What is international shipping?

International shipping is a means of transport used for conveying goods (mostly) using sea routes rather than roads (road transport) or air channels (air transport). As, in most cases, its goal is to link two countries separated by a sea or ocean, shipping is by definition international. For several years now, international shipping has primed itself as being the leading means of transporting goods worldwide.

Globalization and the boom in trade between countries have widely bolstered the success of sea freight. The main stakeholders in international shipping were able to develop an economical and ever-growing transport offer. Although the very first container carrier models from the 1960s could carry up to 1,700 TEU (Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit), the last generation of container carriers can load up to 20,000 containers.

Responsible for 3% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, international shipping is currently undergoing a major transformation. Having taken part in the race to gigantism, international shipping stakeholders launched into a race for innovation - aiming to combine their sea transport activity with sustainable development goals. In concrete terms, they endeavored to make this activity less polluting hence its constant development over the years.

Specificities of international shipping

International shipping is appealing to companies wishing to export goods, thanks to:

  • Transport costs, which are considerably lower than air transport for instance;

  • Transport capacity (between 5,000 and 10,000 TEU for most container carriers sailing today);

  • The regularity of maritime activity;

  • Easy handling.

It should be noted that two main offers can be distinguished in the field of international shipping:

  • Tramping (or demand responsive transport): the sender requires for a vessel to be made available for transporting their goods from a point A to a point B;

  • Liner maritime transportation: just like a foot passenger would catch the bus on land to get from A to B, the sender commits their goods to a vessel with a set itinerary and regular ports of call.

Examples and practical applications

It takes about 22 days for a merchant ship to cross from Europe to China, loaded with 15,000 containers. It should be noted that in Europe, the port of Rotterdam is a key destination for international shipping (it ranks in the top 10 of all ports worldwide for international trade).

The routes linking the South China Sea to the United States, and Europe to Central America, are two of the most used international maritime routes.

Companies specialized in international shipping rely on a fleet of ships well-adapted to the transport of various goods, thanks to their versatile cargo holds, container carriers, bulk carriers, oil tankers or chemical carriers.

International shipping in figures

  • Sea freight alone represents 90% of all merchandise trading worldwide.

  • Over 50,000 merchant ships sail across the planet, 40% of which are oil tankers.

  • Over 60% of the world’s fleet dedicated to international shipping sails under a flag of convenience (free choice of the registration country).

  • International shipping employs over 1.3 million seamen throughout the world.

(Source: https://info.arte.tv/fr/le-commerce-maritime-mondial-infographies




Regulatory cornerstones

  • Brussels Convention dated 25 August 1924

  • Hamburg Rules dated 31 March 1978