Transit Time by Sea

Transit time by sea is an important part of supply chain and logistics. 

Sea freight offers a cost-effective way to transport vast quantities of goods across long distances, enabling businesses to reach new markets and consumers worldwide. 

Unlike faster transportation methods like air freight, sea shipping comes with extended delivery lead times, which significantly impacts your operations if you do not carefully consider sea freight shipping times. 

transit time by sea

What is Transit Time by Sea?

Transit time by sea refers to the total duration it takes for your cargo to travel from the origin port to port shipping transit time via ocean freight. 

This timeframe encompasses the entire journey, including loading and unloading at ports, canal passages (if applicable), and actual sailing time between destinations. 

The efficiency of port operations, potential queuing for berths, and the speed of cargo handling equipment can all influence the duration of port calls. 

Canal passages, such as those through the Panama or Suez Canals, can add significant time depending on traffic volume and wait times. 

Finally, the actual sailing time is determined by the distance between ports, the chosen routes, and the cruising speed of the vessel assigned to your shipment. 

Factors Affecting Transit Time by Sea

Several factors influence ocean transit time. 


The most significant factor is the physical distance between the origin and destination ports. Greater distances naturally translate to longer travel times. 

For example, a shipment traveling from Shanghai, China to Rotterdam, Netherlands, has many expanses of the Pacific and Indian Oceans, resulting in a longer transit time compared to a shorter haul, like between Miami, Florida, and Progreso, Mexico, within the North American region. 


The chosen shipping route plays a crucial role in determining delivery speed. Direct routes, which involve your cargo being loaded onto a single vessel that sails directly between origin and destination ports, offer the fastest transit times. 

However, these direct routes, also known as feeder services, may involve multiple stops at intermediate ports to load and unload cargo from other destinations. 

While feeder services can be more cost-effective, they add to the overall journey time. 

Choosing the optimal routes involves balancing cost considerations with your desired delivery timeframe. 

Vessel Speed 

Different types of vessels have varying cruising speeds, which can significantly impact transit time. 

Container ships, the workhorses of modern sea freight, are designed for speed and efficiency. 

They are typically the fastest option, capable of reaching speeds of over 20 knots (nautical miles per hour). Conversely, general cargo ships, which carry a wider variety of cargo types that may require special handling, tend to be slower, averaging around 12-15 knots. 

Bulk carriers, designed for transporting large quantities of loose cargo like grain or coal, are even slower due to their size and design. 

Port Congestion

Congestion at origin or destination ports can lead to delays in loading and unloading your cargo, extending the overall transit time. 

Busy ports with high volumes of incoming and outgoing traffic may experience bottlenecks, causing queues for berths. 

These days result in unpredictable and significantly disrupted planned schedules. 

Weather Conditions

Unforeseen weather events like storms or rough seas can disrupt planned sailing schedules, causing delays. 

While modern vessels are designed to navigate most weather conditions, extreme weather events may force them to reduce speed or alter course for safety reasons. 

Customs Clearance

The time taken for customs inspections and clearance procedures can vary depending on the complexity of your cargo and port regulations. 

Stricter customs regulations or complex paperwork for certain goods can lead to delays if unforeseen issues arise during inspections. 

The Three Main Sea Shipping Routes

There are three main sea shipping transit times routes.

East-West Route

This route connects major Asian manufacturing hubs like China and Japan with European and North American markets. It’s the busiest route globally, offering frequent departures but potentially longer transit times due to high traffic volume. 

North-South Route

This route connects continents across the northern and southern hemispheres. It’s less congested than the East-West route, but transit times can be longer due to the vast distances involved. 

Intra-Regional Routes

These routes connect ports within a specific geographical region, such as within Asia, Europe, or the Americas. They offer shorter transit times compared to intercontinental routes. 

How to Calculate Transit Time by Sea

In order to best calculate ocean freight transit time, there are several online resources that can provide estimates. 

These tools consider factors like distance, route, and historical data to give you a ballpark figure: 

Shipping Line Websites: Most major shipping lines offer online tools that allow you to calculate estimated transit times based on your origin and destination ports. 

Freight Forwarder Resources: Freight forwarders have access to industry data and expertise in route planning. They can provide more specific transit time estimates based on your cargo type and chosen services. 

Online Transit Time Calculators: Several online platforms offer free transit time calculators, which take into account various factors and provide estimated delivery windows. 

Different Types of Sea Transit

There are two main types of sea freight services offered by shipping lines: 

Direct Services

This service involves your cargo being loaded onto a single vessel that sails directly from the origin port to the destination port, offering the fastest transit time but may be less frequent or more expensive. 

Feeder Service

Feeder service involves your cargo being loaded onto multiple vessels during its journey. 

It may involve feeder ships transporting your cargo to a hub port before being loaded onto a larger ocean liner for the main leg of the trip.

Feeder services are generally more cost-effective but result in longer transit times due to additional steps. 

Different Types of Vessels

There are different types of vessel used for your shipment that can also impact transit time. 

Container Ships: These are the largest and fastest cargo ships, transporting standardized containers for efficient loading and unloading. They are ideal for large shipments and offer relatively fast transit times. 

General Cargo Ships: These ships carry a variety of cargo types, often loose or palletized goods, that may require special handling. They are slower than container ships but offer more flexibility for cargo that doesn’t fit into standardized containers. 

Bulk Carriers: Designed for transporting large quantities of loose cargo like coal, grain, or ore. They are the slowest type of cargo ship due to their size and focus on maximizing cargo capacity. 

Tankers: These specialized vessels transport bulk liquids like oil, chemicals, or liquefied natural gas. They are designed for safety and efficiency in handling these hazardous materials. 

Ro-Ro (Roll-on/Roll-off) Ships: These ships are designed to allow vehicles to be driven on and off the vessel by the way of ramps. They are ideal for transporting cars, trucks, and other wheeled cargo. 

Reefer Ships: These temperature-controlled vessels are used for transporting perishable goods like fruits, vegetables, and pharmaceuticals. They maintain specific temperature environments throughout the journey to ensure cargo arrives fresh.