Shipping Containers: A Complete Guide to Types, Costs, and Logistics

freight shipping container

‍Photo by dendoktoor on Pixabay

freight shipping container


Shipping containers have revolutionized the way goods are transported around the world. These standardized containers, regulated by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), have made it possible to efficiently ship products across various modes of transportation, including rail, ship, and road. In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the different types of shipping containers, the logistics involved in container shipping, the cost considerations, and the necessary documentation. Let’s dive in!

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Types of Shipping Containers
    • Dry Storage Containers
    • Flat Rack Containers
    • Open Side Containers
    • Open Top Containers
    • Refrigerated Containers
    • Tanks
  3. Container Packing: FCL and LCL Shipments
  4. Packaging and Loading Methods
  5. Cost of Shipping a Container
    • 20ft Container Shipping Cost
    • 40ft Container Shipping Cost
  6. Incoterms and Responsibilities
  7. Shipping Container Documentation
    • Bill of Lading
    • Freight Bill
  8. Steps of Container Shipping
    • Order Placed
    • Truck Loaded
    • Ship Loaded
    • Transport
    • Arrival
    • Containers Offloaded
    • Customs Clearance
    • Pickup
    • Final Delivery
  9. Conclusion
  10. Get in Touch

1. Introduction

Shipping containers have become a vital component of global trade, enabling the efficient and secure transportation of goods across vast distances. These containers are available in various sizes and types to accommodate different types of cargo and specific transportation needs. Whether you are shipping dry materials, vehicles, perishable goods, or liquids, there is a container designed to meet your requirements.

2. Types of Shipping Containers

Dry Storage Containers

Dry storage containers are the most common type of shipping containers used to transport dry materials. They come in standard lengths of 10ft, 20ft, and 40ft, providing ample space for goods of various sizes. These containers are sturdy and weatherproof, ensuring the safety of the cargo during transportation.

Flat Rack Containers

Flat rack containers are designed with collapsible sides that can be folded down, allowing for easy loading and unloading of oversized cargo, such as boats, equipment, and cars. The collapsible sides make these containers versatile and efficient for shipping bulky items.

Open Side Containers

Open side containers feature doors that can be fully opened on the side, providing wider access for loading and unloading materials. These containers are particularly useful for shipping perishable goods, such as vegetables, that require easy access and proper ventilation.

Open Top Containers

Open top containers, as the name suggests, have no roof, allowing for the transportation of goods with varying heights. These containers are ideal for shipping items like logs or machinery that cannot fit in standard containers due to their height.

Refrigerated Containers

Refrigerated containers, also known as “reefer” containers, are equipped with temperature control systems to maintain a cold or frozen environment. These containers are essential for transporting perishable goods, such as food stock or pharmaceutical products, that require specific temperature conditions to prevent spoilage.


Tank containers are designed to transport liquids, including fuels and chemicals. These containers have specialized construction to ensure the safe containment and transportation of liquids without spillage or leakage.

3. Container Packing: FCL and LCL Shipments

When it comes to container packing, there are two main methods: Full Container Load (FCL) and Less-than-container Load (LCL), also known as break bulk shipments.

FCL shipments involve filling an entire container with goods from a single supplier. This method is suitable for larger quantities of cargo that require dedicated space and do not need to be combined with shipments from other suppliers.

On the other hand, LCL shipments are ideal for smaller quantities of goods that do not require a full container. In this case, a shipping broker or freight forwarder combines multiple suppliers’ goods in a single container to make a full shipment. While the cost per kilogram is higher than FCL shipments, the total delivery cost is often lower, making it a cost-effective option for smaller shipments.

4. Packaging and Loading Methods

In container shipping, proper packaging and loading methods are crucial to ensure the safety and security of the cargo during transportation. There are several common methods used to pack and load goods inside containers:

  • Pallets or Skids: Wooden or plastic supports used to elevate and stabilize the load.
  • Shrink Wrapping: Plastic film tightly wrapped around the goods to secure them in place.
  • Slip Sheets: Thin plastic sheets used as a base for the load, replacing the need for pallets.
  • Crates: Wooden or plastic boxes used to contain and protect the cargo.

Careful consideration should be given to the packaging and loading methods to prevent damage and maximize space utilization within the container.

5. Cost of Shipping a Container

The cost of shipping a container varies depending on several factors, including the size of the container and the distance it needs to travel. Generally, larger containers and longer distances result in higher shipping costs.

20ft Container Shipping Cost

The cost of shipping a 20ft container can vary significantly based on the origin and destination. For example, shipping a 20ft container from New York to Hamburg may cost around $1700, while the same container shipped from New York to Vancouver could cost closer to $4500.

40ft Container Shipping Cost

40ft containers are slightly more expensive to ship than 20ft containers. Shipping a 40ft container from New York to Hamburg may cost around $2150, while shipping it from New York to Vancouver could run nearly $6000.

It is important to note that these costs are just estimates and can vary depending on various factors, such as the shipping line, fuel prices, and seasonal fluctuations.

6. Incoterms and Responsibilities

In international trade, the responsibilities and obligations of the buyer and the seller are defined by Incoterms (International Commercial Terms). Incoterms provide a set of rules that outline the division of costs and risks between the parties involved in a transaction.

There are different Incoterms, such as EXW (Ex Works), FOB (Free On Board), and CIF (Cost, Insurance, and Freight), each indicating the responsibilities of the buyer and the seller regarding transportation, insurance, and customs clearance. It is crucial to understand the specific Incoterm agreed upon to ensure a smooth shipping process and avoid any misunderstandings or disputes.

7. Shipping Container Documentation

Proper documentation is essential in container shipping to ensure the smooth flow of goods and compliance with legal and regulatory requirements. The two most important forms of documentation in shipping are the Bill of Lading (BL) and the Freight Bill.

Bill of Lading

The Bill of Lading is a legal document issued by the carrier to the shipper, acknowledging the receipt of goods for shipment. It serves as evidence of the contract of carriage and contains details such as the description of the goods, the names of the shipper and consignee, the origin and destination ports, and the terms and conditions of the shipment.

Freight Bill

The Freight Bill, also known as the invoice, provides a breakdown of the costs associated with shipping the goods from the origin to the destination. It includes details such as the shipping costs, insurance charges, and any additional fees or surcharges. The Freight Bill is essential for accounting and financial purposes, as it serves as proof of payment for the shipping services rendered.

8. Steps of Container Shipping

Container shipping involves a series of steps, from placing an order to the final delivery of the goods. Let’s take a closer look at each step:

Order Placed

The client places an order with a manufacturer and collaborates with a freight forwarder to arrange transportation from the manufacturer’s location to their own. This is where the need for shipping containers arises.

Truck Loaded

In most cases, goods are loaded onto trucks for transportation from the manufacturer’s facility to either the final destination or the nearest port. Trucks provide convenient access to facilities and allow for efficient transportation of goods within a specific region.

Ship Loaded

The freight forwarder is responsible for finding the best route from point A to point B. Once the goods reach the port, they are loaded onto a vessel that will carry them to the destination country. The selection of the shipping route depends on factors such as cost, time efficiency, and specific requirements.


The vessel carries the goods from the origin port to the destination port, following the selected shipping route. During the journey, the captain or another representative from the shipping line provides necessary information about the ship and its cargo to the government authorities in the destination country.


Once the container vessel is cleared to enter the port, it docks at a designated berth where large cranes unload the cargo containers. The arrival process involves coordination between the shipping line, port authorities, and customs officials to ensure a smooth transition.

Containers Offloaded

Dockworkers, including crane operators, lashers, clerks, and cargo equipment operators, work together to unload the containers from the ship. This process requires careful handling to prevent damage to the goods and ensure the efficient flow of cargo.

Customs Clearance

Customs officials carefully examine the documentation for each container and may select certain containers for further inspection. The customs clearance process ensures compliance with import/export regulations, verifies the accuracy of declared goods, and collects any necessary duties or taxes.


After customs clearance, the container is loaded onto a specialized truck trailer or chassis for transportation to the distribution center. If the destination is far from the port, containers are often transported by train to ensure cost-effective and timely delivery.

Final Delivery

The container is picked up from the port by a truck and transported to a distribution center near the port. At the distribution center, the container is opened, and the individual order packets are separated and prepared for shipping to their final destinations. From this point, it usually takes only a few days for the original client to receive their order. freight shipping container

9. Conclusion

Shipping containers have revolutionized the logistics industry, enabling the efficient and secure transportation of goods across the globe. Understanding the different types of containers, the logistics involved in container shipping, the cost considerations, and the necessary documentation is essential for successful international trade. By following the proper procedures and working with experienced freight forwarders, businesses can navigate the complexities of container shipping and ensure the smooth flow of goods from origin to destination. freight shipping container

10. Get in Touch

If you have any questions or need assistance with container shipping, Trade Finance Global has a network of freight forwarders, freight experts, and shipping/logistics partners ready to help you navigate the process. Get in touch with our Freight Forwarding networking team here.