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A Shipper’s Guide to Cargo Container Sizes and Types

Container shipping is the most economical transportation mode for your cargo. Fitted on ships, trains and trucks, the humble container redefined international shipping and allowed global trade to expand to the levels we know today. 

Which container type is the most suitable for your cargo? Is it large enough to fit? The Freight Forwarding Experts take stock of the most common equipment types, so you can make the right decision.

A Short History of Shipping Containers

The idea of a shipping container first came from England at the close of the 18th century. The early iteration of the container did not resemble their modern counterparts. The containers were rectangular wooden boxes, mostly used to transport coal.

The first modern intermodal shipping container, as we know it today, came to existence in 1955 in the U.S. when Malcom McLean, together with engineer Keith Tantlinger, developed a module made of corrugated steel. The structure allowed for movement using cranes and stacking them on top of each other.

On April 26, 1956, the Ideal X tanker, converted into a container ship for the occasion, made its first voyage from Newark, New Jersey to Houston, Texas.

After the development of containers, the lack of common standards became problematic, as various container sizes and systems remained in use for the two following decades. Clear sizing requirements for each container type were subsequently agreed upon and enforced through the ISO standard. As a consequence, shipping containers are often referred to as ISO containers. Containers all require a valid Safety Approval Plate [URL to SOLAS / Documentation page] (Also known as CSC Plate, for Convention for Safe Containers) to be eligible to be shipped.

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Standard Container Types and ISO Dimensions

Durable and multifunctional, standard containers are the most common freight unit for sea transportation. These containers are referred to as “dry.” When fully enclosed, they provide weather-proof protection from the elements. Twenty-foot and forty-foot containers are the most common sizes.

These containers are designed for any type of transport – sea or land. High cube containers are taller and thus offer more capacity for larger cargo.

External dimensions, minimum internal dimensions and maximal weight (i.e. including cargo) are fixed by the ISO standard 6346. Tare weight, actual internal dimensions and other measures will however differ from one model and manufacturer to the other.

20-foot, 40-foot and 45-foot Standard Container Dimensions

High Cube 40-foot Container Dimensions

Refrigerated Container Types and Dimensions

Also called reefers, refrigerated containers or temperature-controlled containers are used for goods that require temperature regulation like food, electronics or medication. Their built-in engine maintains their internal temperature between -35 and +30⁰C and requires the containers to be connected to a power source in order to guarantee consistent thermal performance.

The size and weight of the engine will influence the exact tare weight and cubic volume capacity, which can thus significantly differ from one model and manufacturer to the other.

20-foot and 40-foot Refrigerated Container Dimensions

Non-Operated Refrigerated Containers (NORs)?

Non-Operated Reefer (NOR) transports are shipments of dry cargo in a Reefer container, without activating the temperature control.

While they are a great way to carry goods, they come with some limitations. The space occupied by the gen-set reduces the volume capacity, while special grate flooring limits the weight of the stuffed cargo. They are also not suitable for all types of forklifts.

To learn everything about transporting your goods with this option, read our flyer about non-operated reefer containers

Other Specialized Containers

Shipping containers come in all shapes and sizes to match any cargo type and dimensions.

Tank Containers

Tank containers, a reinforced frame nesting a tank, specialize in the transport of food, oil, fuel and chemical liquids. Such container types are easy to load and reliably retain even flammable contents. Tank containers are also normally not available from steam ship lines, but rather from specialized leasing companies.

20-foot tank containers will typically hold up to 26,000 liters of liquid and the dimensions match that of classic 20-foot containers.

20-foot tank container dimensions

  • External Dimensions (l x h x w): 6.058 m x 2.591 m x 2.438 m / 19' 10.5" x 8' 6" x 8' 0
  • Max Weight:  30,480  kg/ 67,200  lbs.
  • Approx. Cubic volume: 26 m3

Flat Rack and Platform Containers

Flat racks and platform containers are suitable for out-of-gauge cargo but naturally carry in-gauge goods as well. Flat racks are usually shown with two side walls, while platform containers feature no paneling at all. The exact container dimension will vary depending on the manufacturer and paneling solution, but they do come in 20- and 40-foot versions like any ISO container.

Open-Top Containers

Open Top containers follow a similar principle, but do feature four side panels and a soft tarpaulin top, and also allow for the transportation of bulk cargo. They are best suited for cargo that requires crane loading from the top of the container, or that contains taller items. They exist in 20-foot and 40-foot versions, thus featuring similar dimensions to the standard container types explored above. They are notably also available as high-cubes, because the tarpaulin hoops reduce the headroom and thus loading capacity. It is also worth mentioning that open-tops’ door headers can be removed for easier access through the door opening.

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