Export modes of transport 


Transport and distribution are key considerations when planning for international trade. Choosing the right mode of transport is essential to ensure your import or export operation is efficient and cost-effective.

There are four ways of importing and exporting - road, rail, air and sea - although you may need to use more than one type of transport. When making your choices, you will also need to decide whether to handle logistics by yourself, or outsource the work to a freight forwarder.

This guide examines each mode of transport and provides an overview of the issues you must address. It covers how to deal with customs, identifies which regulations must be complied with and explains how to manage a freight forwarder.

This guide explains the basics of international trade and distribution. For more detailed information see the guide on moving your goods.

Assessing your transport needs for international trade

Your choices for international transport and distribution include road, rail, air and sea.

Various factors will influence your decision on which type of transport to use - including your business’ requirements, the destination country, and the type of goods you are importing or exporting.

Ask yourself the following questions:

Consider all the methods of transport available. You should aim to balance service quality, cost, organisation and time. You will often use more than one mode of transport.

How your type of goods may influence your decision

Match the transport mode with the goods you’re moving. For example, if you import fresh fruit or other perishable items, speed is important. Transport by ship or road may not be quick enough. 

Another issue is whether or not your goods need to be kept refrigerated during transport.

If you are transporting animals, you must follow specific rules and regulations. Find out about transporting animals on the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs () website and see the guide on customs clearance for animals and animal products.

Other regulations or special requirements may also influence your transport choice. For instance, if the goods you are transporting are classified as dangerous, you must comply with special rules. Find guidance on transporting dangerous goods on the Health & Safety Executive () website. Also see the guide on moving dangerous goods.

You can also find details on certification of packaging and intermediate bulk containers for transporting dangerous goods on the Vehicle Certification Agency website.

You could use a freight forwarder to manage logistical issues for you. See the guide on choosing and managing a freight forwarder and see the guide on using brokers and forwarders.

Using road transport for international trade

Road transport can be the most flexible option for your international business, especially within the EU. The motorway network is good and crossing national borders is usually quick and efficient.

Other advantages:

But there are also risks for road transport:

You can either use your own vehicles, or a carrier. If you operate your own vehicles, you will need to consider licences, fuel costs, regulations, driver training and tax.

Different types of carrier, include:

Consider your requirements carefully before making your choice. For more information, see the guide on moving goods by road.

Goods-in-transit insurance can protect you if goods are lost or damaged when transported. Road haulage falls under the Convention des Marchandises Routiers (CMR) which sets out conditions for transporting goods by road. This gives basic cover, but it’s advisable to take out extra insurance. See the guides on insurance for international trade and transport insurance.

The international transport of dangerous goods by road is subject to international legislation, in particular the European Agreement on the International Carriage of Dangerous Goods by Road (). Drivers of vehicles carrying dangerous goods must hold an training certificate in handling dangerous goods. All commercial vehicles that carry dangerous goods must pass the test, with some also having to be built to special standards. You can find information about inspections, test and the required documentation on the Department for Transport (DFT) website.

The following classes of goods are defined as dangerous:

You can find guidance, legislation and other resources on the carriage of dangerous goods by road on the Department for Transport () website.

View the Carriage of Dangerous Goods manual on the website. Also, see the guide on moving dangerous goods.

Using sea transport for international trade

If your business needs to transport large quantities but there is no pressure to deliver quickly, shipping by sea may be suitable.

Other advantages include:

However, there are also risks for sea transport:

Protect your consignments with insurance. Under the maritime transport conventions you automatically have limited insurance cover under the Hague-Visby and Hamburg rules. However, it’s advisable to get additional insurance, such as general cargo insurance. See the guides on transport insurance and insurance for international trade.


All your consignments must be accompanied by either a Bill of Lading or Sea Waybill. These documents clearly set out who the consignment owner is and the terms of the contract of carriage.

When exporting to a new customer, use a Bill of Lading. This allows you to retain ownership of the goods until you release them to your customer. It is risky to release the goods before full payment is made unless you know your customer’s creditworthiness. Bills of Lading give you documentary security and more control over your consignments.

Sea Waybills are less costly but do not offer the same security of payment. You should only use them when you know the creditworthiness of the business you’re shipping to, or when you have built up a good relationship with them. See the guide on getting paid when selling overseas.

For more information on shipping, see the guide on moving goods by sea.

If you ship dangerous goods, you must complete a dangerous goods declaration which includes the Dangerous Goods Note. In most cases this will be in addition to the maritime transport document that should accompany your shipments. Read about the International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code on the International Maritime Organization website. Also see the guide on moving dangerous goods.

Using rail transport for international trade

Rail transport is a cost-effective and efficient way to move your goods. It offers you the following advantages:

However, there are also risks for rail transport:

See the guide on moving goods by rail.

Insurance and documentation

If you transport goods by rail, the Convention Concerning International Carriage by Rail () is the system of law which applies in the 45 states in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East that are members of OTIF, the International Organisation for International Carriage by Rail.

You should also be aware of the CIM consignment note that sets the conditions for transporting non-dangerous goods by rail. CIM rules mean that your carrier only takes responsibility for insuring your consignments against loss or damage from the time they take possession of them until they are delivered. If you transport dangerous goods that have a dangerous goods code, or that your carrier considers to be dangerous, you must complete a dangerous goods declaration. Part of this declaration is the Dangerous Goods Note.

For the rail transport of dangerous goods, Annex I of - ie the Regulations concerning the International Carriage of Dangerous Goods by Rail (RID), sets the conditions under which rail transport is undertaken, including:

Find out about the international agreements for the transportation of dangerous goods on the website. Also see the guide on moving dangerous goods.

Specialised advice can be obtained from your legal adviser or freight forwarder.

See the guides on transport insurance, insurance for international trade and international trade paperwork.

Using air transport for international trade

Air transport offers numerous advantages for international trade, depending on your requirements. It can:

However, you should consider the following issues:

Make sure that the routes and timetables available for air transport suit your requirements.

Information provided by Department for Business Innovation & Skills


email for more help with modes of transport