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Freight Forwarding Industry in Hong Kong


  • By arranging cargo transport, the freight forwarding industry has helped contribute to Hong Kong's success as the 9th largest merchandise trading entity and one of the most trade-oriented economies in the world.
  • The industry has benefited from Hong Kong's leading freight infrastructure. Hong Kong’s international air cargo throughput ranks first in the world, and Hong Kong is the world’s third busiest container port.
  • Most of the larger freight forwarders have a wide network of overseas branches, and act as agents for international air and ocean liners.
  • The industry is responding to customers' needs by providing more value-added services such as warehousing, packing, sorting, distribution and total logistics solutions.

Industry Data

Total (Inward + Outward) Freight Movements (million tonnes)











































Source: Summary Statistics on Port Traffic of Hong Kong, Hong Kong Port Development Council
*The Mass Transit Railway Corporation Ltd terminated the cross-boundary rail cargo transportation services from June 2010.


As at March 2013

Number of Air Cargo Forwarders




Number of Sea Cargo Forwarders




Source: Quarterly report of Employment and Vacancies Statistics, Hong Kong Census and Statistics Department

Business Performance







Business Receipts of Cargo Forwarding Services (US$ million)






 Year-on-year (YoY) growth (%)






Exports - Cargo Forwarding (US$ million)






 Year-on-year (YoY) growth (%)






Contribution to Services Exports (%)






Source: Report on Hong Kong Trade in Service Statistics, Report on Annual Survey of Transport and Related Services, Key Statistics on Business Performance and Operating Characteristics of the Transportation, Storage and Courier Services Sector, Hong Kong Census and Statistics Department

Range of Services

The core business of a freight forwarder is to move a shipper's consignment to the consignee within the stipulated time, in perfect order and at the most competitive price. Responding to changing customer demands, many freight forwarders also provide more value-added services such as warehousing, distribution and total logistics solutions.

The services offered by the industry vary according to the sophistication of the freight forwarder. The larger and more comprehensive freight forwarders offer a full range of transportation and logistics services including warehousing, consolidation, air express, trucking, distribution and customs clearance, tracking and monitoring of freight being transported, and applying electronics data interchange (EDI) technology to facilitate just-in-time based supply chain management. Their customers, particularly those in the time-sensitive manufacturing, trading and retail sectors, can thus concentrate on their core competency and reduce their business cycle time.

In general, the smaller freight forwarders provide more basic and economical services. Related services involved in the import/export process, such as the preparation of shipping documents, customs clearance and logistics, may be undertaken by the import and export traders or their agents. The smaller firms do provide more flexibility and more personalised services. In addition, they have lower overheads as they "piggyback" on the fixed capacities of the larger companies, and therefore can often provide lower rates.

Owing to the slowdown of the global economy, especially the European countries, total freight movements dipped 2.8% in 2012 and recorded 2.8% (YoY) decline in the first quarter of 2013. Prior to that, however, freight movements recorded a strong growth of 10.4% in 2010, followed by a modest increase of 2.1% in 2011 as the economic downturn started to take its toll on freight movements.

Service Providers

The Hong Kong Association of Freight Forwarding Agents (HAFFA) was formed in 1966 to represent the interests of the freight forwarding industry. It has been renamed as Hong Kong Association of Freight Forwarding and Logistics Ltd to reflect the sophisticated nature of the business. HAFFA, with 341 members, aims to promote standardisation and professional conduct among its members. The association coordinates and liaises with the government authorities and related associations, such as Hong Kong Air Cargo Terminals Ltd. (HACTL) and the Hong Kong Shippers’ Council in an attempt to enhance the business environment for its members. For instance, HAFFA has negotiated a special package with Tradelink for its members.

The larger sea freight forwarders tend to target big companies for exclusive deals. They provide value-added services and invest in information technology to ensure that they meet the expanding needs of the customer's changing markets. They can also set up individual logistics subsidiaries to provide tailor-made and specialised services in order to work as a service partner for their customers. Generally speaking, larger companies' well-established brands and far-reaching logistics networks have enhanced their significant market shares in the global export market. The smaller regional players, however, have better understanding of the business culture, better knowledge of their markets and have established networks in the region.

As reliable and speedy delivery is the key to successful freight forwarding services, Hong Kong's forwarders' understanding of the international practices and their networks can help them secure the confidence of international customers.

In September 2012, Kerry Logistics was awarded the “Freight Forwarder of the Year” in the Payload Asia Awards 2012, the first Hong Kong logistics company wining the prize. The judging panel comprised Asia’s leading supply chain academics, leaders and customers, selecting the best freight forwarding services provider among more than 30 corporations.


More than 70% of Hong Kong’s exports are sent to other Asian markets, with Western Europe and North America accounting for about 10% each. Presumably, lots of parts and components are included in exports within Asia. In terms of freight forwarding services, however, Western Europe and North America, as long-haul markets, tended to be account for a bigger proportion of the total. Although the latest services trade report released in early 2013 consists of 2011 numbers, it discontinued the geographical breakdown for freight forwarding services. Based on 2010 numbers, major export markets of Hong Kong’s cargo forwarding services were, respectively, Asia (34.1% share), North America (33.7%) and Western Europe (27.0%).

The larger freight forwarders often follow their big international customers to new markets. In some instances transport service providers set up business in the new markets before recommending their customers to follow suit. They expand overseas usually by setting up subsidiaries, joint ventures or appointing agents to render global services.

Total Exports by Region (US$ million)



Share (%)

YoY growth


Share (%)

YoY growth

Western Europe







North America














Sources: Hong Kong External merchandise Trade, Census and Statistics Department

Industry Development and Market Outlook

Outsourcing Logistics Services

A number of global trends are affecting the freight forwarding industry, including the globalisation of the supply chain, mass customisation, shortening of product cycles, low inventory, and quick response requirements. In the face of these trends, an increasing number of businesses feel the need to optimise their supply chains via external experts, i.e. third-party logistics (3PL) and fourth-party logistics (4PL).

3PL refers to an outsourced provider that manages all or a significant part of a business' logistics requirements and performs transportation, locating and sometimes product consolidation activities. In contrast, 4PL refers to an outsourced provider which completely integrates its client's supply chain - managing the resources, capability and technology of all parties, including the 3PLs, to deliver a comprehensive supply chain solution.

Freight Forwarding Market in China

  • In 2011, value-added of the mainland’s logistics industry totalled US$0.56 trillion, up 9.1% from 2010. The industry’s share of China’s GDP and value-added of all services industries was 6.8% and 15.7% respectively.
  • Logistics cost as a portion to GDP has been falling. In 2012, total logistics cost increased by 11.4% to US$1.51 trillion, equivalent to 18% of China’s GDP, down slightly from 19.4% as in 2000. This indicates that the mainland’s logistics sector has become less inefficient. Nevertheless, it is estimated that logistics cost as a percentage to GDP is still double of those in developed countries. For instance, US logistics costs represented 8.5% of its GDP in 2012.
  • Since 11 December 2005, the mainland government has allowed the access of wholly foreign-owned forwarders to the industry as part of China's WTO accession terms.
  • In June 2013, Kerry Logistics opened three logistics centres with a total area of 140,000 sqm in, respectively, Chongqing, Wuxi and Xiamen to enhance its logistic services on the Chinese mainland. The logistics centres are aimed to cater the needs of Kerry’s customers in various aspects, including electronic and technology supports, portfolios of innovative solutions and other logistics services.
  • Promoting a green environment and energy conservation are key areas stressed in China’s 12th Five-year Plan. In line with the Plan, the transportation and logistics industry, one the major carbon emitters, is encouraged to increase the use of green technology. In addition, the Plan lays down the development goals for the transportation and logistics infrastructures including the followings:
- Reaching 83,000 km of the length of highway network
- Reaching 45,000 km of the length of high-speed railway
- Constructing a new airport in Beijing
- Increasing the total number of airports to 220 from 175

The Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement between Hong Kong and the Mainland (CEPA)

Freight Forwarding

Since the promulgation of the Administrative Measures on Foreign-invested International Freight Forwarding Agency (Decree of the Ministry of Commerce No. 19 - Dec 2005), foreign companies enjoy more or less the same benefits as the Hong Kong service suppliers (HKSS). Both are allowed to set up wholly owned freight forwarding agencies on the mainland to provide the following services:

  1. Booking (leasing of ships, and chartering of airplanes and shipping space), consignment, warehouse storage and packing
  2. Supervising loading and unloading, container grouping and unpacking, allocating goods, providing transit as well as related short-distance transport services
  3. Arranging customs declarations, customs examination and inspection, and insurance
  4. Filling out of relevant documents, payment of transportation fees, settlement of accounts and miscellaneous freight charges
  5. Agency business of international exhibits, personal items and transportation of transit cargoes
  6. Arranging international multimodal transportation and container transport (including the packing of containers)
  7.  International express delivery (excluding personal mail and postal services for official documents of provincial or higher branches of the party, government or military)
  8. Consultancy and other international forwarding agency business.

The minimum registered capital requirements for overseas companies engaged in international freight forwarding companies remains at US 1 million. However, the minimum registered capital requirements for HKSS are the same as their mainland counterparts:

a) International freight forwarding, sea transportation: RMB 5 million

b) International freight forwarding, air Transportation: RMB 3 million

c) International freight forwarding, land transportation: RMB 2 million

If the forwarder operates more than one type of freight forwarding mode, the highest amount of the minimum registered capital should follow.

For other services, HKSS has certain WTO-plus privileges over other foreign invested enterprises.

Maritime Transport Services

Compared with the conditions applying to other foreign companies, CEPA allows Hong Kong service providers to have greater flexibility in providing many types of maritime services, as they are allowed to form wholly owned units.

China's Regulations on the Administration of Foreign Investment in International Marine Transportation stipulate that only minority-owned foreign joint ventures are allowed to provide services that include the following: international shipping agency; international ship management; international shipping; maritime cargo-handling services; customs clearance services for maritime transport; container station and depot services; international marine shipping, freight loading and unloading, and international marine shipping container terminal and yard business.

Under CEPA, HKSS can form wholly owned units in providing maritime services such as international ship management services, container station and depot services, non-vessel operating common carrying services, port cargo loading and unloading services, tug services between Hong Kong and mainland ports, ship maintenance and repair services, international ocean container leasing, buying and selling as well as trading of container parts, and ship survey services for ships registered in Hong Kong.

Because of Supplement V and Supplement VI provisions, the business scope is further expanded for Hong Kong service providers, as they are now allowed to set up wholly owned enterprises and branches in Guangdong on a pilot basis to provide shipping agency services to vessel operators for routes between Guangdong Province and Hong Kong and Macau. Hong Kong service providers can also set up wholly owned shipping companies to provide regular business services such as shipping undertaking, issuance of bills of lading, settlement of freight rates, signing of service contracts, etc. for the shipping transport between Hong Kong and the Class B ports in Guangdong operated by the HKSS using chartered mainland vessels.

Road transport Services

CEPA currently allows HKSS to establish wholly owned enterprises in the provision of road freight transport and related services like road freight transportation station and motor vehicle repair services. Approval for such services is generally undertaken by the Ministry of Transport.

CEPA provision on road transport also services states that Guangdong is delegated the authority to approve the provision of road freight transport services by Hong Kong-invested production enterprises in Guangdong. Applications for providing transport-related services in Guangdong, such as road freight transport stations, repair and driver training enterprises are handled by the Guangdong authorities. These new arrangements are expected to hasten the approval process and facilitate HKSS in their business expansion into Guangdong.

In addition, under Supplement VIII released in 2011, Hong Kong drivers who are going to take the Mainland driving license examinations will be provided with examination papers in traditional Chinese characters, and there will be an examination venue in Shenzhen for them to take the examination.

Content provided by Picture: Jacqueline Yuen