Choosing The Right Shipping Container: The Ultimate Guide

So you’ve decided to purchase a shipping container but need help figuring out where to start. Should you go with a 20ft container, a 40ft container, or a non-standard size?

What about the height of the container?

Should you pick a new unit or stick with a used one?

If this is your first time shopping for a shipping container, navigating all the details and specs can seem overwhelming — but it’s actually pretty simple. Selecting the right container comes down to five key elements: size, spec, type, condition, and budget. This guide covers everything you should consider when choosing the right shipping container.

Before we start, let’s level-set: What is a shipping container?
Shipping containers, also known as “conex containers”, “cargo containers”, or simply “boxes”, are large steel boxes manufactured and used for international shipping. They carry everything from shoes to food, medicine to toys.

You might be surprised to learn that most of the things surrounding you were transported by shipping containers. In fact, around 90-95% of the world’s goods are transported by shipping container.

And with that, it’s time to dive in!

Table of Contents
1. Shipping Container Sizes & Dimensions
2. Shipping Container Conditions
3. Shipping Container Types
4. Shipping Container Specifications
5. Shipping Container Uses

1. Shipping Container Sizes & Dimensions

Shipping Container Lengths: 20ft vs. 40ft

If you’re considering buying a shipping container, you likely have a specific use in mind. Whether it’s to build a modular home or store your favorite muscle car, it’s important to make sure you have enough space to accommodate your container.

20ft and 40ft containers are the standard sizes used for international shipping. As a result, they’re the most common shipping containers available for purchase.

Other sizes, such as 10ft containers, are available. However, they’re harder to source — and consequently, more expensive to buy.

20ft Shipping Containers

20ft shipping containers are a popular choice for compact storage. When retired from shipping, these containers are often repurposed on construction sites to store machinery, as a cost-effective garage alternative to store vehicles, or even to store animal feed for farmers. However, they can also be converted into workspaces, sheds, pop-up shops, swimming pools, mini mobile cafes… The list goes on!

A 20ft container’s internal volume is 1,172 ft3. That’s the equivalent of 200 standard mattresses, two compact cars, or 9,600 wine bottles.

40ft Shipping Containers

40ft shipping containers can be used for all the same purposes as 20ft shipping containers. However, their larger volume makes them better suited to storing or transporting bulkier objects such as retail inventory, electronics, and furniture. They’re also a great choice for modular homes, offices, moving houses, or as a longer-term alternative to a rented storage unit — especially when stacked or connected with other containers.

A 40ft container’s internal volume is 2,385 ft3. That’s the equivalent of 400 standard mattresses, four compact cars, or 19,200 wine bottles.

Here’s a quick look at how a 20ft container and a 40ft container compare to each other.

A comparison table of available shipping container sizes.

Non-Standard Container Sizes

Shipping containers are also available in non-standard sizes such as 10ft, 45ft, and 53ft. However, these sizes are more expensive and can be more difficult to source when purchasing a container.

10ft Shipping Containers

10ft shipping containers are commonly used as open offices, telecom shelters, and dock-level storage. They can also be used as ticket booths when modified with roll-up windows.

The internal volume of a 10ft shipping container is 561 ft³.

45ft Shipping Containers

Five feet longer than their more common 40ft counterparts, 45ft shipping containers can be used for the same purposes and are ideal for those looking for a little more space and loading capacity. They’re great options for building container homes or for larger retail, food-and-beverage, or commercial projects.

The internal volume of a 45ft shipping container is 3040ft³.

53ft Shipping Containers

53ft shipping containers are the largest available container type and are ideal for container hotels, dorm rooms, or other multi-unit residential or commercial uses. They can also be used to build spacious container homes, as well as modular businesses ranging from restaurants to shops — even mobile hospitals.

The internal volume of a 53ft shipping container is 3850 ft³.

One of the great things about containers is that they’re globally standardized, like Lego bricks. This allows them to be stacked on top of one another and ensures they can be reliably handled by ships, trucks, and cranes. It’s good news for buyers like you, too: The global standardization of shipping containers means you can always count on the dimensions to fall within specifications clearly defined by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). It’s extremely helpful when trying to decide how much storage you’ll need for your project or what dimension to input if you plan to convert your container into a tiny home or storefront.

Container Heights: Standard vs. High-Cube

Once you’ve decided what size container you need, you’ll have to choose between several different types of containers. This will largely depend on what you’re planning to use the container for. The two most popular container heights are “standard” (also known as “general purpose”) and “high-cube”.

Standard containers are typically either 20ft or 40ft in size and follow the dimensions we’ve outlined above. They have a height of 8’6”.

High-cube containers are similar in appearance to standard containers but have a height of 9’6″, which is one foot taller than standard ones. High-cubes are a popular choice for modular home projects, as the additional height creates a more spacious feel to the homes. However, 20ft high-cube containers are less readily available than 40ft high-cube containers due to their limited use in international shipping.

As a result, 40ft high-cube containers are very economical and, at times, less expensive than their 20ft counterparts.

2. Container Conditions: New vs. Used

Now that you know what size of container you need and how high it should be, it’s time to decide if you want to purchase a new container or upcycle a used one.

New (One-Trip) Shipping Containers

New containers, also known as one-trip containers, are units that have only been used once to ship a single load of dry cargo on their journey to the U.S. These containers are durable, built to last for 25-30 years, and do not require any upfront maintenance or painting.

While they may have light scratches and dents on their interior and exterior, one-trip containers are the newest and nicest containers available on the market. Additionally, if you purchase your one-trip container from Boxhub, you’ll be covered by a 5-year condition guarantee.

One-trip containers are ideal if:

  • Your container will be placed in a highly visible area (e.g., visible to neighbors or customers).
  • Your container will be used to build a dwelling, such as a tiny home, office, or cabin.
  • Your container will be associated with an upscale, customer-facing business — like a winery or public park.
  • You need a container for international shipping.

Here are some new “one-trip” containers we’ve delivered recently.

Photos of new one-trip shipping containers
Interior photos of new "one-trip" shipping containers

Used Shipping Containers

Used containers, also known as “wind & watertight” containers, have spent an average of 12-18 years at sea (sometimes longer) and will have clear evidence of their many journeys on rough seas (i.e., dings, dents, and surface rust).

Some used containers can still be used for international shipping (known as “cargo-worthy” containers). Others are no longer stackable for shipping purposes, but are guaranteed wind & watertight — that means no holes or leaks.

If you’re buying a used container for international shipping, you will need a used container that lives up to all requirements for international shipping and exports. This includes the ability to pass a CSC inspection, which certifies that a container can safely:

  • Carry the cargo weight it’s intended for
  • Be stacked and transported onboard container ships.

Certification is an at-cost service that can be coordinated by Boxhub upon your container purchase.

Additionally, if you’re looking for cost-effective options for storage or if you plan to modify your container for non-dwelling purposes, any used container is suitable. They’ll show significant signs of wear, including dings, dents, and patches of surface rust. But their floors are intact, their doors seal properly, and they’re guaranteed watertight.

Here are some used containers we’ve delivered recently.

Interior photos of used shipping containers

This chart offers an at-a-glance comparison of the different kinds of container conditions and what you’ll get with each.

3. Container Types: Standard, Refrigerated & Specialty

Once you’ve determined the size and condition of your container, it’s important to think about what type of shipping container best suits your needs. 

Standard Containers

Standard containers are the most common and the easiest to source. These containers typically consist of four steel walls and a single door and can be used for dry storage and transportation. Any other use cases (such as housing, retail, agriculture, and beyond) will require modifications.

Refrigerated (“Reefer”) Containers

“Reefer” containers have been modified with refrigeration units. During transport, these units connect to the power supply aboard the cargo ship, allowing the container to store goods that require temperature control. These may include fruits and veggies, dairy products, flowers, meat, fish, and even pharmaceuticals.

Specialty Containers

Specialty containers have been modified with unique attributes based on specific use cases and needs, such as double doors, an open top or sides, and more.

Double-door containers
Featuring doors at the front and the back, double-door containers provide easy access and can be partitioned into separate areas, making them ideal for storage or building offices and retail kiosks.

Open Top containers

These containers don’t have a roof and are perfect for storing cargo that must be loaded from above, such as mortar or heavy goods. Unlike standard containers, open-top containers don’t have side doors, but a tarp can cover the open top to keep the contents safe from the elements.

Open Side containers

Also known as “ventilated containers,” they have openings on all four sides. These openings allow air to flow into and out of the container, making them a great option for storing perishable items like produce.

A Flat Rack Container

Flat rack containers are commonly used to transport oversized goods that cannot fit inside a standard container. These containers have walls or support posts at both ends, allowing for easy loading of cargo from above or from the sides.

4. Container Specifications

In addition to size, specs also matter. There are two specs you can choose from when purchasing a shipping container — shipping and storage.

Shipping Spec Containers

Shipping spec containers spend most of their lives on the backs of trucks. They are most often opened/closed while still on the chassis being loaded and unloaded at factories and warehouses. Because of this, they feature lower handles (or “locking gear”), which can be easily opened by people standing on the ground.

shipping-specs-for-shipping-containers

Storage Spec Containers

Storage spec containers are typically kept on the ground. Because of this, they are equipped with a lockbox for security, forklift pockets for easy maneuvering, and higher handles that can be easily opened at ground level — an advantage if used for storage or as a dwelling.

storage-specs-for-shipping-containers

5. Container Uses

Whether you need temporary storage for family art and antiques during a home renovation or wish to construct a distinctive guest house in your backyard, different container types are well-suited for various uses. Let’s break down how to choose a shipping container for the four most popular use cases: storage, moving house, building, and shipping.

For Storage

Shipping containers, whether new or used, are an excellent option for storage. They are made of COR-TEN steel, which makes them incredibly durable, and their windowless design offers maximum security and privacy. Moreover, they can be conveniently placed on your property, giving you easy access to your items whenever needed.

The two most common sizes are 20ft Shipping Containers, which have an internal volume of 1,172ft³, and 40ft shipping containers, with an internal volume of 2,385ft³.

If you plan to store the container in a location that is visible to others, it may be best to choose a new container which would have less visible wear and tear than a used one. However, both options offer the same functionality at different price points.

If your container will be placed somewhere with high levels of rainfall or snowfall, consider installing an air-conditioning unit and adding ventilation to control humidity and moisture levels inside and to prevent rust from accumulating. You can also choose to reinforce the container’s weather stripping and caulking to keep water out. 

For Moving House

Moving to a new place can be a hassle, but a shipping container can simplify the process in many ways. Whether you are relocating to a different state or just a few blocks away, a shipping container can help you save a lot of time and keep your belongings safe and dry. It’s a versatile solution that complements or even replaces traditional moving companies. The best part is that once you are done moving, you can repurpose the shipping container for any use on your new property.

When it comes to choosing a container to move from one home to another, any condition will suffice. However, most Boxhub customers find that a used 40ft standard (40 feet long and 8’6” tall) container works perfectly for their needs. Since the container will not be a permanent fixture on your property, opting for a used container could be a more affordable choice. It will serve its purpose well and transport your furniture and belongings safely and efficiently to your new property.

For a more detailed breakdown of what to consider when buying a shipping container for moving house, check out this guide.

For Building

If you’re considering buying a shipping container and turning it into the home (or unforgettable Airbnb) of your dreams, you have an exciting journey ahead. Generally speaking, most container homes are either 20 feet or 40 feet long. But within that, you need to leave space for things like insulation — we recommend about 6 inches per side. That means, for instance, within a 20-foot container, you have 19 feet of interior room space.

If you’re building a small home, one container may be enough, but for a larger multi-level project, you’ll need multiple containers. For people with vertical designs (e.g., a loft bed area), you also need to consider height: a standard container is 8’6”, while a high-cube container is 9’6”. One issue to note is that 20-foot high-cube containers are more difficult to source than 40-foot high-cube height containers.

Regardless of the size of your project, we recommend using a new “one-trip” shipping container as the starting point for your build. These containers have only been used once to transport dry goods across the ocean and as the newest containers on the market, they have the most longevity and show virtually no signs of wear. New containers can also be stacked on top of one another. This quality makes them the best choice if your home or building project will require multiple levels of containers (think a two-story tiny home or multi-story hotel or dorm made out of containers).

To better understand how to build a shipping container home step-by-step, check out this guide (and don’t be afraid to keep it bookmarked; you’re always welcome to refer back to it).

For Shipping

If you’re purchasing a shipping container for international shipping or exports, you have the option of choosing between a new container or a used container that meets all international shipping and export requirements and can successfully pass a CSC inspection.

What Does CSC Mean in Shipping?

In the shipping industry, CSC stands for the “Convention for Safe Containers.” This is a standard established by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in 1972 for Shipping Container Certification. To comply with these standards, your container must have a valid CSC plate.

When deciding what container to purchase, the size and condition are two key factors to consider. If you have smaller volumes of cargo, 20-ft containers are ideal for you. However, the 40-ft container would be a better choice if you have more cargo to ship.

If you require a container that is eligible for international shipping from the purchase date, you may want to consider a new “one-trip” container. These containers come with valid CSC plates and will serve you for many years.

Alternatively, a used container could be a good option if you want to save money. Keep in mind that the certification process for a used container comes with additional costs.

Conclusion

Ultimately, choosing the right container will depend on your budget and how you plan to use your container. Whether you’re moving house, seeking storage space, or hoping to transform a container into a tiny home, farm, office, or storefront, we’re here to help you find the perfect unit. If you still have questions about choosing a shipping container, ask a Boxhub container consultant for buying support. We’re always here to assist you.

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