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Ocean Freight

A SHIPPER'S GUIDE TO 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. 

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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 (Also known as CSC Plate, for Convention for Safe Containers) to be eligible to be shipped.

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

  • 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"

    Minimum Internal Dimensions  (l x h x w)

    5.867 m x 2.350 m x 2.330 m

    19' 3" x 7' 8.5" x 7' 7.73"

    Approx. Doorway Dimensions (w x h)

    2.330 m x 2.260 m

    7’ 7” x 7’ 5”

    Approx. Tare Weight

    2,250 kg

    4,960 lbs

    Approx. Max Payload

    28,230 kg

    62,240 lbs

    Max. Weight

    30,480  kg

    67,200  lbs

    Approx. Cubic volume

    33 m3

  • External Dimensions (l x h x w)

    12.192 m x 2.591 m x 2.438 m

    40' 0" x 8' 6" x 8' 0"

    Minimum Internal Dimensions  (l x h x w)

    11.998 m x 2.350 m x 2.330 m

    39' 4.375" x 7' 8.5" x 7' 7.73"

    Approx. Doorway Dimension (w x h)

    2,330 m x 2.590 m

    7’ 7” x 7’ 5”

    Approx. Tare Weight

    3,740 kg

    8,250 lbs

    Approx. Max Payload

    26,740 kg

    58,950 lbs

    Max. Weight

    30,480 kg

    67,200 lbs

    Approx. Cubic volume

    66 m3

  • External Dimensions (l x h x w)

    12.192 m x 2.896 m x 2.438 m

    40' 0" x 9' 6" x 8' 0"

    Minimum Internal Dimensions  (l x h x w)

    11.998 m x 2.655 m x 2.330 m

    39' 4.375" x 8' 8.5" x 7' 7.73"

    Approx. Doorway Dimensions (w x h)

    2.330 m x 2.590 m

    7’ 7” x 8’ 6”

    Approx. Tare Weight

    4,150 kg

    9,150 lbs

    Approx. Max Payload

    26,330 kg

    58,050 lbs

    Max. Weight

    30,480 kg

    67,200 lbs

    Approx. Cubic volume

    76 m3

  • 45-foot containers generally come in high-cube format, and are the largest container type commonly used.

    External Dimensions (l x h x w)

    13.716 m x 2.896 m x 2.438 m

    45' 0" x 9' 6" x 8' 0"

    Minimum Internal Dimensions  (l x h x w)

    13.542 m x 2.655 m x 2.330 m

    44' 5.15" x 8' 8 1/2" x 7' 7 3/4"

    Approx. Doorway Dimensions (w x h)

    2.340 m x 2,597 m

    7’ 8” x 6’ 2”

    Approx. Tare Weight

    4,280 kg

    9,440 lbs

    Approx. Max Payload

    26,500 kg

    57,760 lbs

    Max Weight

    30,480 kg

    67,200 lbs

    Approx. Cubic volume

    86 m3

Refrigerated Containers Types & Dimensions

Also called reefersrefrigerated 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 Refrigerated containers

    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"

    Example Internal Dimensions  (l x h x w)

    5.450 m x 2.263 m x 2.290 m

    17’ 10 1/3” x 7’ 1/10” x 7’ 6 1/5"

    Example Doorway Dimensions (w x h)

    2.290 m x 2.252 m

    7’ 6 1/5" x 7’ 4 3/4"

    Example Tare Weight

    2,840 kg

    6,260 lbs

    Example Max Payload

    27,640 kg

    60,940 lbs

    Example Max Gross Weight

    30,480 kg

    67,200 lbs

    Approx. Cubic volume

    28 m3


    40-foot Refrigerated containers are commonly found in the high cube format.

    External Dimensions (l x h x w)

    12.192 m x 2.896 m x 2.438 m

    40' 0" x 9' 6" x 8' 0"

    Example Internal Dimensions  (l x h x w)

    11.583 m x 2.545 m x 2.290 m

    38’ x  8’ 4 1/5” x 7’ 6 1/5"

    Example Doorway Dimensions (w x h)

    2.290 m x 2.557 m

    7’ 6 1/5" x 8’ 4 3/4"

    Example Tare Weight

    4,330 kg

    9,560 lbs

    Approx. Max Payload

    29,670 kg

    65,410 lbs

    Max Weight

    34,000 kg

    74,960 lbs

    Approx. Cubic volume

    68 m3

  • 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.

Other Specialized Containers

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

  • Tank containers, a reinforced frame nesting a tank, specialize in the transport of food, oil, fuel & chemical liquids. Such containers 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. Their 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 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. Their 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 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. 

A Shipper’s Guide to Cargo Vessel Types & Dimensions

Read our next article to find out about 'cargo vessel sizes' – ‘A Shipper's Guide To Cargo Vessel Sizes?’.

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