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Difference between Harbour, Port, Terminal, Berth, Quay, Pier, Jetty

Harbour, Port, Terminal, Berth, Quay, Pier, Jetty – you are not alone if you are confused about these terminologies..

To many of us, these terminologies sounds the same.. It took me also a while to understand the difference when I started out in this industry..

So here’s how it all works..

Imagine this :

  • A ship is bobbing in a large body of water like the ocean or sea.. Yonder is land where the waves are crashing and receding..
  • The ship is filled with goods from foreign lands that could be traded with the inhabitants of the land..
  • On land there are people with their own home grown and home made goods which they can trade with the people on the ship..
  • What is standing between them meeting and carrying out this trade is this large body of water with no real meeting place..

Now imagine if there was a place where this ship could come in, be moored (tied up) allowing the people on the ship to come ashore or the people on land to go on board the ship..

Well, that place is called a HARBOUR. 🙂


A harbour is basically an area filled with water sheltered by natural barriers like land and rocks or artificial barriers like breakwaters sometimes surrounded by tetrapods, that can provide a ship with safe anchorage and allow the transfer of goods and/or passengers between the ship and the shore.

Natural harbours are usually surrounded by land and this creates a protective bay making it a good anchorage point for ships.. Apart from coastlines around the world, natural harbours may also be found along fjords, coves, lake sides, lagoons and estuaries..

Some examples of natural harbours are San Francisco and New York in USA, Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, Sydney in Australia, Marmagao, in India, Saldanha Bay in South Africa..

Harbour, Port, Terminal, Berth, Quay, Pier, Jetty - Shipping and Freight Resource
Saldanha Bay, South Africa, one of the natural harbours

Man used these natural harbours to enable trade between countries.. Although the formation may be natural, a lot of these natural harbours have been improvised upon, to be able to handle commercial activities..

Since natural harbours were not always exactly where he wanted it, man began creating artificial harbours to develop and improve trade..

These days artificial harbours can be created anywhere along the seaboard linking to industrial zones on land..

But of course it’s not that easy just to create a harbour.. A harbour needs to be deep enough to allow ships to enter and exit without touching the bottom of the sea bed while also providing enough space for the ships to turn and pass each other..

The bigger the capacity of the ships calling at the harbour, the deeper the harbour needs to be..

For example, Saldanha Bay harbour said to have been discovered around the year 1601, remains the largest and deepest natural port in the Southern Hemisphere able to accommodate vessels with a draft of up to 21.5m for loading Iron Ore mainly..

The entrance channel has a minimum width of 400m while the turning basin has a diameter of 580m and a depth of 23.2m CD..

The act of keeping the shipping channels deep, wide and free of silt is known as dredging and is considered one of the main activities in maintaining a harbour..

Some of the hallmarks of artificial harbours are breakwaters, concrete walls (sea walls), and other forms of barriers designed to protect the harbour from storms and reduce the tidal range..

Such artificial barriers may also mean that the seabed in artificial harbours may be a bit more stable than natural harbours although this topic may be up for debate..

Some of the finest artificial harbours relying on a series of artificial breakwaters are Chennai in India, Jebel Ali in UAE, Long Beach in USA, Rotterdam in Netherlands..

Harbour, Port, Terminal, Berth, Quay, Pier, Jetty - Shipping and Freight Resource
Chennai, India – one of the finest artificial harbours

Whether natural or man-made, harbours are important for trade and all around the world these harbours are used for the import and export of various types of cargoes such as steel, iron, oil, cars, clothing, etc etc.. Harbours also cater to cruise ships carrying passengers from place to place..

Some harbours may also be used by ships seeking shelter in bad weather etc, and these harbours may not have any kind of commercial or personal facilities and a ship can only just seek shelter there from the elements..


When these harbours are used for the purpose of commerce and trade such as loading and unloading of cargo, passengers or anything that generates revenue, these harbours may be said to serve as a Port..

In short, a port is a place within the harbour where a ship can dock for a commercial purpose of either handling cargo or passengers or taking care of the ship’s requirements..

Ports play a very crucial role in transporting various types of goods and some ports are classified based on the cargo that they handle..

For example ports that specialises in handling

  • Iron Ore – Port Hedland, Australia,
  • Crude Oil – Ras Tanura, Saudi Arabia
  • Grain – New Orleans, USA
  • Passengers – Puerta Maya, Cozumel, Mexico


Harbour, Port, Terminal, Berth, Quay, Pier, Jetty - Shipping and Freight Resource
Port Hedland, Iron Ore Port


Harbour, Port, Terminal, Berth, Quay, Pier, Jetty - Shipping and Freight Resource
Ras Tanura – Oil Terminal, Saudi Arabia


Port is also a place where water and land meet and therefore there are trains and trucks that come into the port for the purpose of delivery (for exports onto a ship) or picking up cargo (from imports off a ship)..

Many countries have many ports along major rivers.. Mississippi River in the USA, Yangtze in China, Great Lakes in North America are some of the examples of major rivers having many ports..

Each of the ports are controlled, operated and run by a Port Authority which sets the commercial tariff for the handling of ships, goods and passengers at that port..

Below are the top 20 ports in terms of Liner Connectivity and The Container Port Performance Index

Harbour, Port, Terminal, Berth, Quay, Pier, Jetty
Source : UNCTAD
Harbour, Port, Terminal, Berth, Quay, Pier, Jetty
Source : IHS Markit



While some of the ports may handle only specific cargoes, a vast majority of the ports around the world handle multiple cargoes within the same port..

These demarcated areas handling different types of cargoes are known as Terminals..

In one port there could be terminals for

  • Container Terminal
  • Ro-Ro (Roll On-Roll Off) Terminal (popularly known as Car Terminal)
  • Oil & Gas Terminal
  • Bulk Cargo Terminal
  • Multi Purpose Terminal
Harbour, Port, Terminal, Berth, Quay, Pier, Jetty - Shipping and Freight Resource
Ulsan, Ro Ro (Car) Terminal, South Korea – yes those white blocks are cars for loading on ships………

These days’ majority of the ports around the world have dedicated Container Terminals which specialise in the handling of containers loaded on some of the big ULCV (Ultra Large Container Vessel)..

Below are the Top 10 container ports in the world :

Harbour, Port, Terminal, Berth, Quay, Pier, Jetty
Source : Lloyds List

The term Terminal is also extensively used to identify inland locations to where goods are transported from the port using rail and road modes..

Good example are Inland Container Depots which are custom bonded depots/terminals also referred to as “Dry Ports” because some of them are still under control of the main port authority or ports and terminal operator..



Each port or terminal will in turn have several berths/quay which usually has shore equipment for handling cargo, covered sheds, open cargo storage areas etc where the cargo is discharged, loaded and may be stored..

A berth is basically an area where the ship is moored onto the bollards and where the cargo is loaded or discharged on and off the ships.. The land area surrounding the berth is also sometimes referred to as a quay depending on where you are from..

One container terminal can have several berths/quay where several ships can be handled at the same time..

As an example you can see below image of Brani Container Terminal in Singapore where you can see 6 container ships under operation.. Each ship is moored at a different berth and the area immediately behind the cranes on the land side maybe termed as quay..

Harbour, Port, Terminal, Berth, Quay, Pier, Jetty - Shipping and Freight Resource
Brani Container Terminal, Singapore



Pier/Jetty are pretty similar in their purpose which is usually to tie up small boats or yachts..

St. Pete Pier, Russia

A Pier or Jetty could also mean a walkway extending into the sea/ocean where people can take a walk, do some fishing, eat at the restaurants etc.. There are usually no heavy commercial activities or cargo loading/unloading happening in a Pier or Jetty..


So in a way, when it comes to commercial operations, there may be a hierarchy to this…….

  • A coastal country may have many harbours
  • Each harbour may have ports
  • Each port may have terminals
  • Each terminal may have berths and/or quay which is where all the commercial action takes place


But having said all of the above, in many cases, these different terms are used interchangeably in different countries and there are still more terms like Wharf, Dock etc that are used to refer to a berth or harbour..


What are the definitions in your country..?? Please use the comments section to indicate your country and how these terms are referred to in your country..

Article republished after some critical statistical updates

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Hariesh Manaadiar
Hariesh Manaadiarhttps://www.shippingandfreightresource.com
I am Hariesh Manaadiar, the Founder of Shipping and Freight Resource.. I have been in the dynamic shipping and freight industry for over three decades and have worked in several sectors.. I share my experiences and knowledge of the industry through this blog for those looking for help in the industry.. Stay subscribed for more free useful content about shipping, freight, maritime, logistics, supply chain and trade..


  1. I too was trying to learn all the terms (also what is a marina?). From what I understand from your awesome breakdown and the hierarchy (I know commercial makes a difference, but in general):

    -Harbor- like Boston Harbor
    -Port- like Port of Boston
    -Marina?- is this like a non-commercial port for sailboats, etc?
    -Terminal- like Boston’s Falcon cruise ship terminal
    -Berth- place to dock/moor a commercial ship at the terminal
    -Wharf- waterfront land area that may have warehouses, shipyards, maritime tools/machinery?
    -Pier- a platform above sea level, often perpendicular to land, that has docks attached and sometimes other rec uses?
    -Dock- the floating wood thing that you berth/moor/dock a boat to?

    So in this map (https://goo.gl/maps/hegqPeb9uBuk7PBC6) would the wharf be the land area where you can see warehouses, parking lots, shipyard, etc? And the piers would be the long, above sea level, things stick out into the water? And the docks would maybe be the sea-level floating wood that the smaller boats are moored at (in the map–coming off of the big raised pier where you can see dozens of boats)? And is this this whole area a marina?


  2. That’s exactly what I was looking for .. Thanks a lot!
    I work in a maritime port and till the moment I didn’t have a clue about these differences .. Thanks a gain

  3. In North America, we generally use the word “Dock” to refer to a “Quay”. In the rest of the world, they use “Quay”.

    • American English is full of archaic English terms, like “Fall” instead of Autumn and “Dock” instead of “Quay”. It’s because American English lost linguistic contact with the UK in 1776…

  4. i am very glad and grateful for this mail and many ones sent to me.
    it is very interesting to find myself in a maritime logistics field, though im new in this field but im very elated to find it really interesting.
    i hope to learn more from you guys.
    thank you.

  5. Brilliant work, Hariesh!

    Excellent for new students (and old students!) to have such a reasonably clear exposition.

  6. I’ve started my google search with a question, the difference between Marina an jetty.
    Been English my second language I wasn’t sure.
    Anyway, I stumbled with this articule and got fascinated by the amount of interesting information and read it to the end which sometimes isn’t the case.
    Great explanation and the comments from other participants made it even more enjoyable.thank you

    • I would say the ship enters the harbour, gets into the port looking for the quay assigned to the ship, moors to the berth, and the people working at the terminal come closer to the ship to unload cargo on to the quay.

  7. Great info! Thanks! I’m writing a story (early 1800s) where a merchant gets off one ship and unloads his merchandise (containers of goods) and enters with his merchandise onto a waiting ship. Would this be done by way of quay or rowboats? Could it be done directly from ship to ship, or would he need to go ashore? I say “waiting ship” because it’s a pre-arranged transfer with the captain of the receiving ship waiting specifically for these goods. I have been trying to google info and your site is the best I’ve found. Thanks again.

    • Hello Carolfrances,
      I think all of the three options are thinkable, but you have to consider the following points (I am no expert) :
      – By way of quay : a minimal infrastructure is needed (straight berths with bollards, chariots etc). I think that the merchant wouldn’t do that himself, but would pay dockers to do this. Corporations of dockers began to exist in the XVIIIth Century (in France, I think). The merchant would have to pay a tax to the port, I think.
      – Using rowboats : an on-board crane on both ships would make the job easier (or possible). I think the operation is longer than the other ways.
      – Ship to ship : it can be done with a catwalk, if the ships have approx. the same size. Otherwise, a crane would be needed. It may be dangerous because the sails could hit one another and the hulls could be scratched (protective liners are very important).

    • I’m writing a story as well in the 1700s, on ships, fishing boats, and looking for the differences btw harbor and port.

  8. Very Good and very clear.
    Just adding:
    Harbor is a in-use location with good draft and tranquil sea with natural or man made barriers towards main sea /ocean thus safeguarding the shore from extremes of high / low tidal activity and peak effects of storm. A beach cannot be harbor since it will not have draft.
    A harbor may have many ports owned by different business, government, cooperatives, scientific bodies.

    A port may have various terminals provided with customized facilities & design specific for handling various types of cargoes. Terminals may have one or any of open Yards, Godowns, Cold Storages, Tanks, Silos for storage of specific commodity, cargo. Loading Unloading, handling, Storage, Security, documentation, custom clearance are key components of terminal services at port. To help distant onshore clients / customers, port business entity or govt. may create one or many extended Cargo Storage, Identification, Handling, documentation, Custom clearance services at clearly demarcated yards, godowns at inland locations near export import centers, cities called inland terminals.
    A terminal may have many berths either along the shore ground (like a wharf) or extended in sea called jetty berth. Jetty berth are connected to shore land through jetty approach. Jetty and Jetty approach can be used as pier as a specific use case. Normally in each harbor, around which sea-fishing is common, one such pier jetty is common sight where small boats and trawlers are moored with the pillars of the jetty. (Fishermen’s pier).

    Oil ships may not come to berths they may moor near single or double point mooring buoyo tied to sea bed by permanent catenary anchors at few km in sea from sea shores. Moorings are connected with undersea pipeline to shore. Ship connects with floating hoses to mooring to transfer oil to tanks in onshore terminal through mooring buoyo and under sea pipeline. Operation is through tug boats.

    Then there are dry docks with concrete channels which can take ships in during high tide and when ship is inside the channel, the channel can be closed by main and intermediate gates and can be dewatered by pumps to make it dry for shipbuilding or effecting repairs.

  9. In Portsmouth Harbour, UK, in the Royal Naval Dockyard there are berths known as Jetties and an area at the top of the harbour, where ships are moored for storage, called The Trots. Explain that one!

    • I personally feel that term usage should be more specific like berthing at berths or wharves and docking or docked only in a dry dock during repairs

  10. Truly Informative! Thamk You!!
    The :”Naval Dock Yard” in Mumbai which was Named During the Pre -Independence Period, remains as the Same Even Now.
    In Cochin, We call the Port “Thuramugham” in Regional Malayalam Language

  11. “There are usually no heavy commercial activities or cargo loading/unloading happening in a Pier or Jetty..”
    What about jetties used for oil tankers, though?

    Very interesting blog, I have no business in anything maritime, but it interests me nonetheless and your blog provides information that is easily understood by outsiders as well, appreciated!

  12. Can I get a clarification? Can the place where ship is anchored and where the cargo is unloaded (berth or quay) be known as terminal? Or only the inland location where the cargo (solid or liquid) is handled can be identified as terminal?

    • Hi Chirag, a ship is not anchored when it is in port, it is moored.. Where a ship is anchored is called anchorage which is a few miles away from the port but within the country’s waters.. Terminal can be coastal or inland..

    • Thank you for this thought-provoking information. I recently got a job with a terminal and these words were held but to some extent it was confusing. This is because I was taking care of an on-site clinic and it was mandatory that I visit the various site you just listed to familiarized myself with. But, with me crossing path with these words I am by far relief.

  13. Very informative and resourceful information. I am from the marine industry just joined a couple of years back. It gives me immense knowledge from this blog. Many many thanks for educating us.

  14. Ethiopia is land locked country. there is no direct access to the sea.We have different hinterland container terminals and usually considered as final destination to import cargo.Terminals serve us temporary awaiting place while received by the consignee(an importer). They are also considered us dry port.

  15. Good article Mr. Hariesh. In my country Cameroon, a river(River wouri in Douala) was adapted to serve as a habour/port. People call it a seaport. hahaha. Billoins of Francs CFA is spent on dredging whereas there are natural seaports(Kribi, Limbe etc). Kribi is presently under constructions for larger vessels.

  16. In some Bls we find CY/CY ; the yard is something like storage area nearby the berth to cater containers belonging to the multimodal carrier or sea carrier by extention CY/CY
    Miladi Samir

  17. explicitly defined and worth appreciate it.I have understand that terminal as final destinations. Be it sea discharging port, rail station and hinterland dry port terminals.Port is common to sea, terminal is common to land but some time interchangeable used.

  18. hello Hariesh,
    another exapmle is the danish capital Copenhagen: in danish/swedish/norwegian it is called KĂ–BENHAVN /KJĂ–PENHAMN(cannot type the correct Ăł) and it means, the harbor, where you buy.
    another example is in England: Newhaven = the new port/harbor.

  19. A good, helpful and well-written article!

    My personal definition of a terminal is a place where the mode of transport for a cargo changes e.g. from road to rail (for inland terminals), rail to ship, ship to pipeline and so on.


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