CNF, CIF, FOB, DDP & EXW Explained!

August 29, 2019 by Andrew Minalto - 362 Comments
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Welcome back!

If you’re an eBay or Amazon seller who has just recently started importing from China, you know there are LOTS of things to learn! You need to know everything from how to filter out scams on sites like Alibaba to the best ways to order product samples, as well as all kinds of specific, previously unknown business terms and abbreviations.

And it’s not like you can just ignore these new terms and abbreviations. Having your price or shipping terms wrong can turn your first order into a massive disaster! You can easily incur unexpected charges that you never accounted for, which can totally ruin your projected margins and chances of being profitable on eBay or Amazon.

CNF, CIF, DDP, FOB, Ex-Works—what do they all mean? And, most importantly, which of these shipping methods is the most cost-effective? Which one is the best for your situation?

These are all great questions. In this post, I will try to explain the importing process from China as simply as possible and to best of my knowledge. Before we get into the specifics of what each of these terms mean, you have to understand that there is no ONE best pricing or shipping option to use. It all depends on what you’re ordering, how big your order is, what shipping method you plan to use, etc. So, it’s not all white and black.

With that being said, some shipping terms are better than others and, in most cases, eBay and Amazon sellers will greatly benefit from selecting the most appropriate shipping terms for their situation.

Ok, without further ado, let’s cover five of the most popular shipping and pricing terms used when dealing with suppliers from China!

FOB – Free on Board
(or Freight on Board)

The most popular term used on sites like Alibaba.com is FOB. This is basically the DEFAULT pricing used when dealing with suppliers in China.

FOB pricing means that it covers:

  • Product cost
  • Local exporting fees/customs
  • Delivery of your order to the nearest port

This price won’t cover shipping from China to the UK (or any other country), insurance of the shipment, local customs fees (VAT & import duty), customs clearance fees, local port fees or delivery to your address.

Often, you will see that the term FOB is followed by another word. For example, FOB Ningbo. Ningbo is a city in China, so FOB Ningbo means that this is the port that the supplier will ship your order to, which is covered by the FOB price.

There are many ports in China, so depending on the supplier’s location, they usually use the closest port by default. However, you can ask them to send your goods to a different port—in which case, the FOB price will most likely increase.

The reason why FOB pricing is the most commonly used in China is because, traditionally, most goods are shipped by boat. Nowadays, however, with the rise of marketplaces like eBay and Amazon—and with everyday people importing smaller orders and using couriers and air freight more often—that situation has changed.

Should you use FOB pricing with your supplier? It really depends on your order size and weight. If you will use sea freight, then yes, FOB is the way to go. If you will use air freight then, again, FOB is the way to go (only this time it will be to an airport instead). If, however, your order is small and you will use a courier delivery service, you should not use FOB. In this case, use EXW instead.

EXW (Ex-Works)

Sometimes referred to as the “ex-factory” price, EXW basically means the cost of the product and nothing else! No shipping costs or export fees in China are included in this price, never mind the local port and customs fees or delivery to your door.

Still, there’s a place for these pricing terms when you use a courier shipping method for your order. By courier shipping, I mean the fast air courier shipping method offered by companies like DHL, UPS, TNT and others. Delivery from China via courier usually just takes 4-6 business days. The downside is that courier shipments are very expensive and are only suitable for very small items (and sample orders).

If you have decided that courier shipping is the way to go, you should ask your supplier for the EXW price AND ask them to get a courier shipping quote for you.

Yes, that’s right, ask the supplier to organise your courier shipping. If you do it from the UK (or US), you will pay much more. Local Chinese suppliers will get much better rates, so there’s no point in doing this on your own.

Hopefully, your supplier will be honest, though, as sometimes they try to overcharge you on the shipping fees. The best way to avoid this is to get shipping quotes from three different suppliers, even if you don’t plan on ordering from the other two. This way, you can compare all three and see if your real supplier is trying to overcharge you. If they are, you can simply ask for an explanation as you have proof on hand that two other suppliers can ship the order for less.

Another advantage of using EXW + courier shipping is that you won’t have to deal with the local customs clearance procedure. Courier companies will do that for you and invoice you for VAT, import duty and a small customs clearance fee. Then, they’ll deliver the goods straight to your door.

So, EXW should only be used together with a courier shipping method. Don’t use it for sea freight shipments, even if you’re planning to use your own shipping agent. Instead, go for FOB because it will be cheaper than paying extra fees to your shipping agent to cover local delivery/export fees in China.

CIF & CNF

CIF — Cost, Insurance and Freight.

For CIF, the price also includes sea freight charges and insurance to deliver the goods to YOUR nearest port. But remember, it’s only to the port. From that point onwards, it’s up to you to take responsibility for the shipment.

CNF — Cost and Freight (or Cost, No Insurance, Freight)

CNF is similar to CIF, except insurance is not included.

If your supplier quoted you a CNF Felixstowe price, it means that the price includes shipping of the goods via sea freight to the Felixstowe port. When the goods arrive there, you’ll have to organise customs clearance and delivery to your home/office/warehouse.

While the CNF price can look very attractive, keep in mind that there will be other costs involved when your goods arrive in London, such as:

  • Customs clearance fee
  • Value added tax (VAT)
  • Import duty
  • Port security charge
  • Fuel surcharge
  • Docking charge
  • Warehouse storage fee
  • Etc.

So, the CNF price is really just the tip of the iceberg and is not the true, FINAL price that you’ll pay for the products you’re importing.

Also, since you’re new to importing, it will take more time than usual and be a lot of hassle for you to organise everything at the London port.

A much better alternative is to use a freight forwarding agent for your shipments from China. These companies take care of EVERYTHING mentioned above and will deliver the goods to your door without you having to mess around with the customs clearance procedure.

You will usually receive an invoice from them once your goods have arrived that clearly lists all the taxes, customs fees and port fees.

I highly recommend you use such a company, at least for your first few importing deals. These freight forwarding companies are very affordable and can actually work out cheaper than if you try to do it all on your own.

My recommendation for UK customers is Woodland Group, which is a freight forwarder with great customer service, weekly shipments from China and very competitive prices. Get in touch with them to find out exactly how much your order will cost delivered to your door after all the fees and taxes have been paid.

When contacting a freight forwarding company, make sure you ask for a door-to-door price. This is very important. Otherwise, you can end up with a host of additional charges when your goods arrive in the UK.

The FOB price in combination with the use of a freight forwarder is the most cost-effective way to do sea freight shipments from China. And you will know EXACTLY how much it will all cost, even before you place your order with the supplier.

DDP (Delivered Duty Paid)

This means that the price includes EVERYTHING:

  • Price of goods
  • Local export costs in China
  • Shipping to the UK (or any other country)
  • Customs clearance in the UK, VAT, import duty and other charges

Sounds good, right? Yes, this sounds like the PERFECT way to do business in China. And often you will discover that this DDP price is just slightly higher than the FOB price. Perfect, right?

As adults, we all know that if it looks too good to be true, it is too good to be true.

How can the DDP price be just slightly higher than the FOB price when you know that the import duty and VAT adds at least 25% extra in fees in the UK? And then add the actual shipping cost, customs clearance, etc. It simply CAN’T be true!

That’s because it’s not true. Some Chinese suppliers are taking advantage of various loopholes in the transit system, undervaluing the goods, hiding smaller shipments in bigger pallets, etc. In short, they AVOID paying proper import taxes and VAT and basically smuggle your goods into Europe without paying all the necessary taxes.

I have written a separate post about DDP scams in China here:

Without spending too much time on it here, I strongly recommend you don’t agree on DDP terms, period. If you do, you are almost certainly taking part in a tax evasion scheme, which can hurt you very badly in the long term.

Conclusion

Ok, I really hope this clarifies the various terms you might see in relation to pricing and shipping methods when dealing with importing from China.

To sum it up: If you use sea freight as your shipping method, ALWAYS ask for an FOB price! This covers the cost of the product and local charges in China to the nearest port.

Then, you can ask your supplier for the order’s dimensions (weight and size) and contact a freight forwarder (such as Woodland Group) for a door-to-door quote. Lastly, don’t forget about insurance! It usually costs just £20-£30 and it will protect your shipment against loss and damage.

On the other hand, if your order is very small and you plan to use a courier for delivery, work with EXW prices. You can ask your supplier to organise courier delivery and add that extra cost to the invoice.

Forget about CIF, CNF and DDP altogether! They will either be more expensive in the end (CIF and CNF) OR you will be participating in tax fraud (DDP).

Just so you know, DDP terms as such are not illegal. In fact, they’re totally legal and widely used in the Western world. Even companies like Amazon use DDP for international orders. For example, when you order goods from Amazon.com, you prepay the taxes to have it shipped into the EU.

The problem is that Chinese suppliers are not using this process correctly or legally. Instead, they’re playing the system and telling you that everything is ok. Just don’t do it.

That’s it for today. If you have any further questions, make sure to leave them in the comments section below. I personally reply to all comments within 24 hours, Mon-Fri.


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362 Comments
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  1. Hi Andrew,

    Nice blog!
    I am based in UAE, and am in a position to place my first order within the next few weeks. I am importing customized face mask from Alibaba, Qty: 6000 pcs usd0.55/pcs Exw.
    I would appreciate your advice me on which terms should i use.

    thank you

    1. Andrew Minalto

      Hi Ashif,

      Thanks for your comment.

      You should probably go with the EXW price + the courier delivery directly from the supplier.

      6000 masks is not a huge order, so sea freight won’t be viable option.

      Thanks,
      Andrew

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