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Ocean Shipping Container Sizes and Types: A Guide for Shippers [Updated: Oct 2021]

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Updated on 23 Jan 20196 min read

Guide to Pick the Right Shipping Container

In this article, you will find the details you need to identify the right shipping container size and type to meet your international freight requirements. After reading through the article, you will know...

  • What types of containers are available
  • The standard sizes of shipping containers of each type
  • The capacity of each type of shipping container
  • What size shipping containers to request for your freight
  • The best container to choose for your type of shipment
  • The standard shipping container dimensions (length, width, and height)

Main Types of Freight Container for International Shipping

Guide to Pick the Right Shipping Container

For the majority of commodities, there is nothing better than a standard dry shipping container. This type of shipping container has doors at one end only. It is suitable for goods loaded loose or on pallets or skids. For many businesses shipping internationally , this is the only container-type they ever need, but depending on the nature of your cargo, you may want to consider the following types of freight container:

Flat Rack Freight Container

This type of container is for transporting heavy or awkwardly shaped freight. For example, if you are shipping construction materials, pipes, heavy machinery, or industrial equipment, you might require a flat rack container. In real terms, flat racks are not exactly containers, because they have no roof and typically no sides either. They may have upright ends, but not in every case— some flat racks are nothing more than a simple platform. Others have collapsible ends to increase their adaptability for different cargo types.

High Cube Container

Almost identical to a standard dry container, a high cube is around a foot taller, and hence has more storage capacity. A full container load in a high cube can be as much as 76 cubic meters of freight, compared with 67 cubic meters in a standard container.

Open Top Freight Container

For situations where you have a shipment that's too high for a standard dry container, but not large enough to justify a high cube unit, you might get away with using an open top shipping container. Of course, the top of this container type is not open in the literal sense, but is covered with a tarpaulin to keep out the elements. It can also be loaded and unloaded from above using a crane.

Tunnel Container

A tunnel container is a dry freight container, used for FCL and LCL shipping with a set of doors at each end, making the container much easier to stuff and destuff than a standard single-door unit. Tunnel containers are the perfect solution when you need your goods to be loaded and unloaded swiftly.

Side Open (or Open Side) Shipping Container

Like tunnel containers, the design of open side units facilitates loading and unloading. Instead of having doors at the ends, one entire side of the container is hinged in four places, providing access along the entire length of the unit. This configuration is perfect for when forklifts will load or unload goods packed on pallets.

Tank Containers

Tank containers are for shipping hazardous or non-hazardous liquids and gases. They comprise a cylindrical tank constructed of steel or similar corrosion-resistant material, housed in a steel frame. The frame is of the same dimensions as standard containers, so that the tank container can be stacked with any other container types on the deck of a cargo vessel or in a container terminal.

Refrigerated Containers (or Reefers)

These are identical to standard dry shipping containers, but are fitted with insulation and refrigerator units to keep contents within a certain temperature range during shipment and storage.

Shipping Container Dimensions and Capacities

Guide to Pick the Right Shipping Container

The following tables detail the dimensions and capacities of the most common container types. It is worth noting that in general, shipping containers are available in lengths of 40 feet and 20 feet.

Please also note that in the tables, the length, width, and height of each container type is the internal, rather than external measurement (except for tank containers), which is why you will see variations in the dimensions. Externally, all 40-foot, 20-foot, and 10-foot containers are identical in length and width.

20 foot Shipping Container Dimensions and Capacity

Container Type Container Length (Feet and Inches) Container Width (Feet and Inches) Container Height (Feet and Inches) Load Capacity (Cubic Meters)
Dry Container 19' 4¼'' 7' 8⅝'' 7' 6¼'' 33.2
Flat Rack Container 19' 9¾'' 8' 7' 3⅞'' 33.2
Open Top Container 19' 4¼'' 7' 8⅝'' 7' 10¼'' 33.2
Reefer Container 17' 11⅝'' 7'6'' 7' 4⅞''
Tank Container 20' (external) 8' 8' 6'' 20,001 Liters

40 foot Shipping Container Dimensions and Capacity

Container Type Container Length (Feet and Inches) Container Width (Feet and Inches) Container Height (Feet and Inches) Load Capacity (Cubic Meters)
Dry Container 37' 11¼'' 7' 8⅝'' 7' 10¼'' 67.67
Flat Rack Container 39' 3⅞'' 7' 4'' 7' 5⅓'' 52.7
Open Top Container 39' 5'' 7' 8⅛'' 7' 6¼'' 66.67
Reefer Container 37' 9'' 7' 5⅜'' 6' 11⅞'' 57.76
High Cube Container 39' 5'' 7' 8⅛ 8' 6¼''' 76.3

A Few More Types of Containers

Guide to Pick the Right Shipping Container

In addition to the main shipping container types documented in this article, there are a few other variations in use today, including:

  • 45-foot High Cube: The same as other high cube containers, but with a length of 45 feet
  • 10-foot Containers:The same as all other containers, but just 10 feet in length
  • Ventilated Containers: For goods requiring plenty of air circulation
  • Insulated Containers: For products sensitive to very high temperatures
  • Half Height Containers: For small quantities of bulk freight such as stones or coal
  • Car Carriers: Specialized containers for transporting cars

How’s Your Container Savvy Now?

Guide to Pick the Right Shipping Container

If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed at the many types and sizes of shipping containers to choose from, take a deep breath, and relax. In most cases, you will not need to worry about selecting containers for your shipments.

As long as your freight forwarder or international shipping company knows what type of goods you wish to ship, the weight, dimensions, and volumes of those goods, and any special requirements such as temperature control, insulation, or ventilation, you can leave it to them to find an optimal solution.

At Shipa Freight, for example, we will calculate and procure the right types, sizes, and number of containers to ship your cargo safely and securely, and to keep it in tip-top condition from origin to destination.

Are you ready to get shipping? If so, head over to our homepage and get an online FCL quote today.