Mode Selection

John Edmonds, Freightos

This chapter covers the three freight modes (express, air and ocean) for importing shipments together with guidance on how to choose which mode is best for your shipment.

Modes For Shipping From China

Express Freight (International Courier)

Shipping with express freight basically means replicating the same courier experience you get every time you have an e-commerce delivery at home. While this means convenience, speed, and an easier customs process, you’ll pay a price, express freight is limited to small shipments only. Weight and size restrictions vary by courier.

While there are many resellers, the market is dominated by a few large players, namely UPS, FedEx, and DHL.

Air Freight

Air freight means leveraging almost the same speed as courier shipping but with processes optimized for international freight. Air freight processes are more complex and less automated than express freight but are less painful than ocean freight processes.

Shipments are less likely to get damaged going by air than by sea but are more expensive and more prone to restrictions on hazardous products (as covered in the Product Research chapter).

Ocean Freight

Ocean freight is generally cheaper than air freight.

But it’s also slower (check out the difference by using this transit time calculator) and less reliable (delays caused by port congestion, customs hold-ups, bad weather, etc). That makes it a risky choice if you have a hard deadline. Ocean freight is becoming more reliable, though. Some ocean carriers even offer a premium service. “Expedited freight” works by streamlining processes and only tie in with faster ocean and trucking services.

Another advantage is that CO2 emissions are minuscule compared to air freight.

Selecting The Best Mode For Your Shipment

The following table provides general guidance, not definitive advice.

Express Freight

(International Courier)

3-5 days < 50 kg Courier weight and size restrictions.
Air Freight 7-14 days 50 kg <> 500 kg Planes have a longer list of restricted cargo than ships.
Ocean Freight 25-40 days > 500 kg Ships are more prone to delays (bad weather, port congestion, etc).

* For a less than container load, China-US West Coast door to door. Each mode has a quicker premium option: express freight (1-2 days), air freight (5-8 days), ocean freight (18-30 days).

The rules of thumb in the table gloss over the many variables in freight, like the points of origin and destination, and current freight rates. The Freightos freight rate calculator is a more accurate way to select mode because it takes these key variables into account. It uses live freight rates and real points of origin and destination.

If your shipment has a ballpark weight of 500 kg, assess the price point that you would swap modes to get your goods in quicker. This is especially relevant if you are not near a major port, or are East Coast importing from China.

If you are looking for even more accurate rates, you can instantly find and select binding quotes on the Freightos Marketplace.


  • As a rule of thumb, air freight is quicker and sea freight is cheaper, however smaller shipments are often cheaper by air than sea.
  • Speed and cost are important but other factors may play a part in determining which mode is best for your shipment. They include courier weight and size limits, carrier restrictions, carbon footprints, and whether there is a drop-dead delivery date.

    Further Reading

  1. Shipping From China: Everything You Need To Know (includes the option of using the postal service)
  2. Ocean Freight vs Air Freight: Making the Decision
  3. Ocean Freight Explained: Calculating Costs And Price Trends
  4. International Air Freight Explained: Calculating Costs and Price Trends
  5. Is Your Cargo Flightworthy?

Freightos makes global trade frictionless with the world’s online marketplace for the trillion dollar international shipping industry, helping importers and exporters reduce logistics spend and save time with instant comparison, booking, and management of air, ocean, and land shipments from top logistics providers.

Download The Guide:

Enter your email below to get your free copy

  • The Experts Guide

    Take your product from idea to inventory with the ultimate step-by-step handbook

  • Amazon FBA

    Includes additional bonus chapters geared towards Amazon sellers

  • Crowdfunding

    Includes additional bonus chapters geared towards crowdfunding entrepreneurs

  • By clicking "GET BOOK", you agree to receive Freightos logistics technology updates. Not for you? You can unsubscribe at any time.