Importing from China to the UK - FAQ

Importing from China to the UK can be a confusing business. There are a host of shipping acronyms and incoterms to decipher on top of the logistics and challenge of negotiating with the seller in China. Here are some of the questions we are asked regularly by our customers.


My contact in China is selling on FOB (Free On Board) shipping terms but advises they can also sell on CFR (Cost and Freight) terms.  What are these shipping terms and what do they mean?

CFR and FOB are widely used incoterms sellers use to establish which party is responsible for which part of the shipping process and the relevant costs involved.   In a CFR agreement, the Chinese sellers assume more responsibility in the cost and process of transportation to port of arrival in the UK (Felixstowe for example).  You would still be responsible for arrival charges, UK clearance and delivery as well. In free on board (FOB) shipping, the shipping company is only responsible for delivering goods to the port of origin for shipping.


If I let the seller arrange shipping on CFR (cost and freight) terms will this be cheaper for me?

The simple answer is, not always.

The shipping costs given by your seller may be cheaper than you’ve been quoted in the UK but when buying goods on CFR terms you must take into account when your goods arrive in the UK you will have to pay a UK arrival warehouse charge, as well as onward delivery and UK customs clearance.

This can often mean it ends up being more expensive than if had you organised the shipping yourself or through a UK based freight forwarder.


My seller advises I need to get a customs clearance agent in the UK.  Do I need one and what do they do?

If you are importing any goods from a NON-EU country via sea or air freight you will always need to arrange customs clearance of your goods and pay the relevant import taxes and duties owed to HMRC.

You can appoint your own clearance agent who can arrange all customs formalities for you.  If your goods are already consigned to a UK Freight Forwarder you can sometimes use their services, but you are still free to appoint your own customs clearance agent if you wish.

My goods are arriving into Felixstowe or Southampton but I am in the North of England or Scotland. Is there a closer port my goods can come to?

If you are importing FCL (Full containers) you can import to ports such as Liverpool, Tees, Immingham, Greenock or Grangemouth.

If you are importing via LCL (less than container load) it is likely the only option for port of arrival will be Southampton or Felixstowe.  However due to the excellent palletline networks we have in the UK, this often doesn’t increase the overall cost.


I am importing a lot of cargo; would it be any cheaper to have a whole (FCL) container instead of sharing container space (LCL)?

This is something a freight forwarder can give you a comparison on, but we often find that once you get to around 15-20m3 (cubic meters) worth of cargo it can prove cheaper to ship via FCL (full container) basis.

The other advantage of shipping via FCL is that once your goods are stuffed into the container, the container doors won’t open until they reach you in the UK which means they are not handled by any 3rd party during transit.

LCL and FCL explained


What is the process my goods go through from leaving the factory to arriving at my door here in the UK?

Below is rough guide but this may vary depending on type of cargo and your terms of shipment.



Your goods will be collected from factory in China and then go to a warehouse close to port of departure. They will then be stuffed into a shipping container, of which there could be several other shipments as well. Your goods will then be loaded onto a huge container ship and then depart China to Europe most likely transiting via the Suez Canal.

Typically, it takes around 28-30 days port/port from China to Felixstowe or Southampton. On arrival to the UK the container will then be discharged from the container ship and wait for UK customs approval. After approval, the container will go to a warehouse and be unloaded.  The warehousemen will then palletise everyone’s individual shipments ready for collection.



The process is very similar to LCL above, but usually the whole container will be stuffed at the factory and then sent direct to the port of loading in China.

On arrival in the UK you can either have the whole FCL container delivered to a warehouse of your choice or the whole container can be delivered to your depot where you will be required to unload items.


Will Chinese New Year affect my shipment?

Yes! Most Chinese ports are closed for the duration of Chinese New Year so if you have a shipment its best to arrange well in advance of Chinese New Year otherwise it will likely only depart after the celebrations.

Also bear in mind shipping costs are often inflated in the run up to Chinese New Year so it can often be far cheaper to wait until after to ship your goods. See our blog on Chinese New Year and freight movements the subject.


What is a bill of lading?

A bill of lading is a legal contract or document between you and the seller and evidence of the shipment between you and the seller.


My seller asked if I want a telex b/l or original bills of lading?

Our preference and recommendation would always be for telex bills of lading, as this cuts out risk of losing original bills of lading in the post. However, depending on your method of payment, if you are paying via banking letter the seller may insist on sending original bills of lading. If you have original bills of lading you will be required to present/send these to the UK arrival agent or the UK shipping line office.


My goods are due to arrive into Felixstowe.  Do I need to appoint a clearance agent in Felixstowe?

No is the simple answer.  You are free to appoint an agent in Felixstowe, but many freight forwarding companies have customs badges for all container ports around the UK, so you can appoint a local forwarding company if you prefer.


I’ve been told I need to get an EORI number how do I get this?

You need an EORI number to trade export/import commercial goods.

All information is on the HMRC website but if you need further assistance please get in touch. The application process usually takes about 2-3 days depending on how busy HMRC are; we always recommend getting this well before your shipment arrives.

Without an EORI number you cannot customs clear your goods.

How long will my shipment take to arrive in the UK?

If you import on LCL terms it could take 5-6 weeks from factory to your door. If you import on FCL terms it could take 4-5 weeks factory to your door. All subject to final sailing and arrival dates. If you are importing by airfreight we would allow transit time factory to your door of 3-7 days all subject to available space with airlines and subject to no customs clearance delays.

What import duty/VAT will I pay in the UK?

This will depend on the commodity code of your goods.  Your Chinese seller will be able to inform you what HS or Commodity code they use and from this we/you can determine with UK HMRC what the import VAT and duty levels will be.

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