Any location used in international trade and transport, including seaports, airports, and other inland destinations, is assigned a code.
This structure is used by most major shipping companies and freight forwarders. These codes appear on bills of lading, invoices, and contracts to make sure that all parties in the supply chain are aligned.
International Port Codes
Much like with Harmonized Schedule codes, the UN plays a critical role in standardization. In 1981, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), in collaboration with other major trade and transport organizations, initiated a framework to facilitate global trade. This evolved into what’s today known as LOCODE – Code for Trade and Transport Locations. The database is still maintained by the UNECE and currently includes over 103,030 locations in 249 countries.
Every international airport and seaport code consists of five characters. Referring to the diagram’s pink numbering:
- Country: These are standard country codes as assigned by the International Organization of Standardization. In the above example, the country, “China,” is specified with a “CN.”
- Port / Airport Identifier: These characters represent a location within the designated country. The above example identifies “Shenyang.” In countries such as the United States, where the number of possible three-letter combinations has been exceeded, numerical digits are used.
What’s the Difference Between Major and Minor Ports?
Knowing where the largest ports in the world are located allows for more efficient – and cost-efficient – shipping. For example, some types of cargo might require access to railroads and highways, customs facilities, or cargo-handling equipment that smaller regional ports don’t offer. Additionally, freight has been trending towards larger vessels, as the ability to hold more cargo usually means lower prices. Such carriers require larger ports, and in fact, often bypass smaller ports because of congestion and delays in container handling.
However, while bigger ports are necessary for certain shipping needs, there are multiple advantages to small and medium-sized ports as well:
- Smaller ports usually have close connections with their local city, which can mean easier access and other logistical advantages.
- Several smaller ports have adapted to some of the market challenges mentioned above by focusing on niche areas or goods, offering a competitive edge.
- The busiest ports in the world are usually ranked by cargo tonnage and volume of container shipment. However, while some local ports may rank low globally, they can, in fact, have significant scale and capacity when compared regionally.
What are the Different Types of Ports?
While the term ‘seaport’ encompasses most facilities handling ocean-voyage vessels, there are several types that are worth understanding:
- An inland port is located on a lake, river, or canal with access to the ocean, allowing ships to unload cargo closer to an inland destination.
- A dry port is an inland facility directly connected to a seaport by road or rail.
- A warm-water port is one where the water doesn’t freeze in wintertime, making it available all year round.
Seaports can be broken down into two primary types: cruise ports, for commercial passengers, and cargo ports. Cargo ports can then be further categorized as bulk ports (also known as break bulk ports), which handle goods that need to be loaded in bulk or individually, and container ports, which handle any goods that need to be shipped in a container. Most cargo ports can handle all types of cargo, but it’s worth ensuring that you’re not dealing with a port that has specific regulations about what can be brought in that may affect your shipment.
For more on key freight terms, check out our Freight Term Glossary.
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When Will I Need an Airport, and When Will I Need a Seaport?
Both air freight and ocean freight have their pros and cons.
- While air freight is faster and more reliable than ocean freight, it’s also more expensive (for shipments over about 500 kg) and offers significantly less capacity for goods than cargo ships.
- Ocean freight is more subject to delays.
- More products are restricted as hazardous cargo on airplanes than on container ships.
- Sea lanes can face pirate threats and airplanes might confront engine failure, though the chance of either occurring is exceedingly rare.
- CO2 emissions are much higher in air freight.
Ultimately, deciding which one suits your shipping needs more will depend on personal requirements. What is your budget? How many goods are you shipping? How quickly does your shipment need to arrive?
The port location might also play a part in your decision, as the accessibility of the departure and destination ports will impact your freight costs. If there’s no nearby airport but there is a local harbor that handles cargo, you might reconsider your shipping route.
Click here for more information on ocean freight.
Port Code List Top 10
The codes for the busiest and largest seaports in the world according to volume of cargo are:
- CNSHA: Shanghai, China; 33.62 million TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent unit)
- SGSIN: Singapore; 32.63 million TEUs:
- CNSZX: Shenzhen, China; 23.28 million TEUS
- HKHKG: Hong Kong, S.A.R., China; 22.35 million TEUs
- KRPUS: Busan, South Korea; 17.69 million TEUs
- CNNGB: Ningbo-Zhousan, China; 17.33 million TEUs
- CNTAO: Qindao, China; 15.52 million TEUs
- CNCAN: Guangzhou Harbor, China; 15.31 million TEUs
- AEJEA: Jebel Ali, Dubai, United Arab Emirates; 13.64 million TEUs
- CNTSN: Tianjin, China; 13.01 million TEUs
For more helpful freight tools and calculators, check out our freight rate calculator, freight class calculator, and chargeable weight calculator. And don’t forget to check out our ultimate guide to choosing a freight forwarder.