FCL versus LCL: Which container shipping option is right for you?

What do FCL and LCL mean?

FCL and LCL are the two main methods for shipping containers. FCL stands for “full container load” and LCL stands for “less than container load.” LCL is sometimes also referred to as “groupage” or “consolidation.”

As these names suggest:

  • FCL means the container is loaded only with your goods.
  • With LCL, your cargo is smaller than a full container load, so the remaining space in the container will be filled with other importers or exporters’ merchandise.

How big is a shipping container?

FCL and LCL both refer to the amount of space you need for shipping your merchandise. When deciding between a full container or a less-than-full container, you’ll also want to keep in mind how much space a standard container offers.

Here are the general volumes for the main container types:

Here are the maximum weights allowed for cargos in shipping containers:

What is the difference between FCL and LCL?

The main difference between FCL and LCL is whether you have a full container to yourself (FCL) or share a container with other importers (LCL). 

However, beside this fundamental difference, there are other differences between the two methods that you should consider. This helps you decide as an importer which method is best for your sea-freight needs.

Here are the key differences:

Volume

  • LCL can be used for shipments as small as 1 cubic meter (CBM) and is generally used for shipments under 15 CBM in volume.
  • FCL is recommended for shipments that are 15 CBM in volume or more.

Weight

  • For LCL, the maximum weight per CBM is 10 ton (or 10,000 kg). If your cargo exceeds the allowed weight per CBM, you will be charged more for the additional weight.
  • For FCL, your cargo must not exceed the maximum allowed weight for the type of container you are using. If it does, you must ship the excess weight in an additional container.

Speed of delivery

  • In terms of total transit time, LCL is around 4 days slower than FCL on average. This is because it takes more time to consolidate and deconsolidate the shipments. Plus, if one item in an LCL container is held up in customs, the entire container will be held too.
  • FCL is faster than LCL. Your FCL container is immediately ready for pickup once it arrives and does not have to be deconsolidated, but you will need to pick up and return your container before detention and demurrage fees start to accrue.

Freight costs

  • LCL is cheaper than FCL, but can be more expensive with larger loads. Local fees are often higher for LCL. If your cargo is around 2 CBM above or below the 15-CBM threshold, check the price of FCL, as it may be more economical.
  • FCL is often cheaper for larger loads (15 CBM and above). With FCL, you pay a fixed price per container rather than a price based on your cargo’s volume and weight. 

Security

  • LCL is considered riskier than FCL, because you’re sharing a container with other importers’ and exporters' cargo, and there is a lot more third-party handling involved (with consolidation and deconsolidation), which means more risk of damage and theft.
  • FCL is safer, because your containers travel on direct routes with a single shipper and do not have to undergo consolidation and deconsolidation.

Tracking

  • Tracking your shipment is not as precise for LCL. You can use your freight bill to track the container until it arrives at port. After that, it might become more difficult to track, because the container may be handled by a third party. Your forwarder can still help you keep informed.
  • Tracking with FCL is more transparent, because your container will be handled by a single consignee.

Customs

  • Both LCL and FCL shipments are subject to the same customs rules. The chance of a customs inspection is just as likely for an LCL shipment as it is for an FCL shipment.
  • With LCL shipments, there is a risk that your cargo could get stuck in customs at no fault of your own. This happens when another importer’s or exporters' cargo in your shared container gets stuck in customs for any reason. 

Peak-period availability

  • During periods right before a major Chinese holiday (Chinese New Year, Golden Week), it may be easier to find space in an LCL shipment. This is because shippers from China try to maximize container space by consolidating more shipments during peak periods.
  • FCLs may be harder to book during peak periods and Chinese holiday periods.

Delivery appointments

  • If you need a delivery appointment to ship to your final destination, then LCL makes that easier. With LCL, you have a longer window period for shipping your goods from the deconsolidation center to their final location (usually 5 to 7 days), which means you can generally secure a delivery appointment before you start having to pay storage fees.
  • With FCL, you’re in more of a rush to get your container to the final destination because you also have to get the empty container back to port before you start incurring fees. This makes it more challenging if you have to plan a delivery appointment.

Splitting shipments

  • It’s easier to split shipments to multiple final destinations using LCL. During deconsolidation, the cargo can be split up and shipped on to multiple destinations.
  • With FCL, splitting shipments is significantly more difficult.

What are the pros and cons of FCL?

There are advantages and disadvantages to both FCL and LCL. Let’s start with the pros and cons of FCL:

Pros

  • Faster delivery
  • Better trackability
  • More security/less risk
  • Ideal for large shipments

Cons

  • Not ideal for small shipments unless your margins are high enough to bear the costs

What are the pros and cons of LCL?

Pros

  • Ideal for smaller shipments
  • Enables importers to keep less merchandise in inventory (lower inventory risk)
  • Easier to split shipments to multiple destinations

Cons

  • Slower delivery (due to additional handling time)
  • Slightly higher risk of customs delays
  • Not ideal for large shipments
  • Less trackability
  • Higher risk of damage and theft

Which is faster: FCL or LCL?

Purely in terms of transit, FCL is faster than LCL. 

This is because LCL involves additional handling before, during and after shipping, as the cargo is consolidated and deconsolidated. LCL shipments are reconsolidated (unloaded and reloaded) at transfer hubs during transit as well.

However, if you need more flexibility when delivering to your final destination, then LCL is often the better choice.

With LCL, your merchandise is unloaded from the container and palletized at a deconsolidation center, where it is held for a certain number of free days (usually 5 to 7) before it starts to incur fees. This gives you time to arrange a delivery appointment and truck your palletized cargo to the final destination, without having to worry about returning an empty container on time.

In contrast, with FCL, you have to hurry to get your full container to the final destination and then return it empty to the port before fees start to occur (usually within 8 days).

Should I choose FCL or LCL?

When thinking about FCL and LCL, it’s important to remember that neither one is always better than the other. Many factors need to be considered, as the comparisons above show. 

As a rule, FCL is often considered faster and more secure, but LCL is considered more flexible and more convenient.

For small importers, LCL is a solid choice. For larger importers, FCL can save money, but may not offer the flexibility you need, particularly if your business relies on Amazon FBA.

When planning your shipments, be sure to check with your freight forwarder about the pros and cons of each option.

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