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A guide to international freight shipping

May 16, 2024 / US
A guide to international freight shipping

Global GDP shows a promising uptick in Q1 2024, coupled with anticipated inflation rates dipping below 3%. This outlook bodes well for the international freight sector, especially air cargo, where demand is forecasted to outpace capacity expansion, driving rates higher. Following a somewhat subdued performance in 2023, the freight industry is poised for significant growth in the initial half of 2024.

In this article, we will guide you through the intricacies of international freight shipping, providing valuable insights and tips to help you navigate this dynamic industry.

What is international freight?

International freight is transporting goods across borders from one country to another. It plays a crucial role in global trade and commerce, allowing businesses to reach customers worldwide and expand their markets. International freight can be transported via various modes such as air, ocean, road, or rail.

How does international freight work?

International freight shipping involves coordinating various parties, including shippers, carriers, customs agents, and receivers. It encompasses several stages: documentation, customs clearance, cargo handling, transit, and final delivery. Each stage presents unique challenges that require careful planning and execution to ensure a smooth and efficient shipping process. Below, we dive into each stage and the common processes involved.

1. Export haulage:

The journey begins with export haulage, moving the freight from its origin to the nearest warehouse, port, or facility. This includes:

  • Shipment Planning: Optimizing routes and transport methods for efficiency.
  • Loading and Handling: Ensuring goods are securely packed for transit.
  • Drayage: Employing local trucking to move the cargo to the initial loading dock.

2. Export Customs Clearance:

As the freight reaches the border, export customs clearance is necessary to comply with international regulations before departure:

  • Documentation Preparation: Gathering all necessary shipping and customs documents.
  • Customs Brokerage: Using professional brokers to navigate complex customs procedures.
  • Duties and Taxes: Handling financial obligations related to export.
  • Security Inspections: Ensuring cargo meets all export security standards.

3. Transportation:

Following successful customs clearance, the transportation phase starts, varying by selected logistics options and customer preferences:

  • Mode Selection: Deciding whether air, sea, or land transport suits the shipment’s needs.
  • Freight Consolidation: Merging smaller loads for economic efficiency.
  • Carrier Management: Coordinating with carriers to guarantee timely delivery.
  • Safety Measures: Securing the freight against tampering and loss during travel.

4. Import Customs Clearance:

Upon arrival at the destination country, import customs clearance must be handled to ensure the freight complies with local laws:

  • Import Licensing: Securing permits required for importation.
  • Tariff Payment: Calculating and paying necessary tariffs.
  • Regulatory Compliance: Adhering to local standards for safety and quality.
  • Document Verification: Providing necessary documentation for customs checks.

5. Import Haulage:

The final step involves import haulage, moving the freight from the border to its ultimate destination:

  • Last Mile Delivery: Planning the last segment of delivery to ensure prompt arrival.
  • Unloading: Managing the offloading process at the final stop.
  • Delivery Confirmation: Confirming that all goods have been received in proper condition.
  • Post-Delivery Support: Addressing any subsequent issues and maintaining customer satisfaction.

Tracking your international shipment

To track your international shipment and gain visibility into its progress, there are several steps Shipper’s can take:

  • Obtain the tracking number: Upon booking your shipment, the freight forwarder or carrier will provide you with a unique tracking number, such as a Bill of Lading (BOL) number for ocean freight or an Air Waybill (AWB) number for air freight.
  • Check with your freight forwarder: Your freight forwarder should have access to the latest information on your shipment’s status. They can provide you with updates on customs clearance, departure and arrival times, and any potential delays.
  • Use online tracking tools: Many carriers and freight forwarders offer online tracking tools where you can enter your tracking number to get real-time updates on your shipment’s location and status.
  • Monitor port and terminal information: Keep an eye on the status of the ports and terminals involved in your shipment’s journey. This information can help you anticipate any potential delays due to congestion or operational issues.
  • Set up automated alerts: Some tracking systems allow you to set up automated alerts via email or SMS, notifying you of key milestones in your shipment’s journey, such as departure from origin, arrival at destination, and customs clearance.

With Uber Freight’s TMS, shippers can easily track international shipments and streamline logistics. We integrate data from 40+ sources, covering 99% of global shipments. Our user-friendly TMS software provides detailed, real-time visibility without any complex setup.  Our TMS platform offers additional benefits like optimizing routes, consolidating loads, and simplifying documentation.

Transportation modes for international shipping

One of the keys to successful international freight shipping is choosing the best methods for a shipper’s specific needs.

Air freight

Air freight is the quickest way to transport goods internationally, making it suitable for time-sensitive shipments. It involves loading cargo onto an aircraft and flying it to its destination. Air freight can be expensive compared to other modes of transportation but offers fast transit times and reliable delivery.

  • Speed: Air freight is the fastest shipping method for international shipments. It’s ideal for perishable goods or emergency deliveries.
  • Efficiency: Due to airlines’ strict schedules, air freight can often provide accurate arrival and departure times.

Ocean freight

Ocean freight is the most commonly used method for international shipping, especially for large and heavy cargo. It involves loading cargo onto a ship and transporting it across the ocean to its destination. Ocean freight is more cost-effective compared to air freight but offers longer transit times.

  • Cost-effective: Ocean freight is generally more affordable than air freight, making it ideal for large and heavy shipments.
  • Eco-friendly: Ocean freight is a more environmentally friendly option compared to air freight, as it has a lower carbon footprint.

Rail freight

Rail freight is a popular option for international shipping, especially for goods traveling between neighboring countries or continents. It involves loading cargo onto specially designed railcars and transporting it across land to its destination. Rail freight offers cost-effective rates and relatively fast transit times.

  • Reliability: Rail freight has fixed schedules and routes, making it a reliable option for long-distance shipping.
  • Cost-effective: Rail freight is often more cost-effective than road or air freight, and it can handle larger volumes than air freight.

Intermodal freight

Intermodal freight is a transportation method that involves using multiple modes of transport, such as ships, trains, and trucks, to move goods from one point to another. This approach allows for the efficient and cost-effective transportation of cargo over long distances, combining the strengths of various modes of transport.

  • Flexibility: Intermodal freight offers flexibility in routing and scheduling, allowing for the optimization of transit times and costs based on the specific needs of the shipment.
  • Efficiency: By utilizing the most suitable mode of transport for each leg of the journey, intermodal freight can minimize handling and reduce the risk of damage to the cargo.
  • Cost-effective: Intermodal freight can be more cost-effective than relying on a single mode of transport, as it allows for the consolidation of shipments and the use of the most economical mode for each segment of the journey.
  • Environmental benefits: Intermodal freight can reduce the overall carbon footprint of the transportation process by leveraging more environmentally friendly modes of transport, such as rail or sea, for the majority of the journey.

Intermodal freight, with the help of drayage services, is particularly useful for international shipments that require the movement of goods across multiple countries or continents.

Key participants in international freight

Various parties are involved in international freight shipping, each playing a crucial role in ensuring the smooth transportation of goods across borders.

OTI (Ocean Transportation Intermediary)

OTIs are ocean transportation intermediaries licensed by the Federal Maritime Commission (FMC), which include Non-Vessel-Operating Common Carriers (NVOCCs) and Ocean Freight Forwarders (OFFs).

NVOCC (Non-Vessel Operating Common Carrier)

NVOCCs, or Non-Vessel Operating Common Carriers, play a crucial role in international freight shipping. They act as intermediaries between shippers and carriers, providing ocean shipping services by leasing space from vessel operators. Unlike traditional freight forwarders, who also offer air and land transportation services, NVOCCs specialize in ocean freight. They handle all the necessary paperwork and documentation for shipping goods internationally, making it easier for shippers to navigate complex customs regulations, but do not operate the vessels by which they transport.

OFF (Ocean Freight Forwarder)

OFFs are freight forwarders located in the US that specialize in ocean freight. US ocean freight forwarders are licensed by the Federal Maritime Commission to offer services such as arranging ocean transportation from the US to foreign destinations, booking cargo space, consolidating shipments, preparing documentation, and performing other related activities for such shipments on behalf of shippers.

International freight forwarders

Freight forwarders are companies that help businesses arrange transportation for their goods. They can handle all aspects of the shipping process, from coordinating with carriers to managing documentation and customs clearance. Freight forwarders act as an extension of the shipper’s logistics team and often have established relationships with different carriers to secure competitive rates for their clients.

Customs brokers

Customs brokers are licensed professionals who assist importers and exporters in navigating complex international trade regulations and customs procedures. They work closely with customs officials to ensure that necessary documents are filed correctly, duties and taxes are paid, and goods are cleared for entry into the country.

As part of our comprehensive international shipping services, Uber Freight operates as an OTI, NVOCC, OFF, and customs broker.  This diverse range of services ensures that we help shippers simplify their shipping operations.

International freight shipping with Uber Freight

Uber Freight can help keep your supply chain seamlessly moving across the border regardless of your transportation method. Our international transportation management team offers a tailored freight management solution that aligns perfectly with your business objectives.
Our international shipping services include:

  • Global transportation management
  • Freight forwarding (NVOCC, OTI, OFF)
  • Customs brokerage and compliance
  • Ocean and air freight
  • Customized drayage
  • Operations technology integration
  • Ocean and air tracking and visibility
  • Procurement and benchmarking

Recognizing the uniqueness of each customer, our team of CTPAT-certified, multilingual international logistics experts, which includes licensed custom brokers and import/export specialists, focus on crafting a personalized, technology-driven solution. Dedicated account teams seamlessly execute your day-to-day global transportation and compliance needs.. Connect with an expert today!


How do international freight forwarding companies work?

International freight forwarding companies act as intermediaries between shippers and carriers, helping businesses arrange transportation for their goods across borders. They handle all aspects of the shipping process, including negotiating with carriers, managing documentation and customs clearance, and ensuring timely delivery of goods.

What is the difference between international freight and cargo?

International freight refers to the transportation of goods between countries, while cargo refers to the actual goods being transported. International freight encompasses various methods of shipping, such as air, ocean, and rail freight. Cargo can include anything from consumer goods to raw materials being shipped internationally.  So essentially, international freight is the process of moving cargo across borders.

How much does international freight shipping cost?

Determining international freight shipping costs is complex and varies based on transportation mode (air, sea, rail, road), cargo weight, dimensions, goods type, and distance. Factors like tariffs, customs fees, and service charges on specific routes impact pricing.

How long does international shipping take?

The transit time for international freight shipping depends on the mode of transportation chosen, the origin and destination countries, and other factors such as customs clearance. Air freight is generally the quickest option, with transit times ranging from 1-7 days, while ocean freight can take anywhere from 10-60 days. Rail freight falls somewhere in between, with an average transit time of 15-20 days.

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