freightos Baltic Index.
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Additional FCL costs & fees
If you’re shipping to an Amazon FBA warehouse, make sure to account for a few things to minimize costs:
Labeling and palletization
Amazon has very strict requirements for packages that arrive at their warehouses. Your first step: make sure you know these requirements well. Next, decide on the most optimal way for your shipment to be labeled and palletized. You’ll want to have labeling done at the factory whenever possible.
As for palletizing, in many cases, it’s cheaper and more efficient to have your supplier palletize at the factory as long as your supplier knows the requirements. On the other hand, some shippers prefer to maximize container space by floor-loading their goods, and then palletizing after arrival at the destination port. Additionally, for FBA shipments to the US, there is a floor-loaded delivery option, which is much cheaper and less risky in terms of cargo damage than palletizing at destination.
You can price out these options in advance to decide what’s best for you.
When you deliver a container to a US factory, Amazon requires you to schedule an appointment. The wait time for an appointment for a full container is typically longer than the wait time for LCL, which can end up costing you in demurrage and detention fees (see below for details on that). To avoid these fees, work with your forwarder to schedule your appointment well in advance. Also note that in some FBA warehouses in Europe, there is no option to deliver FCL shipments so it might be necessary to ship LCL. Additionally, some US FBA centers, especially in the Midwest, have difficulty handling FCL deliveries.
Anytime you ship to the US, you’ll need a Customs Bond. If you ship infrequently, you can opt for a single-entry bond. If you ship at higher volumes, consider an annual bond.
Duties and Taxes
Sometimes shippers can be caught off-guard by how much customs and taxes add to their total costs, so make sure to plan ahead. This is especially true if you are shipping from China and possibly subject to the tariffs implemented in the past several years.
You can estimate your customs costs using our free Import Duty calculator.
Demurrage and Detention
When your container arrives, there will be a period of time, usually four days in the US, when it can wait at the port free of charge. After this time, you will be charged a fee known as demurrage until you pick up your container. Demurrage charges vary by country, and in the US can turn into hundreds of dollars pretty quickly. Make sure your forwarder clears customs and collects the container from the port in a timely fashion.
Similarly, once your goods are picked up, you have a window of time until the container must be returned to the port, usually four days as well. After this, detention charges kick in, and like demurrage, they can add up fast.
There are also waiting time fees to consider. Typically, trucking companies allow 1-2 hours for the driver to wait for your container to be unloaded at the warehouse, and then charge additional fees by the hour.
Port Congestion Surcharge
If you ship to a popular port, you may end up with a congestion surcharge. That’s something to check with your freight forwarder when deciding on your destination port.
Expert tips for getting the best FCL pricing
If you’re shipping FOB, make sure to specify your origin port with your seller.
Shippers sometimes try to book FOB while providing only the origin country, and not the specific port – but prices can vary depending on your port. Specifying makes it more likely your price quote will be accurate.
Book at least two weeks in advance of your pickup date. Three if possible.
As carrier space fills up, finding the best price becomes increasingly harder. Booking in advance gives you the best chance of getting the best price. A few weeks’ lead time is especially important during peak season.
Know your shipment’s precise weight.
If you know your shipment’s weight, you and your forwarder can determine what containers and equipment you’ll need, both for the sea journey and the inland trip to your factory. This is especially important because weight limits for sea vessels are not the same as weight limits for rail and trucking. The US, in particular, has tighter weight restrictions on inland trucking weights than Europe, and if you don’t plan for this, you might get hit with extra charges for special equipment.
“Any lack of information about weight has the same effect as buying a plane ticket and not realizing you have to pay for luggage – it’s not the experience you want.”
– Spencer Strader, ECU Director of Imports
Get important delivery information from your warehouse.
More specifically, find out:
- Is the warehouse dock height? That is, is the place where your container will be unloaded the same height as the dock and the truck? If extra maneuvering is necessary, there might be extra charges.
- Can the warehouse offload quickly? Longer deliveries can mean more fees.
Avoid shipping during peak season.
Prices go up, supply gets tight, and it’s harder to get your goods on time. Plan in advance as much as you can.
FCL shipment procedure
What is the procedure for delivery and unloading at my warehouse?
There are two types of warehouse deliveries: live and drop.
In a live unload, the container is unloaded while the driver waits. As we said above, there are usually 1-2 free hours allowed for a live unload.
Sometimes, when a warehouse is particularly busy, or lacks the necessary equipment to do a fast unload, you’ll want to do a drop. This means the driver drops the container off and picks it up again when unloading is complete, usually a day or two later.
Drop tends to be more expensive than live since it requires two trips by the driver. On the other hand, if you’re likely to have waiting time charges, drop could be the more affordable option. And sometimes, if the warehouse simply cannot unload the same day, drop is the only option.
For shippers who ship frequently enough, a drop-and-pick option might be a good one: drop off one container and pick up another, from a different shipment.
What paperwork will I need for my FCL shipment?
For the rundown on all the paperwork you’ll need to ship FCL, check out our key freight documents guide.
How long does FCL shipping take?
Shipping by FCL generally takes around 3-6 weeks, depending on your origin and destination.
Occasionally, shipments can get “rolled,” which means the container doesn’t get loaded onto the ship it was supposed to travel on, usually due to overbooked capacity.
To prevent rolled shipments to the extent possible, book in advance and make sure all your paperwork is in order.
Should I get a tender for FCL shipping?
If you ship more than 500 TEUs per year, it might be worth considering a tender, or annual shipping contract. To learn if tenders are right for you, check out our Guide to Shipping Contracts.
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Is FCL right for me?
If you’re not sure if FCL is right for your shipping needs, or are debating between LCL or FCL, check out our Guide to LCL Shipping. We’ll run you through making the best decision for your shipment.
FCL container size and dimensions
Here are container dimensions for the two standard container sizes, 20′ and 40′:
For internal dimensions, head on over to our Container Shipping Cost Calculator page. While you’re there, you can calculate your estimated shipping costs.
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1 TEU & FEU
A TEU is another name for a 20ft container– it stands for a twenty-foot equivalent unit.
A FEU is another name for a 40ft container– it stands for a forty-foot equivalent unit.
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How to ship FCL on Freightos.com
If you choose to book your FCL shipment on Freightos.com, we’ll take care of a lot of the confusing and time-consuming details. For example:
- Because Freightos.com is a marketplace, you’ll be able to choose from a variety of quotes in real-time. That means you won’t need to play phone tag with freight forwarders, and you’ll get a picture of market rates at a glance.
- You can order insurance and customs clearance for your shipment while you book your freight.
- You’ll be able to track your shipment right on the Freightos.com platform.
- You’ll get support for any questions that arise.
There comes a point in every shipper’s life when they start daydreaming about container interior dimensions and consolidation centers.
Well, maybe not daydreaming. But at least realizing that it’s time to decide if LCL shipping is right for them.
If you have a smaller freight shipment, take a look at this guide to learn all about LCL shipping: what it costs, how long it takes, how it compares to other modes, and more.
You’re one step closer to making your LCL dreams come true.
NEED AN LCL QUOTE?
What is LCL?
LCL describes sea shipping for cargo loads not large enough to fill a full 20ft or 40ft shipping container.
What does LCL stand for in shipping?
LCL stands for less than a container load.
Since LCL shipments fill less than a full shipping container, they are grouped with other cargo, which is why they are sometimes called groupage shipments.
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The benefits and drawbacks of shipping LCL
There are a number of benefits to shipping LCL:
- When you ship LCL, you pay only for the volume you need- not a flat rate like FCL
- Shipping fewer goods more frequently means spending less on inventory space
- LCL is far cheaper than air freight, so if you have some time to wait for your shipment, you can lower shipping costs dramatically
- During peak season when capacity is near-full, LCL can be easier to find and faster than FCL
Here are the main drawbacks to LCL shipping:
- LCL shipments need to be loaded and unloaded from containers, which adds a few days to the journey.
- LCL shipments are more expensive per cubic meter than FCL – sometimes even twice as much.
- Other shipments’ customs delays may cause your goods to be delayed along with them.
- LCL goods are handled more, which increases the chances of damage.
LCL Shipping Costs
LCL cost is calculated primarily by volume, usually in cubic meters (CBM). The more space you need, the more you pay.
Weight is also taken into account, but because container ships can handle huge amounts of weight, volume usually matters more to overall costs.
LCL price quotes from freight forwarders include the following:
Pickup: the cost of picking up your shipment from the warehouse or factory.
Origin: LCL shipments need to be loaded onto containers along with other shipments, or consolidated, at a Container Freight Station or CFS. This is sometimes referred to as container stuffing.
Main leg: The cost of the sea journey. Although this is the main leg of the shipment, it may not be the most expensive part. Instead, charges at the CFS can be very significant because they require significant machine and manpower.
Destination: At the destination country, LCL shipments need to stop at a CFS for deconsolidation, or unstuffing.
Delivery: The cost of trucking your goods to the destination warehouse.
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LCL vs. Air
If you have a small shipment, should you ship by LCL or air?
That depends on how quickly you need your goods – and how much you’re willing to pay.
Let’s say you’re shipping 500 hockey pucks from Shanghai to Los Angeles (that’s approximately 0.06 CBM and 85 kg in case you were wondering).
If you ship by LCL, it costs about $400. By air, it’s $600.
Now let’s double it to 1,000 hockey pucks. LCL is now $475, but air has jumped to $900.
Doubled again, 2,000 hockey pucks is still $475 on LCL, but air is all the way up to $1,570.
As shipment size and weight increase, air rates rise dramatically faster than LCL rates. Increases in weight are even more impactful.
On the other hand, an air shipment is much faster: in this example, your shipment would take 7-9 days by air, and 25-30 days by LCL.
WANT TO COMPARE LCL AND AIR FREIGHT RATES?
Here are a few tips for choosing between air and LCL:
- When you ship LCL, you will be charged for a minimum of 1 CBM. That means if you have a shipment smaller than that, you won’t get a lower price.
- Air and LCL costs are both calculated by both weight and volume. But for air, weight is the more important factor – that is, relatively small weight increases mean much higher prices. On the other hand, for LCL, space makes a bigger difference than weight. Bottom line: LCL will be much cheaper for heavier goods.
- Air freight prices and transit times do not vary much based on the destination city. For example, air freight from Shanghai to Los Angeles will be roughly the same in cost and time as air freight from Shanghai to New York. However, for LCL, this difference in distance will increase both cost and transit time.
LCL vs. FCL
LCL is great for small loads, but sometimes it’s worth paying for a full container even if you don’t have enough to fill it.
Because LCL costs more per CBM than FCL. So once a shipment hits a certain volume, an entire container could be the better choice – for a slightly higher price, you’ll get the benefits of shipping FCL, including faster transit time and lower chances of damage.
One caveat: if you’re shipping to an Amazon warehouse, it’s often easier to get an appointment to drop off LCL shipments. So even if you save money by shipping FCL, you might end up with extra demurrage and detention charges due to warehouse appointment delays.
So what’s the tipping point?
It depends on your shipment’s dimensions, but generally speaking, once volume hits around 10 CBM, you might start to consider FCL.
On a popular China-West Coast US route, shipping 15 CBM ends up costing the same as a full container:
Additional LCL Fees
Labeling and Palletization for Amazon Shippers
If you are shipping your goods to an Amazon FBA warehouse, you will need to have them labeled and palletized according to Amazon’s requirements.
Having your factory label your boxes is the most efficient option, and generally, palletizing at the factory is cheaper than at the consolidation center. However, before having your supplier palletize, make sure they’re familiar with Amazon’s standards and requirements so you don’t get charged extra LCL fees.
Any time you import to the US, you’ll need to set up a customs bond, which is essentially insurance for Customs and Border Patrol in the event your company does not pay.
If you ship infrequently, choose a singly-entry bond. For frequent shippers, an annual bond will likely be worth it.
Duties and Taxes
Duties and taxes are calculated by Customs and Border Patrol when your goods arrive at port, but you can estimate in advance how much you will owe and calculate your LCL fees more accurately.
What paperwork do I need for my LCL shipment?
For the rundown on all the paperwork you’ll need to ship LCL, head on over to our key freight documents guide.
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How long does LCL shipping take?
Sea shipping generally takes approximately 3-6 weeks, depending on your origin and destination. LCL tends to take a few days longer than FCL due to consolidation and deconsolidation.
Expert tips for getting the best LCL shipping rates
Request quotes from multiple freight forwarders.
Having multiple quotes will not only allow you to choose the best price. It will also give you insight into market rates and help you better understand LCL shipping rates and charges. That is, sometimes you’ll get a quote that is way above or below market LCL shipping rates – but you won’t know unless you have a range of quotes to compare.
Don’t forget to take pallet dimensions into account.
Suppliers always provide box dimensions for your goods, but make sure to also request dimensions including pallets. Pallets take up container space – space you’ll be charged for.
Remember that fragile goods might need more space, and therefore cost more.
In most LCL shipments, pallets are stacked in order to maximize container space. But if you’re shipping flatscreen TVs, you won’t want anything stacked on top of them. That means costs will be higher because your shipment leaves less room in the container for other packages.
Avoid hidden LCL charges and fees by booking port-to-door or door-to-door service with your freight forwarder.
The day might come when you get an LCL quote that seems impossibly cheap. What could be bad about that?
Well, it could turn out that LCL charges you thought were included were in fact not part of the quote.
To prevent this, Sandeep Bhalotia, CEO of logistics provider PlanYourCargo, recommends booking port-to-door or door-to-door service for LCL. “You might get a discount at the origin, but if service to the door is not included, the discount might be offset with high charges at the destination,” he explains. “A quote that includes service to your door means all charges are validated in advance.”
Understand the interior dimensions of the container.
A 20ft container is not actually 20 feet – at least not from the inside. Make sure you know containers’ interior dimensions to understand how much container space you really need – and help decide if LCL or FCL is right for you.
If you’re an Amazon FBA shipper, know your warehouse guidelines.
Amazon FBA has strict warehouse guidelines. If you know these, you can often arrange to have your supplier take care of them, which saves you money down the line.