The Most Common Shipping Container Sizes

Posted on:
Jun 20, 2021

It is estimated that there are roughly 20 million shipping containers out there carrying precious cargo. Want to get these useful and valuable units transporting items across the world for you? Learning about the most common shipping container sizes is a good place to start, as it’ll help you understand the quantity and type of things you can store or transport.


Shipping containers aren’t simply boring metal boxes. They come in a variety of different shapes and sizes and are easily used creatively as well. Maybe you’re planning on converting your container to a studio space or tiny home.

Or perhaps you want to use it as a safe storage space and makeshift office area. Either way, getting familiar with unit dimensions will only give you ideas on the innumerable ways you can use your container.

Here is your guide to shipping container dimensions and the types of cargo you can transport with each kind.

Terminology to Understand Before Choosing a Shipping Container

Before jumping into the actual sizes available, it’s important to understand the basic terminology in the shipping container world. This way, you can go about choosing a shipping container that is right for you.
Shipping container terms:

  • ISO: This stands for the International Organization for Standardization which creates an industry baseline. Applicable to a variety of industries and uses, this standard also applies to containers. Some ISO containers include ISO 668 and ISO 1496.
  • High Cube: A shipping container that is taller than a standard-size container by one foot.
  • TEU: This term refers to a unit of measure which is approximately 20 feet. Therefore a 20 feet container would be one TEU, while a 40 feet container would be two TEUs.
  • General-Purpose: This shipping container size is what is typically used for container construction and can fit a wide variety of items.
  • Tare Weight: The weight of an empty unit.
  • Max Load: This refers to the maximum weight a container can carry.

Most Common Shipping Container Sizes

Over 90% of the world’s cargo moves around the world using shipping containers. This has lead to the invention of many different shipping container types so that goods of different varieties remain accommodated.

General-Purpose Containers: This container is often referred to as a ‘dry container’. This is the firm walls, roof and floor enclose the unit on all four sides. It is also weatherproof and protected from the elements.

Dry containers are the most common type of container, and most all cargo can be loaded into them. If you’re looking for shipping containers to buy, look for ones that have adaptations.

Liner bags and flexitanks are great additions to the standard general container, as they can be used to ship bulk dry and liquid goods.

Sizes available for dry containers are 10 feet, 20 feet, and 40 feet.

Flat Rack Containers

This is a flexible unit as it has collapsible sides which are easily folded to create a flat rack. Despite being collapsible, the stabilizing walls are durable enough to allow for cargo securing.

This unit is ideal for oversized goods such as heavy machinery, vehicles, and construction items and materials. Because this container is easily loaded, it can carry up to 45 metric tons of goods.

Open Top Containers

This shipping container has a removable top that allows for goods to be loaded in from above. The convertible top model is popular for cargo that is higher than the top of the door and thus cannot be easily loaded in.

This is a great solution for tall and bulky machinery whose handling and loading are reliant on a crane or rolling bridge. Lashing rings are installed to the upper and lower side rails which helps stabilize the cargo.

This container is available in either a 20-foot size or a 40-foot size.

Double Door Containers

Also known as a ‘tunnel container’ this variety comes with doors on both ends of the unit. Just like the open-top container, this one is helpful to load and unload heavier goods.

In addition, the wider entry space allows for materials like iron and steel to pass through easily. If you’re shopping around for shipping containers to buy, this is a great option as both sets of doors have weather-tight seals and locking assembly to keep your cargo safe.

High Cube Containers

These are very similar to the general containers mentioned above, except that they are taller by 1 foot. Used when a bigger volume capacity is needed, high cube containers can store a significant amount of cargo.

It also has a floor recess towards the front of the container to center it. The term ‘gooseneck chassis’ describes the interior of this unit, as it allows the unit to stand taller and lie lower.

The high cube container comes in a 40-foot or 45-foot size.

Open Side Containers

This unit is again similar to the general-purpose container, except that the doors open on the side as well as the back. This allows for easy loading and unloading of cargo, as there is wider access. This one is perfect for unwieldy items that are unable to fit through the regular back door.

The open side container comes in a 20-foot or 40-foot size.

ISO Reefer Containers

This shipping container is used for items like vegetables, fruit, and meat which are easily perishable. The unit is temperature sensitive, allowing for refrigeration using external power sources.

This container comes in 20-foot and 40-foot sizes.

Insulated Reefers

This variety takes the ISO reefer a step higher, as it has regulated temperature control as well as a mechanical compressor to heat or cool the inside air. The unit can withstand a higher temperature and is constructed using a vacuum flask.

This container is great for long-distance shipping and can include the transport of medical items such as blood and organs, as well as biological chemicals and pharmaceuticals.

Half Height Containers

As the name suggests, this container has a low height with a low center of gravity which allows it to handle heavier loads than taller units. Often used in the mining industry for transporting materials like coal or stone, half-height containers are durable and strong.

In addition to being able to transport cargo that is heavy and dense, the height also makes for easy loading.

Tank Containers

Also known as tankers, this container is constructed out of steel or other anti-corrosive materials. This adds an extra level of protection for liquid materials.

The tank must be at least 80% full but not over 95% full. This is so that there is room for thermal expansion without the dangerous surging of liquids in transit.

Swap Body Containers

These are commonly used in Europe, and are easily interchangeable for road or rail. The units come with a convertible top, which is ideal for easy loading and a variety of different goods.

However, the container doesn’t have upper corner fittings nor are they stackable. Thus they cannot be shipped and are used for land-based transit only.

Ventilated Containers

This unit has lateral openings that allow for the easy flow of air and circulation. Since it has an inbuilt ventilation system, it is suitable for goods that need regulated temperature settings.

The ventilation also expels hot air while simultaneously allowing fresh air to enter. This prevents the cargo from getting damaged by condensation or humidity.

This ventilated container comes in a 20-foot size.

More on the Flat Rack Shipping Container

This variety of containers is designed specially to transport items with measurements or weights that prevent them from fitting into a standard-size container.

Flat rack units are constructed of metal plates that fit the standard container size but are also collapsible. This type of container will come without a roof or top for transporting goods easily.

Flat rack containers are ideal for extremely heavy or oversized goods such as machinery, construction equipment, or vehicles. Such items are placed within the container using a crane or other specialty equipment.

Cargo with an overall height over 20 feet or 40 feet will fit into this container with ease. This includes irregularly shaped objects like industrial vehicles and pipes.

Remember, the flat rack container comes without side or top protection, so lashing cargo to secure the items will be important. This can make it susceptible to damage by heavy rain or wind.

Used Shipping Containers

Another type of shipping container to consider is the used or second-hand variety. Just because the units have been used prior doesn’t mean they are not structurally sound, weatherproofed, and ready for use just like any other unit.

Used shipping container sizes can vary according to the type of unit you’re looking to buy. Try to find one certified as being suitable for shipping.

Buying a used model is also a sustainable solution for your business as it is cost-effective recycling!

Overview of Container Footage

Whether you go for an insulated reefer or a double-door container, you can rest assured that your container is going to be versatile and suited to the cargo at hand.

All the containers mentioned above typically come in 20 foot, 40 foot, and 45-foot sizes. Let’s look a little bit more into exactly what you get with each increment in footage:

  • 20ft shipping containers: Probably the most popular unit, it is usable by most businesses for a variety of shipping conditions. The dimensions are 6.06m in length, 2.44m width, and 2.59m height, with a maximum gross weight of 30480 kgs.
  • 40ft shipping containers: This is the ideal cost-effective solution. Not only does it offer double the volume of the 2-foot unit, but it is also priced just 15-25% higher. Its dimensions are 12.19m in length, 2.44m in width, and 2.59 (standard) or 2.89 (high cube) height, with a maximum gross weight of 60,000kg.
  • 45ft shipping containers: This container has valuable extra footage which gives it a better volume and weight capacity. It can often be a lower-cost way of transporting items in bulk and great for efficient movement of most cargo and goods, irrespective of size. Its dimensions are13.71m length, 2.44m width, and 2.59 (standard) or 2.89m (high cube) height.

Not Sure Which Container Size Is Right for You?

Consider renting a container. This way, you’ll get to try out an option and see if it works for your needs. If not, you can easily return it and pick out another model that’ll fit your cargo. This is a low investment method of exploring the many options for shipping container sizes.

Another option is to buy a container and get it fitted out. If none of the container sizes mentioned above will be suitable for your business, modifications are the ideal solution because the unit can be uniquely tailored to the cargo you’ll be carrying.

You could choose to renovate your existing container or fit it out with state-of-the-art accessories. Upgrades can mean extra weatherproofing or protection to keep your goods safe and protected.

To conclude, shipping containers are a versatile way to transport your items safely and can be a cost-effective solution for any business.

At DryBox we offer all kinds of units to fit your cargo needs! We have many of the shipping container sizes mentioned above and more. Although all the options can seem overwhelming, use the dimensions and cargo type to guide your ultimate buying decision. If you’re still unsure about which size to pick, reach out to us for a business quote to get you started.

Check out our blog to learn more about shipping container sizes and how this remarkable solution can work for you and your business needs.


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