The Shipping Container types: A Quick Guide

Oct 28, 2020 Lilia Khovrak Lilia Khovrak

Malcolm McLean’s intermodal container changed the face of global trade. His invention allowed cargo to be carried by train, crane, truck, and ship, reducing transport times and labour costs in the process. McLean’s container also helped secure commercial primacy for the seas. Today, over 50,000 merchant ships carry almost 90% of world trade, the bulk of it packed into some type of shipping container.  

There are almost 20 different types of shipping containers circling the world on any given day, modified according to size, dimension, and cargo. In this article we look at the industry’s eight most common container types and what they’re used for.

If you already know what container you’re looking for, check out our Load Calculator to optimise the container space required for your cargo.


Types of Shipping Containers

1. The standard shipping container, also known as a dry storage container, is ever-present in the shipping world. These airtight standard containers are closed on all sides and used for transporting general cargo. Unlike refrigerated containers, these do not have internal cooling or heating systems. 

The available dimensions of a standard shipping container are 20 foot and 40 foot. The maximum cargo weight for the 20ft container is 28,230kg and it is 26,700kg for the 40ft. 

Container Dimensions - 20 ftLengthHeightWidth
Inside5.89 m2.39 m2.35 m
2.29 m2.34 m

Container Dimensions - 40 ftLengthHeightWidth
Inside12.029 m2.392 m2.350 m
2.392 m 2.340 m

2. The high-cube container is structurally similar to the standard container but with added height. Compared to dry containers, which are 8’6” in height, high-cube containers measure up to 9’6”. The added space makes storage possible for large items like vicles or heavy equipment. Lashing rings are attached on the front top and rail and along the corner posts. 

The most common dimension for a high-cube container is 40ft and it can hold a maximum weight of 26,460kg.

Container DimensionsLengthHeightWidth
Inside12.024 m2.697 m2.350 m
2.597 m2.340 m

3. The open top container has a removable roof and doors on both sides, making it easy to load, unload, and transport large items. It is typically used for oversized cargo like construction equipment and building supplies. A tarpaulin is needed at the top to protect the cargo. 

The maximum load capacity for a 20ft open top container is approximately 28,000kg and a 40ft container can have up to 30,000kg. 

Container Dimensions - 20 ftLengthHeightWidth
Inside5.888 m2.315 m2.345 m
2.184 m2.286 m

Container Dimensions - 40 ftLengthHeightWidth
Inside12.029 m2.326 m2.342 m
2.274 m
2.341 m

4. The flatrack container allows cargo to be loaded from the top or sides. Loading this way may be necessary due to the cargo’s weight or irregular dimensions. This type of container is available with removable end doors (‘collapsible’) or fixed end doors (‘non-collapsible’). Lashing rings are attached to the side rails and the floor to ensure that the cargo is properly secured. The rings may take a load of up to 2000kg in a 20ft flatrack container and 4000kg in a 40ft container. It is often used to transport industrial pipes, buses and boats. 

The 20ft flatracks can hold up to 21,500kg and the 40ft ones can hold up to 40,800kg. 

Container Dimensions - 20 ftLengthHeightWidth
Inside5.698 m2.255 m2.230 m

Container Dimensions - 40 ftLengthHeightWidth
Inside11.832 m1.981 m2.228 m

5. The platform container has a single floor structure and does not contain a roof or side doors. The steel frame and wooden base provide a high loading capacity. This allows for heavy weights to be concentrated in small areas. It is ideal for heavy cargoes with irregular dimensions, as these may not fit into any other container type. They are typically available in dimensions of 20ft and 40ft. 

The maximum cargo weight for a 20ft container is 27,960kg and it is 39,300kgs for 40ft.

Container Dimensions - 20 ftLengthHeightWidth
Inside6.058 m0.370 m2.438 m

Container Dimensions - 40 ftLengthHeightWidth
Inside12.192 m0.648 m2.245 m

6. The refrigerated container is temperature-controlled to transport fresh and frozen perishables over long distances. Also known as reefer containers, these do not reduce or increase the temperature of the goods and only help to maintain the item’s pre-cooled temperature. During transportation, the units are connected to the vessel’s onboard power supply. Sufficient space must be provided in the upper area of the container for the air to flow. The maximum load height can be seen on the side walls. 

The most common dimensions available are 20ft and 40ft. For the 20ft, the maximum cargo weight is 21,450kg and it is 26,630kg for the 40ft container. 

Container Dimensions - 20 ftLengthHeightWidth
Inside5.724 m2.014 m2.286 m
2.067 m
2.286 m

Container Dimensions - 40 ftLengthHeightWidth
Inside11.840 m2.120 m2.286 m
2.195 m
2.286 m

7. The bulk container has three loading latches on the roof (each of a diameter of approx. 455 mm), lashing rings on the top rails, and sometimes pockets below for forklifts. It is used for transporting granular cargo like grains, gravel, and pharmaceutical compounds. 

The only available dimension for this type of container is 20ft. Bulk containers can hold a maximum weight of 21,550kg. 

Container Dimensions - 20 ftLengthHeightWidth
Inside5.934 m2.340 m2.358 m
2.292 m
2.335 m

8. The tank container is a cylindrical vessel used for transporting liquids like juices, oils, and even hazardous chemicals. It can be insulated or heated, depending on the liquid being shipped. Temperature sensors can be used to control the exact temperature of the item being shipped. The container is designed to operate up to a pressure of 3 bar above atmospheric. Each tank must be at least 80% full but should not exceed 95% capacity. 

In addition to 20ft containers, the dimensions also include 10ft and 30ft in length. The maximum cargo capacity for a tank container is 26,290kg. 

Container Dimensions - 40 ftLengthHeightWidth
Inside6.058 m2.438 m2.438 m

Calculating cargo weight and cargo volume

It might not always be possible to pack a shipping container to its full capacity. Padding may need to be placed between the items to prevent damage during transit. So, it is important to do the wrapping first and then calculate the cargo volume.

Shippers need to measure the length, width and height of the shipping container and multiply the numbers to determine the container volume. When it comes to the cargo volume, it is measured in cubic metres using the same formula.

Paying for a shipping container

The payment depends on whether it is a full load container (FCL) or less container load (LCL). For FCL, the shipper will be paying a Commodity Box Rate (CBR), which is a flat rate that is quoted per container. The fee for shipping LCL will be charged based on the cargo volume.

Stuffing your shipping container

Once you’ve selected the right container for your needs, you’ll need to optimise the space for your cargo to ensure that all your products will be stuffed properly.

Our SeaRates’ Load Calculator is a web-based tool that allows you to input the details of your cargo and simulate in 3D  how the items will be packed into the container. 

Lilia Khovrak is a professional content manager from Odessa, Ukraine. Loves life by the sea. Dreams to see Paris and eat a croissant on the thresholds of Notre Dame de Paris. Hates to read meaningless articles.