Shipping 101
What is FCL/ Full Container Load Shipping?

What is FCL/ Full Container Load Shipping?

FCL shipping stands for “full container load”, and is a method of ocean freight where importers rent an entire container to ship their goods.

8 mins, 11 April 2022
What is FCL (Full Container Load) Shipping

Are you an importer looking to understand the different freight options available to ship your goods?

FCL shipping stands for “full container load”, and is a method of ocean freight where importers rent an entire container to ship their goods.

Read on to gain all the information you need to make an educated decision about whether FCL makes sense for your next shipment.

What is FCL?

FCL, or full than container load, is an international transportation channel where the importer places their shipment in a dedicated container with only their goods.

For companies that import more than 15 cubic meters of goods in a  shipment, FCL can be a cheaper alternative to booking a shared container (known as LCL or “less than container load”).

At these shipment sizes, it is generally impractical to ship goods by air without splitting the shipment apart into multiple smaller shipments first.

The most common container sizes are 20 and 40 feet (20 and 40 feet is the length).

There are also containers known as 20 and 40 HQ. These are “High Cube” containers, and are about a foot taller than the standard 20 and 40 foot containers.

• 20 GP — General Purpose, 20ft in length

• 20 HQ — High Cube, 20ft in length, and 1 ft taller in height than 20GP

• 40 GP — General Purpose, 40ft in length

• 40 HQ — High Cube, 40ft in length, 1 ft taller in height than 40GP

  20 GP
(General Purpose)
20 HQ
(High Cube)
40 GP
(General Purpose)
40 HQ
(High Cube)
Inner Length 19 ft 4
19 ft 4
39 ft 6
39 ft 6
Inner Width 7 ft 8
7 ft 8
7 ft 8
7 ft 8
Inner Height 7 ft 10
8 ft 10
7 ft 10
8 ft 10
Maximum Payload (Kg)* 21,720 kg 26,530 kg 26,650 kg 28,160 kg
Capacity (in Cubic Meters) 33 CBM 37.3 CBM 67 CBM 76 CBM

*Maximum Payload is the maximum weight a container can hold. This limit should not be exceeded.

How to calculate FCL shipment costs

How to calculate FCL shipment costs

Compared to LCL or air freight, FCL pricing is much more straightforward - you’re paying a flat fee for the container itself based on where it starts and where it’s going, and then based on the incoterms, you as the importer of the goods may be responsible for additional fees.

1. Origin and destination port

Like any flight you would book, the majority of the pricing comes from the international portion of the shipment.

The benefit of FCL compared to other international transportation channels is that this is a flat fee based only on the size of the container. The more you can fit into it, the higher the savings compared to other international shipping channels.

Contact us for the most up-to-date container prices.

2. Type of Incoterm used

Incoterms are the contractual terms between the seller of the items being imported and the buyer.

The different incoterms place financial responsibility for the shipment at different stages of the shipping process. We’ve written more details about them HERE, but the most relevant ones are DDU and DDP.

Both of these refer to a door-to-door service - the shipping cost will cover pickup from the factory to last-mile delivery to the warehouse.

  • With DDU, you as the buyer need to cover tax and duties
  • With DDP, the price you pay for shipping will cover tax and duties.

This can be the difference between thousands of dollars of dollars of fees!

Incoterms will also dictate where in the transaction you as the importer will have to handle your shipment’s transportation yourself.

For example, if you choose DAP (Delivered at place), you’ll be responsible for hiring someone to unload the goods from the container, but if you choose DPU (Delivered at place unloaded), the goods’ seller will handle that.

Always make sure to compare apples-to-apples when looking at freight quotes so you don’t get hit with unexpected fees!

Advantages and disadvantages of FCL

Advantages and disadvantages of FCL

When coming up with a comprehensive shipping plan, it’s important to understand when FCL makes sense over air freight or LCL ocean freight. Depending on what your business needs are, it’s a tradeoff of product safety, transit time, and of course cost.

FCL vs Airfreight

1. Price by weight and volume

There is no competition here at all - if you can fill a 20 or 40 foot container, your per-kg price will be on the order of 10x cheaper than air freight.

2. Transit time

There are multiple FCL ocean freight channels available with different transit times.

This is still significantly slower than air freight - the slowest air freight channels take 20 days for door to door delivery on the high end, and as low as 6 days delivery with express courier.

3. Product safety (Security, tracking etc)

Catastrophic shipping issues are quite rare, but FCL ocean freight can be considered less secure overall than air freight due to the nature of air vs ocean travel.

Transportation by boat is inherently more unstable - products shift around more and there is a nonzero chance of losing containers overboard.

In contrast, these issues don’t exist when shipping by air. While these are pretty extreme examples, it’s important to keep in mind what can go wrong and plan accordingly with adequate insurance coverage.

4. Product Type (Perishables, dense goods, restricted goods etc)

Compared to air freight, FCL ocean freight is less restrictive for product types - products containing lithium batteries, liquids, powders, cosmetics, etc are all easier to ship using ocean freight than air freight.

Generally, air freight is utilized for lighter, higher valued goods, and ocean freight is ideal for heavier goods that can sustain a small amount of damage during transit (if any at all).

5. Convenience

From an overhead perspective, when working with a freight forwarder, choosing air freight vs ocean freight is interchangeable.

Ocean freight, however, is sensitive to port congestion causing transit time volatility. This was seen in the Port of Los Angeles in the summer of 2021.

6. Paperwork/Regulations

The FCL shipping documents are the Commercial Invoice and Packing list.

This is needed whether you ship ocean LCL or air freight. After that, depending on the type of goods being shipped, there may be additional documentation.

See our shipping documents library here.

What is FCL


1. Set price regardless of cargo weight

Because FCL is a flat fee for the entire container, the more goods that can fit into it the better the savings are.

For companies with significant shipping volume (> 15 cubic meters), this option yields substantial savings over LCL.

2. Product safety

Using FCL gives the importer total control over the space that their goods are in.

This means other companies’ goods won’t cause issues for the importer, be it from leaking liquids or being crushed by larger packages.

3. Convenience (Less paperwork for FCL, harder for FCL to find space during peak season)

Because the exact size of the shipment is irrelevant for an FCL shipment so long as the goods all fit, the exact size is not relevant for pricing.

Additionally, because all the shipments belong to the same importer, there are not multiple sets of documents to deal with.

And during peak season (the time before the winter holidays when more companies are trying to push through their final shipments for the year), getting space in a shared container is an easier task than getting an entire dedicated container.

4. Transit lead times (FCL does not require consolidation, hence lower transit times)

LCL requires consolidation and de-consolidation - putting together shipments from multiple companies into one container, and then separating them before delivering them to their final destination.

FCL, while being shipped in the same boat as LCL containers, will arrive faster due to the overhead of multiple shipments in one container.

5. Shipping delays (Customs detains the whole container for LCL, hence FCL reduces the risk of delays)

Besides the general overhead of combining and separating shipments, if any one shipment in a consolidated container is held by customs, all shipments are held.

This is because the container is only separated once it passes customs (for ALL its goods) and makes its way to the freight forwarder’s warehouse for de-consolidation.

With more companies’ goods packed into one LCL container, the overall risk that one company is stopped for customs and holds back the entire container is much greater than when only one type of company’s goods are shipped.

The process of shipping FCL

The process of shipping FCL

Step 1. Booking a spot via a freight forwarding company

Your freight forwarder should have options for multiple FCL container sizes. If your shipment is borderline in size for FCL or LCL, make sure to understand the pricing differential before moving forward.

You’ll also need to understand which incoterms are used with the shipping quote in order to understand exactly what you are paying for and what additional fees you’ll be responsible for.

Step 2. Submitting of necessary documents

• Bill of lading

This will be provided to you by the freight forwarder once possession of your goods have been turned over for delivery. Think of it as a receipt that your goods have been picked up.

• Commercial invoice

This document is going to be provided to the freight forwarder by you (through your factory/manufacturer), and has the declared value of all goods you are importing.

Based on these values, tax and duties will be assessed.

• Packing list

This document is going to be provided to the freight forwarder by you (through your factory/manufacturer), and has the dimensions and weight of all the cartons you are shipping, unlike the commercial invoice which is the declared value.

Other product and document specific documents

Depending on the type of goods you are shipping, there may be additional requirements. We’ve written specific guides here:

• Cosmetics

• Furniture

• Tea

• Battery products

Step 3. Loading goods into the container

With LCL, the goods are picked up from the factory, brought to the freight forwarder’s warehouse, and consolidated into a container there.

Using FCL, the goods will be loaded into the container directly at the factory site.

Step 4. Transfer of cargo container from truck to the terminal, then to the cargo ship

Once the container is loaded and closed up, the truck will take it directly to the port of origin, going through customs before dropping it off directly at the port.

It is then the responsibility of the port itself to load the container onto the boat.

Step 5. Ocean transit

Depending on whether a fast boat (no stops on the way to the final port) or slow boat (multiple stops on the way to the final port) channel was used, expect the ship to be in the water anywhere from 10-30 days before arriving at the final port.

Step 6. Destination warehouse (Only if using a freight forwarding company)

After the container goes through import customs, the freight forwarder will arrange to deliver it to their warehouse for processing. At this point, the container is trucked directly to the destination address.

If a freight forwarding company is not used, trucking can be arranged directly from the port of destination to the destination address. We strongly recommend against this unless you are an extremely experienced shipper!

If there are delays in this process and the container has to sit in the port for several days, demurrage charges will substantially increase the shipping cost. Using a service provider like Bookairfreight will save you from these unexpected fees.

Step 7. Final delivery

The truck will deliver the unopened container to the destination address, where it will finally be opened and the goods unloaded before delivering the container back to the port.

Again, when done without a freight forwarder, you as the shipper are responsible for arranging transportation for the container back to the port after unloading! Failure to do so in a timely manner will result in substantial detention charges.

Feel free to contact us to learn more about how you can avoid these fees.

FCL full container load FAQ


What does FCL mean in shipping?

FCL stands for “full container load”, and is a way of shipping goods by ocean in a dedicated container with only one company’s goods inside.

How much does FCL shipping cost?

FCL shipping is priced on a per-container basis. Depending on the time of the year and what other global factors are occurring (COVID, war, etc), the pricing can change dramatically.

How to calculate FCL shipment price?

FCL shipping price is calculated based on the current market price of a container of the selected size. The size of the shipment is not a factor for the price.

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Daisy Jiang

Proud Co-Founder and CEO of Bookairfreight. Shortly after starting to work in the world of logistics, I was astonished at how difficult and time consuming it was for businesses to get their hands on a simple air freight quote. I saw this as an opportunity to really make a difference in people’s lives, and felt like I had to do something. It was the spark that lit the fire of Bookairfreight’s creation.

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