Moving your goods in shipping containers is a vital step in the supply chain function for many businesses around the world. With over 90% of global trade moving via the ocean, most of the world’s freight is packed into these metal containers. The type, dimensions, size and capacity of containers you may use vary depending on the goods you’re shipping.

Below we will outline everything you need to know about shipping containers.

The Most Common Shipping Containers

20' General Purpose 

These are standard containers of 20' long. They have an external height of 6 foot tall or 2.59 meters.

40' General Purpose 

This is also a popular standard container with a longer length of 40'. It holds double the freight of a 20' container.

40' High Cube 

Another standard container. The primary difference between a General Purpose Container and a High Cube Container is the height of exactly one foot.

Refeer Container 

Refrigerated or reefer containers regulate the temperature to preserve temperature sensitive goods such as produce or seafood.

Flat Rack Container 

Flat racks are designed to carry out of gauge cargo. They have sides that can be folded down to accommodate heavy loads, over-sized cargo, construction equipment, building supplies or heavy machinery.

Open Top Container 

Primarily used for over-height cargo, Open Top containers have a completely removable, convertible top that allows for access to goods from the top of the container.

Most Common Sizes

shipping containers dimensions size capacity

Steel or Aluminium Shipping Containers: Which is Better?

The type of container you’ll need will depend on your budget, what you’re shipping and how long you need the container for.

Steel shipping containers are the most common type of container. They are thicker and typically used to carry dry cargo like pallets, boxes and sacks. They’re excellent for stacking cargo together and are able to endure the weight of heavy cargo.

By contrast, aluminium containers are thinner, and have higher thermal insulation. They are lighter in weight and effective at carrying temperature-sensitive items. Refrigerated containers (known as ‘reefers’) are often crafted from aluminium (although, steel reefers also exist). Note that it is costly to repair aluminium containers more so than steel. This is because steel is well-known for its robust and sturdy architecture.

If you only need a container for a short period of time (less than 6 months), aluminium shipping containers may be more appropriate. Aluminium containers typically have a shorter lifespan to steel ones.

However, if you’re looking for a higher level of security, a container with a strong steel structure will generally be more effective.

The Different Types of Shipping Containers

20ft or 40ft General Purpose Container

Standard shipping containers (also known as dry shipping containers or general-purpose containers) are the most common containers available in the market. These containers are available in different sizes such as 20 foot, 40 foot, and 40-foot high cube.

General purpose or dry shipping containers example dimensions and capacity

High Cube Container (HC)

High cube shipping containers are similar in structure to general-purpose containers but taller by about 1 foot.

These containers are used in cases where a slightly bigger volume capacity is required. Most high cube containers have a recess in the floor at the front end to center the container on so-called a gooseneck chassis, which allows it to lie lower and be of taller construction.

High cube vs general purpose shipping containers dimensions and capacity example

Open Top Container

An open-top shipping container has a convertible top that can be completely removed. This is suitable for cargo that is over-height and cannot be easily loaded through the door, such as tall machinery or other heavy/bulky finished products whose handling and loading can only be performed with a crane or rolling bridge. Open top containers have lashing rings installed to the upper and lower side rails and corner posts to secure cargo. See below the container’s size, capacity and dimensions.

  • Open top container example

Refrigerated Container (Reefer)

Reefer containers are used to transport goods requiring temperature-controlled conditions in transit, such as fruit, vegetables, dairy products and meat. They are fitted with a refrigeration unit which is connected to the carrying ship’s electrical power supply or the port’s power supply. Alternatively, they can be fitted with ‘power packs’ which use diesel generators to power the cooling system. They are available as 20′ and 40′ containers and are able to maintain internal temperatures between +25 and -25 degrees centigrade.

See Maesrk’s video outlining all the features of the refrigerated container.

Recommended reading: Using Non-Operating Reefers To Save You Money

  • refrigerated container example

Flat Rack Container

This shipping container is used for over-dimensional (out of gauge) cargo. This storage container has collapsible sides that can be folded to make a flat rack. The end walls are stable enough to allow cargo securing, which is ideal for shipping goods such as heavy machinery, vehicles on tracks, big reels and construction materials. Some 40′ flat rack shipping containers are suitable to carry as much as 45 metric tons of cargo.

  • flat rack container example

Intermediate Bulk Shift Containers (IBC)

An intermediate bulk container (also known as IBC tote, IBC tank, IBC or pallet tanks) is a reusable industrial container designed for the transport and storage of bulk liquid and granulated substances, such as liquids, chemicals, food ingredients, solvents, pharmaceuticals, etc. There is a tap or valve at the base where a hose can be attached to allow easy transfer of contents into smaller containers for easy packaging, distribution, and sale. They also usually have metal cage housing for extra security.

The term ‘intermediate’ comes from the volume that intermediate bulk containers carry, which sits in between that of tanks and drums. The two most common volumes of the IBC are 275 gallons and 330 gallons or 1,040 litres and 1,250 litres (the 1040 liter IBCs are often listed as being 1000 litres).

Intermediate bulk container (IBC) shipping containers dimensions examples

Car Carriers

Car carrier containers are used to move cars by road and rail but sometimes also used to ship by sea. Generally, RORO (Roll On Roll Off) shipping arrangements are used to move cars and other automobiles by sea. During RORO shipping, vehicles are directly driven on to RORO vessel. Compared to shipment of automobiles with car carrier containers, the cost of transportation is less in RORO shipping. However, car carrier containers can be shipped anywhere in the world, whereas RORO vessels have their limitations as to the global routes that accept this type of transport.

Usually, up to four cars can be loaded in a 40ft high cube container.

Car carriers shipping containers capacity example

Tunnel Container

Double Door or Tunnel shipping containers are designed with double doors on each end, making it easy to manage and maintain stock levels and eliminating issues of accessing items towards the back of the container. This container can also act as a tunnel or walkway through which to direct customer footfall – perfect for outdoor events. Manufactured to both 20ft and 40ft lengths, they’re suitable for businesses who wish to store their stock for longer periods of time.

  • Tunnel container example

Open Door/Side Door Container

Side Door containers are very similar to regular, general purpose shipping containers, the only difference being that the doors can open completely on the side too. This feature provides much wider room and access, which makes loading and unloading materials easy. Open side shipping containers generally come in 20′ and 40′, and they provide adequate room for extra-large items that can’t fit through the regular doors.

  • open door/ side door container example

Ventilated Container

This shipping container offers a ventilation system due to its lateral openings that permit air flow and circulation, suitable for the transportation of goods that require constant temperature and conditions. Thanks to its ventilation system, this container is able to expel hot air and allow fresh air to enter, thus preventing condensation and humidity changes that may damage the cargo. One of the main products transported in the ventilated container is coffee, which is why it may also sometimes also be known as the “coffee container”. The common size for ventilated containers is 20′. See below the ventilated container’s size, capacity and dimensions.

  • Ventilated container example

Insulated Shipping Container

Unlike refrigerated containers, which have a power source and controlled temperature range, insulated containers rely on their insulation properties to maintain a steady temperature throughout. This is an advantage if your goods are being shipped a relatively short distance, when no power is available, or when a regular temperature is all that’s required rather than refrigeration. For instance, pre-cooled cargo from cold storage can be shipped in an insulated shipping container to maintain a cold chain very successfully on short trips. Insulated shipping containers are also used for storage and accommodation.

  • Insulated container example

Half Height Shipping Container

Half-height shipping containers are designed for transporting bulk cargo that is heavy and dense, such as coal, stones concentrates, sand, ore and other mined materials. Half height containers have a low centre of gravity so they can better handle heavier loads than taller containers. They are also easy for loading and unloading. Half-height containers are supplied with waterproof removable hard lids which eliminate dust during transit. They can be custom built to specific requirements, in a range of various heights and discharge systems. They come in 20′ and 40′ sizes, 20′ being the most common.

  • half height container example

Tank Container

Also known as ISO containers, tank containers are specially designed to transport liquids or gases. They can hold bulk cargoes ranging from perishable liquids such as oil or wine to hazardous substances. Once a tank has been tagged to ship hazardous substances, it can no longer be used to ship food, and vice versa. The ISO tank is supported on a structure that can be adjusted according to its dimensions. It’s also lined with an insulating material that protects it from the cargo it’s transporting. The most commonly used tanks measure 20′ or 40′ but there are also 10′ and 30′ tanks. See below the container’s size, capacity and dimensions.

  • Tank container example


These are drum shaped shipping containers and can be made from different types of materials like Iron, steel, aluminum or other light weight metals such as fiber or hard plastic. They are suitable for transport of liquid materials in bulk. Drums are often certified for shipment of dangerous goods. They can be used for sea shipment or road transport. Although they are smaller in size, they may need extra space due to their shape. It is common to hear a drum referred to as a barrel and the two terms are used nearly interchangeably.

  • Drum Container example

Frequently Asked Questions

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