Port, harbour or terminal – What’s the difference?

If you are relatively new to the maritime industry then you might be understandably confused by the various terminologies. This is never truer than when it comes to harbour, port, and terminal, three words which might essentially mean the same thing to many. There is, however, a marked difference between the three, which we will explore in detail below.


A port is an area situated on land and water and on a river or the sea, in which vessels either load or unload their cargo for export or import. Ports will generally have links to road and rail networks in order to bring cargo to the port and distribute it across the country.

A port’s boundaries are set by human beings and a single harbour could contain several different ports. Sydney, for example, is a city with multiple ports based around one large harbour.

There are two main types of port, each of which will have different operational restrictions placed upon them:

Closed – Closed ports mean that only national traffic is allowed in. This is common in many countries, particularly Japan, and the restrictions exist to protect domestic fleets from being undercut by cheaper foreign ships. There are also commonly no immigration or customs authorities located at these ports, so they remain closed in order to stave off potential illegal immigration.

Free – Free (or open) ports operate with fewer customs regulations and are more convenient for faster cargo transport at a lower cost due to the lack of paperwork involved.


The harbour relates to the physical area where the water meets the land and creates a natural bay area. Of course, harbours have been created by human intervention (Portland harbour in the UK, for example), but most major harbours around the world are naturally made.

These natural harbours have provided ships with safe anchorage for hundreds of years thanks to their protective bays, which allow safe and convenient access to the shore.

Harbours need to be deep enough to allow large ships to enter land without touching the bottom of the sea bed and also need to be wide enough to allow multiple ships to pass each other without incident. There are hundreds of natural and manmade harbours across the world, but the largest (deepest and widest) natural harbour in the world is Sydney Harbour, at over 11 miles long and 21 miles wide.


These are the manmade facilities that are used to house ships and their cargo and come in two varieties: Terminals in open water with no land bridge and terminals in sheltered water with a land bridge. A terminal exists to separate different types of cargo.

So, a typical port might have, for example, a container terminal, an energy terminal (for oil, gas and coal) and a bulk cargo terminal. Container terminals are the largest of these and the largest in the world is currently located in Shanghai.

Berths/Quays/Piers and Jetties

Of course, this is not where the maritime terminology begins and ends. Far from it. Every port or terminal will also house a number of berths or quays, which are areas where the ships are actually moored. In small ports, meanwhile, you might instead have several piers or jetties, which essentially serve the same function.

So, what have we learned? A harbour can have many ports, a port can have many terminals and a terminal can have many berths: Wheels within wheels. Then there are wharves and docks to consider. But we’ll save that for another day.