Freight Forwarding: Import and export internationally


Importing and exporting goods is a complex process - but can be the key to growing your business. This article explores how to benefit from international sourcing, without getting bogged down in the logistics, with the help of a freight forwarder.

What is a freight forwarder?

A freight forwarder is a company or individual acting as an intermediary to help arrange the shipment of goods from a supplier to their end destination.

Freight forwarders typically work with a broad network of importers and exporters, and provide access to air freight and sea freight for companies, including small businesses involved in international trade.

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What is freight forwarding?

Freight forwarding is the process of organising delivery of imported goods, from their source location - maybe a factory based overseas - to their final destination, such as a warehouse or retail store here in the UK.

Freight forwarders generally work on behalf of the importer, and can provide a wide range of supply chain and freight services, including helping to deal with export control in the country the goods originate from, and all of the customs forms and processes needed to get the products safely into the destination country.

Freight transportation options

If you want to start importing products into the UK, you’ll have a few different freight transportation options:

  • Air freight
  • Ocean freight
  • Overland transport including lorries and trains

Each option has a range of benefits and drawbacks, so you’ll need to consider the cost, speed and convenience to help you decide which works best. In many cases, the journey of goods from their original source to the UK will take in two or more of these transportation types.

Why use a freight forwarder?

You don’t have to use a freight forwarder when you import goods into the UK. However, a good freight forwarder can make the process of export and import much easier as they have the skills, experience and knowledge needed to manage the complex logistics and legal requirements of international shipments.

Here are some advantages to consider:

  • Freight forwarders have good connections with international freight companies, and can get good deals on the costs of moving products internationally
  • Using a freight forwarder means you don’t need to worry about learning about customs processes, and the legalities of exporting and importing goods
  • Freight forwarders offer consolidated loads - this means that you can buy a small amount of space in a shipment instead of needing to fill a shipping container yourself. For small businesses and new importers, this is very helpful
  • If you use a freight forwarder you have just one point of contact for all of the different stages involved in importing your products - this makes life easier, and saves you considerable time compared with managing subcontractors yourself

Costs to consider

Working out the costs of international shipping can be tricky. There are many different variables, so knowing a bit about what influences the final cost can help you understand the quote your freight forwarder provides to you.

Here are some of the costs you’re likely to have to pay¹:

Factor influencing cost How it’s calculated
Type of product being transported Products which are extremely large, need specific customs clearance or checks, or are perishable or hazardous will incur higher transport costs
Weight and volume Space in cargo ships, lorries and planes is sold by volume and weight. You’ll usually be able to buy a full container, or send your goods as part of a consolidated load, sharing a contained with other shipments
Distance and means of transport The type of transport used, the distance travelled, and how popular the route is will all impact the costs. Air freight is the most expensive typically, with ocean freight the cheapest. More popular routes are more likely to offer good value due to increased competition
Export and import documentation and fees When exporting your goods from their source location there are protocols to follow, which may include fees - and will certainly involve plenty of paperwork. The same process is repeated when importing into the UK - expect to require a large volume of documentation, and a range of fees based on the type of products
Customs duty and VAT Depending on what you’re importing and where it’s coming from, you may need to pay duty and tax. Typically duty is paid only on goods arriving from outside the EU, with 20% VAT being paid on most products imported from the EU and worldwide. Use our import duty calculator to calculate the expected duty that might accure when bringing goods into the UK.
Insurance This depends on your choice of cover, and the type of shipment you’re arranging. Although all carriers have basic cover, additional insurance may be presented as an option for you to choose, or simply rolled automatically into the quote the freight forwarder creates
Admin fees The freight forwarder will take their own fee, based on the range of services they provide you with
Other costs It pays to expect the unexpected - you may also run into additional fees such as fumigation charges or currency adjustment fees

Best freight forwarders UK

Researching to find the right freight forwarding service is crucial.

The best freight forwarder for you will depend a lot on what you’re shipping, and where it’s coming from. A smart way to find options is to use a freight cost comparison service like Freightos. You can sign up to receive quotes, and compare a broad range of services based on the specific load you need to ship.²

You’ll also be able to check that any providers you’re interested in are trustworthy by finding reviews and client feedback online, or searching for them on the website of the British International Freight Association - the professional body representing international freight providers in the UK.³

ZenCargo: Consider going digital

There is an increasing focus on digitizing the freight industry to improve visibility and efficiency for forwarders, shippers, and carriers, and ultimately customers.

If you’re still undecided about how to get set up for global imports, you might want to check out ZenCargo. This digital freight forwarder allows you to get quotes in seconds for the transportation type and route you need, manages all your import paperwork, and lets you track all of your goods in real time, through a simple dashboard view.

You’ll also benefit from first class customer service to walk you through the process, making it simple to set up a shipment, whether it’s your first time importing to the UK, or you’re already an old hand.⁴

Whoever you decide to use, keep in mind that digitisation can significantly improve customer satisfaction and profitability.

Importing goods involves a complex process covering multiple services, suppliers, and legal requirements. If you’re just starting out it can be daunting - and even if you know the ropes, it can still eat into valuable time you could better spend growing your business. That’s where a freight forwarder comes in, allowing you to stop worrying about your international shipment, and concentrate on your customers instead.

Don’t forget to shop around when finding the right freight forwarder for you, and also look for other smart ways to reduce your import costs, such as paying international invoices using Wise Business, for great currency exchange rates and low fees.


1. Calculating Costs and Fees
2. Freightos
3. British International Freight Association
4. ZenCargo

Sources checked on 10-June 2019

*Please see terms of use and product availability for your region or visit Wise fees and pricing for the most up to date pricing and fee information.

This publication is provided for general information purposes and does not constitute legal, tax or other professional advice from Wise Payments Limited or its subsidiaries and its affiliates, and it is not intended as a substitute for obtaining advice from a financial advisor or any other professional.

We make no representations, warranties or guarantees, whether expressed or implied, that the content in the publication is accurate, complete or up to date.

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