If the complicated world of international shipping has your head in a spin, employing a freight forwarder can be a lifesaver. A forwarding agent will take on all the logistics of your shipment, from the paperwork to the transportation route, taking the headache out of your move – and leaving you free to concentrate on much more interesting things!

What is a freight forwarder?

A freight forwarder is not a shipping company in itself. Instead, it acts as a go-between or agent, acting on your behalf to liaise with shipping companies. Freight forwarders build relationships with a diverse range of shipping companies covering air, road, rail and sea. They then charge customers to utilise their shipping network and expertise.

Freight forwarders offer a shipping service tailored to your needs. They can work out the best route and methods of transport for your budget and timeframes, as well as handling all of the documentation for you.

Freight forwarding services include:

  • Handling customs documents
  • Preparing cargo manifests
  • Sourcing and booking shipping
  • Making on-land pick-up and delivery arrangements
  • Dealing with ICC rules on cargo liability and obligation
  • Putting cargo insurance in place
  • Paying freight charges and import/export duties
  • Finding storage solutions

What is a NVOCC?

A non-vessel common carrier (NVOCC) carries out a similar role to a freight forwarder. The main difference is the fact that they focus almost exclusively on international ocean shipping. Unlike many freight forwarders, they also take on the full responsibility of your cargo and may own their own containers. NVOCCs need a license to operate in some countries.

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Freight forwarder transport methods

Freight forwarders usually have an extensive network of transport providers to give you a range of shipping options. Methods of transport include ships, planes, trains and trucks – each with their own benefits and disadvantages. Relocation logistics will sometimes entail using a variety of transport methods to get your cargo to your destination.

For long-distance international moves, shipping by sea is by far the most popular choice. While one of the cheapest options, it is also one of the slowest and will usually require additional on-land transportation arrangements to get your cargo to and from the ports.

Shipping cargo by air is considerably more expensive, but a good option when time is a major factor. This could be when a particular item is perishable, for example. Shipping the contents of an entire household by air would be prohibitively expensive.

For international moves within the same continent, travelling overground by road or rail are both good options. Rail freight is often the cheaper of the two options but is only a viable option in countries with a good rail network. Travelling by road is pricier than shipping via sea or rail but eliminates the need for multiple transport options, reducing the chances of damage to your belongings. It is also one of the fastest methods of transport.

How much does a freight forwarder cost?

As with all services, the cost of employing a freight forwarder will vary according to the company.

It’s best to get a few different, itemised quotes so that you can compare prices. You should expect your quote to include amounts for:


  • Freight and shipping. This is the basic cost of transporting your belongings from one location to another. The price will vary according to the distance, the method of transport used and the amount of cargo you need to ship.


  • Admin fees. These will cover the cost of handling your shipping documentation.


  • Cargo or port charges. This refers to the costs of loading and unloading your cargo at the port, airport, train station etc.


  • Handling costs. This fee may be charged in addition to your port/cargo charges. It covers any other loading and unloading needed – from the port to a removal truck, for example. Prices will vary according to the weight and volume of your cargo.


  • Custom charges. It can be a complex business figuring out if you are liable for import/export charges on your cargo. Your freight forwarder can work this out for you and arrange payment on your behalf.


  • Insurance fees. It’s vital that you have comprehensive door-to-door insurance to protect your belongings during their entire journey. A freight forwarder can help arrange this for you. Shipping insurance can cover everything from accidental damage to piracy. Find out more in our guide to removals insurance

How can I find a reliable freight forwarder?

There are a few things you should check out before choosing a freight forwarder. Firstly, are they accredited? Reputable firms will usually belong to at least one trade association. Look out for membership to bodies like the International Federation of Freight Forwarders (FIATA), who enforce minimum standards in the industry.

Secondly, do they communicate well? You should expect friendly and timely service, as well as clear explanations of costs, logistics and transportation plans. You’re entrusting them with some pretty important goods after all!

Last of all, it’s worth checking if they have offices or agents in your destination country as well as your home country. If there are any issues at your destination port, it’s good to know that someone with local expertise will be on hand to help resolve things.