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Port, harbour or terminal.. What's the difference?

Written by Mark Barnes on .

If you are not in the mairitime industry, you may be unaware that there are various descriptions for places where maritime vessels can dock. A port is not the same thing as a harbour or terminal.
As such, we hope to clarify these different terms for you in the information provided below.


A port is defined as an area on both land and water, whether on the sea or river, that provides facilities for shipping vessels to load and unload their cargo.
This area, contained within 'port limits', will have been established over years of increasing or declining trade patterns and therefore is defined as the 'human set limits'. There may be several harbours and/or terminals within the port limits.

A good example of this is Sydney, new South Wales, Australia where the port contains several harbours, including Port Jackson, North and Middle Harbours. 
Further to this there are also several port types where different trade restrictions apply:
1. Free Ports, ports where international trade can be conducted with less strict Customs regulations, so saving time on paperwork and bottomline costs. Very useful if looking to transship cargo through a regional hub port. For that reason many regional hubs tend to have Free Port Zones. An example of this is Yangshan in China, Shanghai's deep water port.

2. Closed Ports, ports where foreign trade vessels are barred and only national coastal traffic is handled. This is the case with some feeder ports especially Japan. This may be down to a number of reasons, but usually due to the fact there are no Immigration or Customs authorities based at or near the port. It also protects the national fleet from being undercut by cheaper foreign vessels.


A harbour tends to be a physical area where water meets land and results in a sheltered bay, such as Botany Bay in New South Wales, Australia.
It may also be a result of an area of water enclosed by human intervention such as the building of breakwaters in the open sea.
A good example of this is Portland Harbour in the United Kingdom.



A terminal is defined as a single man-made facility that may have several berths, that handles vessels and possibly more than one type of vessel or cargo. 
There are two types of terminal:

1. those within coastal often sheltered waters with a land bridge, such as Jose Gas Terminal in Venezeula.

2. those in open often deep water exposed to the elements with no land bridge. A good example of this is Louisiana Offshore Oil Port (LOOP) in Louisiana, USA.

Each terminal usually has a primary operator, but may also be a common-user facility under the control of the Port Authority or third party.

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