What Are the World’s Biggest Ports?
Around 90% of the traded goods in the world spend at least some time at sea. As such, the world’s ports are essential cogs in the machine of global trade. Connecting major trade routes and enabling the import and exports of goods and cargoes of all kinds, these are the world’s biggest ports…
What is a port?
Defined as maritime facilities that contain one or more wharves or loading areas, ports are where vessels can dock and load and unload cargoes and passengers.
Today’s seaports are drastically different places than they were at the dawn of the twentieth century. Thanks to the rise of containerisation from the late 1950s on, ports have become much more closely integrated into manufacturers’ supply chains as multimodal distribution hubs.
Ports are typically located in areas that provide maximum access to an active hinterland, with a large population, and manufacturing and consumption activity located nearby.
How is port throughput defined?
The handling capacity of seaports can be defined in a number of ways, including cargo volume, container size, the number of vessels handled over time etc.
The most commonly used measurement, however, is container TEU (twenty-foot equivalent unit). This is based on the number of twenty-foot equivalent unit containers a port handles each year.
For the purposes of this article, we have ranked ports based on this definition of throughput. The data on which our rankings are based is 2020 container TEU data from the World Shipping Council.
The world’s busiest ports
Below we’ve listed the top 10 busiest ports in the world based on TEU volume.
1. Shanghai, China
Volume: 43.5 million TEU
Comprising a deep sea port and a river port, the Port of Shanghai overtook Singapore in the 2000s to become the world’s busiest container port.
Operated by Shanghai International Port (Group) Co, Ltd (SIPG), the Port of Shanghai is one of only four ports in the world to be classed as a ‘mega-port’.
The Port of Shanghai is strategically located facing the East China Sea to the east and Hangzhou Bay to the south, along with the confluences of the Yangtze River, Huangpu River, and Qiantang River.
The Port of Shanghai plays a pivotal role in sustaining China’s export-led economy. To give you an idea of how much of a pivotal role the Port of Shanghai plays, consider that the port handles an estimated one-fourth of all of China’s imported and exported cargo traffic.
As you would expect from the world’s largest port, the Port of Shanghai is equipped to accommodate some of the world’s biggest vessels. Infrastructure and dock-side assets include 100+ ton lifts, fixed, mobile and floating cranes, as well as break-bulk, bulk, and passenger terminals.
Volume: 36.6 million TEU
For decades the world’s busiest port, today the Port of Singapore currently sits in second place.
More a collection of facilities and terminals rather than a single homogenous facility, today’s iteration of the Port of Singapore was first built in 1819.
Operated by the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore, the Port of Singapore isn’t just a major container port, but also handles half of the world’s shipments of crude oil. It is also claimed to be the world’s busiest transshipment port.
The Port of Singapore’s position at one end of the Malacca Strait makes it a strategically important port, sitting as it does on the key sea route between Asia and the Middle East (and onwards to Europe via the Suez Canal).
It’s because of this position that the Port of Singapore is a globally-significant stop for the bunkering for international shipping. In fact, at the time of writing, the Port of Singapore is the world’s largest bunkering port.
As it seeks to reclaim its mantle as the world’s busiest port, Singapore is currently constructing the TUAS mega port which is anticipated to be completed by 2027. Set to be built in four phases, it is expected to be the world’s biggest container terminal once completed, being able to handle approximately 65 million TEUs each year.
3. Ningbo-Zhoushan, China
Volume: 28.72 million TEU
The Port of Ningbo-Zhoushan is located in Ningbo and Zhoushan on the coast of the East China Sea, south of Shanghai.
A port with a long history, the Port of Ningbo-Zhoushan began life in 1738. By 2006, the port had grown to the extent that it merged with the nearby port of Zhoushan to become the Port of Ningbo-Zhoushan.
The port is of considerable size, consisting of a multipurpose deepwater port, with inland, estuary and coastal harbours. The port is home to 191 berths - of which 39 are deep water berths.
The Port of Ningbo-Zhoushan also hosts a 250,000 tonnage crude oil terminal and a 200,000+ tonnage ore loading berth. Other facilities include a purpose-built terminal for sixth generation vessels and a dedicated berth for liquid chemical products.
4. Shenzhen, China
Volume: 26.55 million TEU
Comprising a number of individual ports along the coastline of Shenzhen, the Port of Shenzhen is one of the fastest growing ports in China, being home to 40 shipping companies.
These shipping companies have launched approximately 130 international container routes.
With a total of 140 berths, the Port of Shenzhen has facilities spread across Da Chan Bay, Shekou, Chiwan, Mawan, Yantian, Dongjiaotou, Fuyong, Xiadong, Shayuchong, and Neihe.
Amongst these berths are 51 which are able to accommodate 10,000 tonnes deadweight (DWT) and above.
5. Guangzhou Harbour, China
Volume: 23.19 million TEU
Guangzhou Harbour - also known as the Port of Guangzhou - is the main port for China’s Guangzhou province.
The Port of Guangzhou is a particularly important part of China’s international trade, given that the port’s trade reaches over 300 ports in more than 80 countries.
According to Guangzhou Municipality, the Port of Guangzhou is host to 4,600 berths and 2,359 anchorages, and forms part of the Maritime Silk Road that runs from the Chinese coast to the southern point of India. From there, it continues on to the Mediterranean.
6. Qingdao, China
Volume: 22.00 million TEU
Like some other ports on this list, the Port of Qingdao is a port which is in fact made up of a series of individual ports.
In the Port of Qingdao’s case, these are; Dagang port area, Qianwan port area, Huangdong oil port area, and Dongjiakou. The port is also home to the Qingdao Qianwan Container Terminal, and the Qingdao Cosport International Container Terminal.
One particularly notable aspect of the Port of Qingdao is the port’s project to build the world’s first suspended monorail capable of carrying fully-loaded 20 foot and 40 foot containers. The first phase of this monorail became operational in 2021.
7. Busan, South Korea
Volume: 21.59 million TEU
First established in 1876 as a small port, the Port of Busan is situated at the mouth of the Nakdong River.
Managed and operated by the Busan Port Authority, the Port of Busan consists of four individual ports; North Port, South Port, Gamcheon Port, and Dadaepo Port. The Port of Busan is also home to an international passenger terminal and six container terminals.
The economic importance of the Port of Busan to South Korea’s economy can’t be understated. Recent estimates suggest that 40% of the country’s total maritime cargo and 80% of the country’s container cargo pass through the port. In addition, the port handles approximately 130 vessels each day.
8. Tianjin, China
Volume: 18.35 million TEU
Formerly known as the Port of Tanggu, the Port of Tianjin is the largest port in northern China and widely considered to be the maritime gateway to Beijing.
Located around 170 km southeast of Beijing and 60 km east of Tianjin city, the Port of Tianjin trades with more than 600 ports in 180 countries worldwide. It’s also served by approximately 115 container liners - including all the world’s top 20 liners.
The Port of Tianjin also holds the distinction of being the largest man made port in the entirety of China. In total, the port covers an area of approximately 200 square kilometres.
9. Hong Kong
Volume: 17.95 million TEU
The Port of Hong Kong is a deepwater seaport located on the South China Sea.
Thanks to the port’s location, it acts as a key economic gateway to China, and forms part of the Maritime Silk Road.
With nine container terminals, the Port of Hong Kong offers 400 container liner services each week to more than 500 destinations worldwide - underlining the importance of this port to global trade.
At the time of writing, the Port of Hong Kong continues to eye further growth and development, with plans underway for a tenth container terminal - potentially located at Tsing Yi or Lantau.
10. Rotterdam, The Netherlands
Volume: 14.35 million TEU
As the largest port in Europe, Rotterdam covers an area of 105 square kilometres, acting as the ‘gateway’ to Europe for imports.
Like some other ports on this list, the Port of Rotterdam actually encompasses five individual ports. Whilst these ports are operated as concessions, they all fall under the purview of the Port of Rotterdam Authority.
The Port of Rotterdam is notable for being home to the EECV-quay which has a draft of 24 metres. This means the port can accommodate the very largest bulk cargo ships in the world.
Other notable features of the Port of Rotterdam include the port’s introduction of robotic container operations, with much of the container loading and stacking in the port being handled by autonomous robotic cranes and computer-controlled chariots.
The Port of Rotterdam is also aiming to become a ‘smart port’, using sensors around the port to collect data to provide shipping companies with enhanced levels of analytics and insight.
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- Andrew Yarwood