FCL vs LCL container shipping: how to choose

Alibaba.com DECEMBER 01, 20207 MIN READ
FCL vs LCL container shipping: how to choose

If you are considering shipping goods of any quantity by ocean freight, you’ll soon find yourself wondering which makes the most sense between LCL (Less Than Container Load) and FCL (Full Container Load) shipping. Subject to several factors such as the size and volume of your shipment, or how quickly you need it, either option may suit you just fine.

But there’s a lot to think about and understand before making your decision. If you’re trying to decide which container shipping option to go with, take a look at this guide to learn all you need to know.

We’ll explain all about FCL and LCL shipping, what they cost, how long they take, and the solutions Alibaba.com Freight provides to make things easy for you.

What are LCL and FCL?

LCL and FCL are the two major shipping options available when shipping goods across the sea by containers. LCL means less than container load, while FCL means full container load.

As their names imply, FCL involves shipping your goods in a full container. With this option, you pay for the entire container so only your goods occupy the whole space. This option is usually selected by shippers that have a large volume of goods, enough to fill a 20 or 40-foot container. But many also opt for FCL when their goods are near enough to fill the container that the difference does not matter. The tipping point for this is usually around 10 cubic meters (CBM).

LCL involves sharing container space with shipments belonging to other people. While FCL lets you control an entire container, LCL consolidates your shipment with those of others. Shipping less than a container load is an option often explored by people shipping smaller volumes or looking for flexible delivery options. LCL is typically considered for shipments that weigh between 1 to 10 CBM.

Differences between LCL and FCL

Since they have very different spacing implications for your shipment, LCL and FCL have many fundamental differences. The primary difference between the two is that with LCL, you’re usually sharing space with other people’s shipments, compared to FCL. Here are other differences to keep in mind:


With FCL, you must pay the price of a full container, whether your shipment fills the container or not. There is no rule for how large your shipment must be before you can use FCL. Although, LCL may tend to cost more because you are charged per CBM for your shipment. CBM essentially measures how much space your shipment needs to take. So, if you are shipping goods that cannot have anything stacked on them, or that take up a lot of space, you will have to pay for all of the space other shipments cannot use because of your goods.


LCL is ideal for shipment loads as little as 1 CBM, or at least less than 10 CBM. If you are shipping less than 1 CBM (and your shipment weighs less than 200 kilograms), it may be more cost-effective to consider air freight instead. But if you are shipping more than 10 CBM, the price difference between a full container load and LCL may be close enough not to matter.


LCL takes marginally more time to arrive than FCL shipments. This is because additional days will be needed to consolidate your goods with that of other shippers. This includes the time needed to sort, load, unload, and separate the goods at each port. The shipment must also await other goods that are traveling to the same destination before it can depart the port. FCL, in comparison, takes a much shorter time, since the entire shipment is being delivered directly to you.


FCL is more secure than LCL. There is a lower risk of damage, theft, or loss since it experiences far less handling than goods shipped via LCL.


LCL is quite flexible, compared to FCL. If you are delivering to multiple Amazon FBA facilities or multiple 3PLs, for instance, or need to split your deliveries across destinations, LCL is ideal. But if you need to do this via FCL, you must factor in extra costs of warehousing, unloading, sorting, and trucking to the delivery address.


During rush periods, such as the lead up to Chinese holidays, it can be harder to get FCL shipments. At this time, LCL may provide a better and even faster option since you don’t have to wait for a full container to become available.

LCL v FCL: Pros and Cons

The biggest advantage that FCL enjoys over LCL is the relative security your goods enjoy, compared to LCL. If you are shipping fragile goods or goods that must remain undisturbed during the voyage, FCL is a better option.

In addition, FCL is faster than LCL. The fact that your shipment travels alone means you do not have to account for consolidation and de-consolidation time. Besides, traveling with other shipments may potentially expose your shipment to problems with customs. If they decide to examine any of the goods being shipped in the same container with your shipment, the entire container will be delayed.

Despite this, LCL may be a better option overall for startups and small businesses. It provides a flexible pricing arrangement where you can fit your shipping needs to your budget. This is especially beneficial if the shipments are low-volume.

Overall, it can be hard to tell which shipping option is much better than the other. In truth, they represent very different shipping options that are suited to completely different circumstances. And in the right circumstances, they can even present complementary solutions to shipping problems.

For instance, if your goods take up more space than a full container, you can consider FCL shipment for the bulk of the goods, and LCL for the spillover goods. This saves you the cost of having to rent a much bigger container or another similar-sized container.

How to choose between LCL and FCL in ocean freight?

Choosing between LCL and FCL ultimately comes down to four things: volume, cost, security, and urgency. If your shipment is larger than 10 CBM, it pays to consider if FCL is a better option. But for low volume shipments, your best option will likely be LCL.

Where the volume is close enough that things seem confusing, your next thought should be to consider the cost. FCL makes a lot of sense for shipments that are larger than 10 CBM. This is because you pay a flat fee for a full container. So, considering that LCL costs can rise very quickly the more space your goods take, FCL may turn out cheaper. But if your shipment is much lower than 10 CBM, FCL will likely be more expensive.

If security and protection from mishandling is a big consideration for you, FCL represents a better option. This is also the case if you don’t have flexible delivery dates, and want the goods to be delivered as soon as possible.

Try Alibaba.com Freight for seamless shipping

With all the ambiguities, shipping goods overseas and dealing with the complexities in international freight shipping can feel confusing and daunting for small businesses. According to a recently released Visa Global Merchant eCommerce Study1, the biggest barrier that keeps small businesses from breaking into the global markets was shipping and logistics issues (42%).

But if you're serious about growing your small business, expanding into international markets (whether sourcing from or selling to) is a must. CEOs surveyed in the Visa study say the advantages of doing business globally are: "improved brand reputation (44%), expansion of product or service lines (43%), increased market share (42%), and increased competitive advantage (40%)."

That’s why we’ve introduced our newest supply chain and logistics solution: Alibaba.com Freight, to remove the barriers entering international markets. Alibaba.com Freight is powered by a digital freight marketplace Freightos to offer a fully digitized experience, transparent pricing and competitive quotes. Customers using the new Alibaba.com Freight now instantly compare quotes, view different air freight and ocean freight shipment options, and manage and track shipments seamlessly all in one place.

Ready to start expanding globally and improving the odds of your B2B business succeeding? Speak to an Alibaba.com expert now!