Dock of the Bay: Navigating the Biggest Port in the World

The world’s biggest ports are the lifeblood of global trade. As the gateways to international commerce, these ports facilitate the exchange of a staggering volume of cargo, underscoring their critical importance to the world economy, but where is the largest port in the world? Read on to find out.

Building Big Engineering
29 February 2024

Whether they’re the origin, the layover, or the final destination, the largest shipping ports in the world are vital cogs in the global trade machine, connecting sellers with buyers across vast distances with astonishing efficiency.

The evolution of container ports, from modest harbours to sprawling complexes, mirrors the exponential growth of global trade. Today, the largest port in the world and the pretenders to its throne are marvels of logistical engineering, processing billions of tonnes of goods, from sweetcorn to supercars, every year.

Beyond their economic significance, the largest container ports in the world are also focal points for technological innovation. The use of automation and artificial intelligence in port operations is setting new standards, further enhancing the competitiveness of these crucial trade hubs.

As the world continues to navigate the challenges of globalisation, the world’s biggest ports play a key role in shaping the future of international trade, demonstrating the importance of maritime logistics in connecting the global economy.

A Short History of Container Ports

Aerial view of containers and container ship in sea at a container port. (Credit: magical_light via Getty Images)

The story of how container ports expanded is a narrative of innovation and adaptation, beginning in the mid-twentieth century, when the standardised shipping container revolutionised maritime transport.

This period marked a paradigm shift in how goods were transported, leading to the rapid expansion of container ports worldwide. The advent of containerisation in the 1950s was spearheaded by American entrepreneur Malcom McLean who invented the intermodal shipping container. It dramatically increased the speed and lowered the cost of shipping (including reducing cargo theft), integrating seaports more closely into manufacturers’ supply chains.

This integration facilitated the rise of global manufacturing and just-in-time delivery systems, making it possible to move goods faster – the containers could be lifted off ships and straight onto lorries – and more reliably than ever before. As a result, the world’s biggest container ports have evolved into sophisticated hubs equipped with advanced technology and automation, capable of managing the complex logistics of modern global trade.

How to Determine the Biggest Port in the World

Container port employee(Credit: Prapass Pulsub via Getty Images)

There are a number of different ways in which to measure the world’s biggest ports, including total cargo tonnage, number of ships, or physical area. By far the most common metric used is the number of TEU, or twenty-foot equivalent units, processed.

A TEU is what is commonly known as a shipping container. The standard length is twenty feet (6.1 metres), but they vary in height, from four feet three inches (1.3 metres) to nine feet six inches (2.9 metres). The most commonly used container measures eight feet six inches (2.6 metres) high.

The list below is a snapshot of some of the largest container ports in the world and the number of TEU is for 2022. For a full list of the top twenty, scroll to the bottom of the page.

Port of Los Angeles

Port of Los Angeles (Credit: Mint Images via Getty Images)

Country: USA | TEU: 9,911,000

Known affectionately as America’s Port, the Port of Los Angeles is one of the largest container ports in the world and the busiest port in the Western Hemisphere. In 2022, it serviced over 200 million tonnes of cargo with a value of more than $300 billion. It’s believed that around 20% of all goods entering the USA from abroad pass through the Port of Los Angeles.

Los Angeles Port opened in 1907 and today it’s a major maritime gateway to Asia, Europe and South America. It occupies 7,500 acres (over 30 square kilometres) of land and almost seventy kilometres (43 miles) of waterfront. The port is equipped with 82 container cranes and 25 cargo terminals.

Port of Rotterdam

Loading containers in a barge at the Port of Rotterdam. (Credit: kievith via Getty Images)

Country: The Netherlands | TEU: 14,455,000

Europe’s largest seaport is one of the largest container ports in the world. A port has been present in Rotterdam since the fourteenth century, and between 1962 and 2004 it was the biggest port in the world by cargo tonnage, until it was overtaken by the Chinese and Singaporean megaports.

The port handles around half a billion tonnes of cargo each year and the harbour is a staggering 11,900 acres, or almost 50 square kilometres. One of the world’s most strategically important ports, Rotterdam can accommodate the world’s largest container ships providing goods to five hundred million people throughout Europe.

Port of Busan

The Container terminal at the Port of Busan. (Credit: Insung Jeon via Getty Images)

Country: South Korea | TEU: 22,078,000

The biggest port in South Korea and one of the largest shipping ports in the world, Busan opened at the mouth of the Nakdong River in 1876 just to trade with Japan and China. Today, the complex is home to four individual ports – North, South, Gamcheon, and Dadaepo – as well as an international passenger terminal and six separate container terminals. It’s believed around 40% of South Korea’s total seagoing cargo and 80% of the country’s container cargo passes through Busan.

Port of Ningbo-Zhoushan

Shipping containers stacked up in Ningbo-Zhoushan Port. (Credit: Tao Wang via Getty Images)

Country: China | TEU: 33,351,000

On the coast of the East China Sea, the Ningbo-Zhoushan deep-water port complex comprises a seaport, an estuary port and an inland river port and it was established in the early eighteenth century.

While it’s one of the world’s biggest container ports in terms of TEU, it’s the biggest port in the world in terms of cargo tonnage, handling well over a billion tonnes of cargo every year.

Port of Singapore

Shipping containers stacked up at the Port of Singapore. (Credit: xPACIFICA via Getty Images)

Country: Singapore | TEU: 37,289,000

The largest port in the world until it was overtaken by Shanghai in 2010, the Port of Singapore is a key maritime hub in Southeast Asia and has long been one of the world’s busiest ports. Its strategic location at the crossroads of major shipping lanes has made it a pivotal point for international shipping and trade.

It handles around 650 million tonnes of cargo every year and is believed that half the world’s supply of crude oil and a fifth of the world’s shipping containers pass through Singapore every year.

Port of Shanghai

Yangshan Port of Shanghai, the largest harbour in the world. (Credit: honglouwawa via Getty Images)

Country: China | TEU: 47,303,000

Opened in 1842, the Port of Shanghai is the biggest port in the world with a 2022 TEU of more than 47 million and over 200 individual berths. Located on the strategically-vital Yangtze River on China’s eastern coast, it’s one of just four global ‘megaports’ along with Singapore, Ningbo-Zhoushan and Shenzhen.

The complex also includes the Shanghai Yangshan Deep River Port, which is also said to be the world’s largest automated container port.

The Port of Shanghai serves as a critical hub for international trade, handling an immense volume of goods – reported to be in excess of 700 million tonnes annually – due to China’s significant role in global manufacturing and exports.

List of The Top 20 Largest Shipping Ports in the World

Commercial dock and petrol refinery at the Port of Jebel Ali, Dubai. (Credit: Thierry Dosogne via Getty Images)

City | Country | Number of TEUs (2022 figures)

  1. Shanghai | China | 47,303,000
  2. Singapore | Singapore | 37,289,000
  3. Ningbo-Zhoushan | China | 33,351,000
  4. Shenzhen | China | 30,036,000
  5. Qingdao | China | 25,670,000
  6. Guangzhou | China | 24,857,000
  7. Busan | South Korea | 22,078,000
  8. Tianjin | China | 21,021,000
  9. Los Angeles/Long Beach | USA | 19,044,000*
  10. Hong Kong | Hong Kong | 16,685,000
  11. Rotterdam | The Netherlands | 14,455,000
  12. Jebel Ali | United Arab Emirates | 13,970,000
  13. Antwerp | Belgium | 13,500,000
  14. Port Klang | Malaysia | 13,220,000
  15. Xiamen | China | 12,434,000
  16. Tanjung Pelepas | Malaysia | 10,512,000
  17. New York/New Jersey | USA | 9,493,000
  18. Kaohsiung | Taiwan | 9,491,000
  19. Laem Chabang | Thailand | 8,741,000
  20. Hamburg | Germany | 8,261,000

*While technically separate entities, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are often listed together as they share infrastructure, they collaborate on initiatives, and they are immediately adjacent to each other.

Anchoring the Future: The World’s Biggest Ports

Handling on container ship in Port Klang, Malaysia. (Credit: Thierry Dosogne via Getty Images)

The largest container ports in the world are not just points of transit but pivotal centres of global commerce and technological innovation. As the backbone of international trade, they play a critical role in sustaining the global economy, facilitating the seamless flow of goods across continents. Through their commitment to advancing technology, these ports are setting new standards for the future of maritime logistics.


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