On average, a cargo ship can take anywhere from 16 to 27 days to travel from China to the US west coast, and from 29 to 49 days to travel from China to the US east coast.
|Ship type||Average speed||Shanghai – Los Angeles||Shanghai – New York|
via Panama Canal
|Container||14 knots||17 days||32 days|
|Bulk carrier||11 knots||22 days||40 days|
|Tanker||10 knots||24 days||44 days|
|Vehicle carrier||15 knots||16 days||29 days|
|General cargo||9 knots||27 days||49 days|
But why is there such a large variation in the time it can take?
The main factors affecting a ship’s journey time are the speed of the ship, whether or not it is slow steaming, and any delays that may occur either during the voyage or during the loading or unloading process.
The average service speed of a container ship can be assumed to be around 14 knots, and that’s the type of ship we will focus on in this article. You can find out more about the speed of bulk carriers, cruise ships, and tankers in this article: Cargo Ship Speed Comparison
Travel time is not the only consideration to be made, however. Preparing shipments for transit, completing the necessary paperwork, and loading and unloading the ship will all add on several extra days.
Once a container is unloaded from the ship, it can then take several more days for it to travel by road or rail to its final destination.
How far is it from China to the United States?
A ship travelling east from China has to cross the Pacific Ocean, regardless of where it is going in the US.
What many people don’t realise is just how massive the Pacific Ocean is.
Because physical maps are traditionally centred on the Greenwich Meridian, it is easy to underestimate the size of the Pacific Ocean as it is split across the left and right sides of a map.
To give some perspective as to the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, the distance between Southampton and New York – crossing the Atlantic Ocean – is only 3,156 nautical miles.
Conversely, the total distance from Shanghai, China to Los Angeles, USA, is 5,708 nautical miles. This is equal to 6,569 ‘land’ miles, or 10,571 kilometres. You can learn more about why nautical miles are used at sea here: What Is A Nautical Mile And Why Is It Used?
The preferred route for most ships going from China to New York, for example, would be to transit the Panama Canal.
The benefits of the Panama Canal
By sailing through the Panama Canal, a ship sailing from Shanghai to New York can save over 6,000 nautical miles over sailing around Cape Horn, which is located at the southernmost point of South America and is known for extremely bad weather and rough seas.
In the past, sailing around Cape Horn was an unfortunate reality for many of the largest ships because of the size constraints of the original Panama Canal locks, which are 33.5 metres wide.
In 2016, the expansion of the Panama Canal was completed. The new locks – one on the Atlantic side, and one on the Pacific side – are 54.8 metres wide, and according to the Financial Times allow 79% of the world’s cargo-carrying capacity to transit the canal, as opposed to 45% through the old locks.
The largest cargo ships still cannot fit into the Panama Canal’s locks – the world’s biggest container ship Ever Alot is an astounding 61.5 metres wide – but for most ships the canal serves as a very useful bypass between Central America and the Caribbean.
In 2020, there were 12,247 transits of the Panama Canal, resulting in over 259 million tonnes of cargo being shipped through it.
The biggest container ports in China and the US
If you have been wondering why we are using Shanghai and Los Angeles as our example ports, the reason is that they are the biggest and busiest container ports in China and the US, respectively.
In fact, Shanghai is the busiest container port in the world, processing over 47 million shipping containers in 2021 according to Statista. China is home to 7 of the 10 busiest ports in the world, per the World Shipping Council.
The Port of Los Angeles, which is spread across 43 miles of waterfront in California, handled around 10.6 million shipping containers in the same period.
When you try to understand these huge numbers, it becomes clear just how important cargo ships and merchant seafarers are to keeping the world going.
How about other shipping routes?
China to the US is a great example to use when looking at shipping routes. It involves crossing the world’s largest ocean, and the Panama Canal adds another interesting dynamic to the voyage.
However, container shipping is a global business and there are busy container ports all around the world.
The table below shows the distances between some of the busiest ports in the world. The voyage times are based on an average speed of 14 knots, and each route shown is the shortest possible.
Container ships take so long – isn’t there a better way?
Because of the huge amount of cargo that needs to be transported, cargo ships are the best way to transport goods around the world.
Cargo ships are versatile, protect their cargoes well, and are the most eco-friendly way of mass-transporting goods over long distances, despite the bad reputation they have for being massive polluters.
The largest aeroplane ever built was the Antonov An-225 Mriya, and its primary purpose was the transport of cargo. This plane could carry a maximum of 250 tonnes of cargo, burning 20 tonnes of fuel per hour.
In comparison, the world’s largest container ship, Ever Alot, has a deadweight tonnage of 241,000 tonnes, and consumes significantly less fuel than the Antonov An-225 Mriya to carry almost 1,000 times more cargo.
Air freight can be useful for very small volumes of cargo, or for personnel, but for the mass transportation of goods there is only one winner – the cargo ship.