HOW-TO: Shipping stuff from China cheap?


Tyler writes:

What method do you use to ship from China? I am trying to ship 8kg of PLA from a manufacturer in China. I want to figure out how much sea shipping (the cheapest method) would be, but no one is really able to give me a legit answer besides someone like UPS (Yeah $200 is so not happening). I just want to try to get a cheap product from China without blowing the whole cost savings on shipping.

Between DirtyPCBs and Hacker Camp Shenzhen, we’ve helped a ton of people ship bulky items all over the world. The good news is that it doesn’t have to cost $200, the bad news is it will never be that cheap for small shipments. Here’s a basic rundown of the shipping options we’ve seen in Huaqiangbei.

Shipments under 20 kilos are considered very small shipments and there aren’t really any great options. If you’re visiting China the cheapest method is to lug it back in your suitcase.


The shipping calculator on our DEV site gives these prices for 8KG by DHL to the USA. These are roughly the prices you would get through any logistics company in Shenzhen. Ignore airmail, they won’t accept packages over 2KG. DHL China through a logistics agency is the best bet at $67, around $8.35 per kilo.


At 10KG and 20KG there’s a price break for air freight through DHL/FedEx/UPS. Air freight takes a few days longer, and it has to be dropped off at the logistics agent. We’ve sent 6 hacker camps and hundreds of visitors to Susie Shipper in Huaqiangbei (pictured above) because they generally have someone who speaks English. There are dozens of similar air freight agencies in the market – just look for a garage full of boxes covered in packing tape.

For 20KG+ DHL air freight we’ve seen rates from $4.50/KG to Netherlands, and $5.50/KG to UK and USA through Susie Shipper.  At 100KG UPS air freight drops to $4/KG. Air freight is highly dependent on time of year. Around the October rush prices can be 10x higher, or the service may simply not be available at all.

Sea freight is a totally different beast and 8KG isn’t nearly enough. In our limited experience, Sea freight generally starts at $1000USD in fees alone. The actual cost of a 20 foot shipping container isn’t necessarily the greatest expense depending on destination. Sea freight has a cornucopia of associated charges that stack up fast. Bill of leading, document fees, dock fees, inspection, customs, loading, unloading, warehousing, pickup, delivery, plastic pallets, etc. There are some consolidators out there, but they generally want to ship a stuff that’s on a pallet too. 8KG doesn’t seem feasible to ship by sea.

Another thing to keep in mind is that bulky items are charged by dimension, not weight.

( Length * Width * Height ) / 5000 = dimensional weight

If the dimensional weight is greater than the measured weight, then the dimensional weight it used to calculate the shipping fees. It is frighteningly easy to run up against the dimensional weight.

This is the general frustration of China for foreign hobbyists. There are unimaginable, unbelievably cheap materials here, but unless you deal in giant volumes it is exceedingly hard to take advantage of those prices. Not only does shipping add up fast, but most suppliers have no ability to accept payments in foreign currency and exchange it into Chinese RMB.

There’s a much more fun option, one that’s only slightly more expensive than your initial shipping quote. Recently people have been finding flights from the US West Coast to China for around $400 round trip. Why not pop over, explore the markets, pack your suitcase with 23KG of goodies, and “pay” for the trip with the savings on shipping.

Join the Conversation


  1. What does your shipping calculator use for a source of data? Do China Post, DHL, FedEx, etc. have APIs or is there a site that aggregates shipping info?

    1. Now imagine you live in Brazil. DHL shipping is around $20.00 to Brazil (at least it was when I last bought PCBs at Seeed) and they charge extra $20.00 as import fees. That’s $40.00 just for the shipping of some PCBs.

      Brazil charges 60% as federal import duties over product price plus shipping price. Take a $20.00 product for example. It’s $20.00 for the product plus $20.00 for the shipping, adding to a total of $24.00 duties. That’s the federal import duties. There’s also the state duties, which is around 18% in the state I live on. And these 18% includes the federal 60% duties, so it’s 18% of $20.00 + $20.00 + $24.00, to a total of $11.52.

      Sum everything and a $20.00 product with $20.00 shipping costs you about $96.

      1. I have to import almost anything that’s not a simple semiconductor or passives from China with the cheapest (free) shipping. It takes around 1~2 months to get here and if it’s small I usually don’t have to pay import duties.

        Most of the times, if it’s SMD and not really really common, I need to import it. I just bought some 3225 16MHz crystals from China, as there’s no way to find these around here. We had a Farnell store until 2015 which used to have some harder to find items, but it closed as our economy is in a shit state.

        Buying from USA, from OSH Park for example, takes around 2 weeks to a month for things to get here, but I always have to pay import duties. Buying things from Mouser and the likes is not an option, as they charge $50 shipping for anything and this will be like the DHL shipping.

  2. This brings up something I’ve wondered about. How is it that I can buy an item, such as a USB cable, from a Chinese eBay seller for $1.95 with free shipping to the US, yet I can’t sent a package by US Mail to the next town for less than $2.45 in postage?

    1. Hong Kong and China Post. About $20 per kilo. A small cable costs maybe $0.50 to ship anywhere in the world.

  3. Thank for your wonderful post. Can you include the contact details for Susie Shipper? (QQ, website, wechat, telephone number, or anything like that) I am currently looking for alternatives to my current shipping company.

  4. There is another way.The question is, ‘How to access it?’
    As Carl notes, many small sellers on Alibaba & Banggood and elsewhere offer free shipping, or reasonably low cost shipping, on small orders. If multiple small free-shipping items are bought at the same time the size and weight can be non-trivial, but shipping is still free. This offer only applies to “standard postage” which is advertised as taking say 10 to 30+ days. In practice I find that some sellers consistently manage in the 7-14 day range. Others don’t.

    It is clear that these resellers have access to a low cost shipping service which I have never seen identified. I’ve seen it suggested that this may be a subsidised system to allow small sellers to be competitive internationally. It’s conceivable that either it may be possible to access this service directly, or it may be possible to arrange for a smaller reseller with adequate reliability to act as the customer on your behalf and to then forward goods. While some sellers sell their own products and carry stock, many are resellers who obtain product from the manufacturer or distributor or agent only after your order is placed. In such cases their buying eg 1 kg of PLA on your behalf and forwarding it is presumably as legitimate to Chinese authorities as their selling it as an advertised item and buying it after your order is placed.

    Obviously there would need to be an added cost for their service but, as handling costs are included in the price of even very low cost free-shipping items the cost of handling should be modest compared to alternatives. It is likely that a significant number of resellers would be happy to offer this service if it is legitimate. There may be an upper size on free-shipping items.

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