United Kingdom Sea Ports

| December 20, 2023
United Kingdom Sea Ports

The vast majority of tourists and other visitors to the United Kingdom arrive by air but this is not the only means of access to the four United Kingdom countries of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. There are regular ferry services from the Republic of Ireland to the British mainland as well as crossings by hovercraft and boat to and from France and other European countries.

Although a lot of the sea ports around the island of Britain are primarily intended to service freight and cargo, most of them also handle a significant number of passengers (with and without cars) on short trips to Ireland, France, the Netherlands and Spain.

Alongside these “short-haul” trips, the United Kingdom also boasts an ever-increasing number of sea cruises with scheduled sailings from a number of ports to destinations like the Mediterranean Sea, the Baltic Sea and further afield.

Short Voyages

One of the best-known ferry companies in the United Kingdom is Stena Line which operates a number of services between the island of Britain and overseas:

Dublin to Holyhead: The Republic of Ireland is only a short distance from the British mainland, and there are regular passenger and car ferries between Holyhead (on the Welsh Isle of Anglesey) and the Irish capital city of Dublin.

Rosslare to Fishguard: Another popular access route to Britain is the ferry from Rosslare (95 miles/152 km south of Dublin) to the Welsh town of Fishguard, where train and bus connections can be made to many of the major cities in England.

Harwich to Hoek van Holland: On the eastern coast of England, Stena Line also operates a regular service between Harwich (86 miles/138 km) east of London and Hoek van Holland, which is approximately 54 miles (87 km) southwest of Amsterdam and a mere 17 miles (27 km) from Rotterdam.

Dublin to Liverpool: Travellers from the Republic of Ireland can also avail of a more direct service to England via the Dublin-Liverpool ferry operated by P&O with sailings once or twice daily.

Ferries between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom are extremely popular for travellers looking for a short holiday or a weekend break, but destinations in northern Europe are becoming increasingly more popular with travellers who wish to enjoy a motoring holiday while abroad.

European Destinations

Many ferry companies offer special deals for passengers taking a car overseas, and these deals can be almost irresistible in terms of the value for money and freedom of choice they offer. Naturally enough, ferries operating from England are limited in the distance they can travel, so the European destinations will inevitably be located along the northernmost edge of Europe, which includes France, Holland and as far south as the north of Spain.


All ferries to European destinations sail from English sea ports and the following are currently in operation:

  • Dover to Calais
  • Dover to Dunkirk
  • Newhaven to Dieppe
  • Plymouth to Roscoff
  • Poole to Cherbourg
  • Portsmouth to Cherbourg
  • Portsmouth to Caen
  • Portsmouth to Le Havre
  • Portsmouth to St Malo


  • Harwich to Hoek van Holland
  • Hull to Rotterdam
  • Newcastle to Amsterdam


  • Plymouth to Santander
  • Portsmouth to Bilbao
  • Portsmouth to Santander

Pros and Cons

Travelling to the United Kingdom by boat or ferry is not for everyone, but there are some advantages to using this method of travel as well as some disadvantages. Taking a car into the UK allows a traveller to explore the countryside at leisure and visit selected destinations at will. This is much more cost-effective than hiring a car in the United Kingdom and less restrictive than being confined to bus or train travel.

For non-British visitors or those travelling on a visa, the waiting times are generally shorter than those experienced at airports as the volume of traffic is a lot less. In addition, there is no limit on the amount of baggage that can be carried either by hand or in the vehicle.

Cross Channel Ferry

Visitors arriving in the UK from France with a car can choose to use the Channel Tunnel or take a ferry. The tunnel may be more direct and certainly quicker, but it can be more expensive, and delays can be expected for passport control and baggage checks.

Incorporating a short ferry ride across the English Channel into the trip is an attractive alternative as it is a more relaxing experience and is more economical.

Ferries to mainland Europe generally depart from one of five ports along the English south coast. The exceptions are the journeys from Newcastle in the north of England to the Dutch city of Amsterdam, the Hull to Rotterdam ferry and the service between Harwich and Hoek van Holland. The five British south coast ferry ports are:

  1. Dover
  2. Newhaven
  3. Portsmouth
  4. Poole
  5. Plymouth


Carrying over 16 million travellers annually, Dover is the busiest passenger sea port in the world. There are an average of 38 crossings between Dover and Calais daily, with the journey taking around ninety minutes. Dover also operates twelve sailings a day to Dunkirk further along the French coastline and is a popular route for passengers coming from (or travelling to) the Belgian cities of Antwerp, Bruges or Ghent, as well as Amsterdam or Rotterdam in the Netherlands.


Newhaven is a small town and port located in East Sussex and about 74 miles (120 km) due south of London. There are three daily sailings to the French fishing port of Dieppe in Normandy with a journey time of in or around four hours.


There are a number of ferry routes from Portsmouth, which is 75 miles (121 km) to the southeast of London and close to the town of Southampton. Apart from ferry services to Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Wight, ferries also run regularly to the four French coastal towns of Caen, Cherbourg, St. Malo and Le Havre and the two Spanish resorts of Bilbao and Santander.


An alternative connection to Cherbourg in France is the Poole to Cherbourg ferry. There are ten sailings per week from the Dorset town with a journey time of just over four hours.


Located almost at the extreme southwestern point of England, the port of Plymouth offers a ferry service to Roscoff in the northwest corner of France as well as a long-distance ferry to Santander on Spain’s northern coast. There are nine sailings to Roscoff every week with a journey time of around five and a half hours, while the trip to Santander should take an estimated twenty hours.

Ferries into the United Kingdom, whether from mainland Europe or the Republic of Ireland, are not the only way to arrive in or transit through UK jurisdiction. There is also a growing interest in cruise ship holidays, which either depart from the United Kingdom or stop as part of the cruise itinerary.

Cruising Options

It would be virtually impossible to list all the cruise ships that pass through the United Kingdom every year, as the number of operators and the volume of traffic constantly change and grow. Presently, five ports, all located in England, are bases of operations for different cruise operators.


Not only is Southampton the second-biggest container port in the United Kingdom, but it is also a centre of activity for cruise ships and a base for such well-known liners as the Queen Elizabeth, Queen Victoria and Queen Mary.


Dover is a busy port for foot passengers as well as cargo and freight, but it is also a home port for the Fred Olson Cruise Line as well as Windstar Cruises, Crystal Cruises and the Norwegian Cruise Line.


The Fred Olson Cruise Line operates regular departures from the port of Tilbury at the mouth of the River Thames. Cruises from Tilbury are bound for destinations in Northern Europe as well as Greenland, Norway and even the Arctic.


The port of Liverpool on the west coast of England has its own cruise ship terminal building right in the heart of the city. Top cruise ship operators operate from the city, including Fred Olson and Cruise Maritime Voyages.


An hour by train from London, the port of Harwich is relatively small in comparison to others but is a port of call for cruise ship operators Fred Olson (a local company) as well as Royal Caribbean and Marella Cruises.

As is the case when entering the UK through an airport, it is necessary to carry the required travel documentation when using a sea port. Passports and visas, where applicable, will be checked before boarding a ship, but further checks at different ports of call are also likely.

UK ETA is rolling out November 2023

For passengers on a ferry travelling from point A to point B, it is highly unlikely that documentation will be checked anywhere but at the point of embarkation. Travellers on cruise ships, however, may be asked for a passport at any point during the trip, particularly when crossing an international border.

Passports (and visas) should be in order and up to date.

Although there is currently no requirement for non-British citizens to have acquired a UK ETA (Electronic Travel Authorisation), this new pre-screening system of vetting intending visitors to the UK is currently being rolled out. The UK ETA should become a mandatory requirement sometime in 2024 (possibly 2025) and any intending visitors to the United Kingdom who are renewing a passport should strongly consider applying for a UK ETA before next visiting the UK.

Travelling without a UK ETA-approved passport is not an issue at present but will be in the not-too-distant future, so it may pay to be prepared for the upcoming change in UK travel regulations.