Your Ultimate Guide to Choosing the Right Shipping Container

choosing-a-shipping-container

So you’ve decided to purchase a shipping container, but you’re not sure quite 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 opt for a unit that’s brand new or one that’s used? All of these specs will ultimately depend on how you plan to use your container and, of course, your budget. One way to simplify the shopping process is to start by choosing a container size, as this will impact some of your other choices. We’ve created an easy-to-use guide that covers everything you should consider when choosing the right shipping container.


Standard Container Sizes

The two most popular shipping container sizes — and therefore the easiest to source — are 20ft and 40ft. Choosing the right size depends on your storage needs or your plans for the container. Plus, the size you choose can influence other elements of your purchase, including the cost of your container and whether you should opt for a new or used container. Here is some basic information about 20ft and 40ft containers, as well as common uses for each.

20 Ft Shipping Containers

20ft shipping containers are commonly used for storage and moving, though they can also be converted into workspaces, sheds, and even commercial uses — think pop-up shops, mini mobile cafes, and more. They are ideal for storing or transporting a small volume of heavy items, such as machinery and heavy commodities like sugar and cement.

The internal volume of a 20ft shipping container is 1,172 ft³.

That’s the equivalent of:

40 Ft Shipping Containers

40ft shipping containers can be used for all the same purposes as 20ft shipping containers, though their larger volume makes them better-suited to storing or transporting lighter, bulkier objects such as cotton, electronics, and furniture. Their larger volume also makes them a great choice for tiny homes, offices, container restaurants, urban farms, and more — especially when stacked or connected with other containers.

The internal volume of a 40ft shipping container is 2,385 ft³.

That’s the equivalent of:

Non-Standard Sizes

Shipping containers also come in non-standard sizes, including 10ft, 45ft, and 53ft. While not impossible to find, remember that these sizes can be more difficult to source when purchasing a container. 

10 ft Shipping Containers

10ft shipping containers are often used as open offices, telecom shelters that can house valuable equipment, dock-level storage that occupies minimal space, and even ticket booths when modified with roll-up windows.

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

45 ft 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 converting them into larger retail, food-and-beverage, or commercial use cases.

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

53 ft Shipping Containers

The largest available container type, 53ft shipping containers are ideal for stacking as part of container hotels, dorm rooms, or other multi-unit residential or commercial use cases. They can also be used to build larger container homes, as well as modular businesses ranging from restaurants to shops and even mobile hospitals.

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


The two most popular container height categories 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, on the other hand, are a foot taller than their standard counterparts, bringing their height to 9’6”.

Once you’ve determined the size and height of your container, it’s important to think about what type of shipping container best suits your needs. The key thing to remember is there are three main container types. 

Standard containers are the most common and the easiest to source. Refrigerated containers only really apply if you need to store perishable or temperature-sensitive goods or equipment. And specialty shipping containers refer to containers that have been modified with unique attributes based on specific use cases and needs.

Container Types

Standard Containers

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 Shipping Containers

You can also source shipping containers with a range of unique attributes, such as double doors, an open top or sides, and more.

Specialty Shipping Containers

Double-door containers
feature doors at the front and the back, facilitating access to store and retrieve items. By adding a partition, you create separate areas for storage or use cases. For these reasons, double-door containers are great for offices and retail kiosks.

Open top containers

do not have a roof. This makes them an ideal choice for storing cargo that must be loaded from above, such as mortar or heavy goods. The container’s open top can later be covered by a tarpaulin to keep the contents safe from the elements. Unlike standard containers, open-top containers don’t have side doors.

Open side containers

also known as “ventilated containers,” 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 flatrack container

is actually a piece of equipment that can be used to ship goods that don’t fit inside a standard container. It only has walls or support posts at either end, making it easy to load cargo from above or from the sides. Sometimes, they’re also used to ship cargo that fits into a standard container but is much easier to load onto a flatrack, such as bundled pipe.

A half-height container

is ideal for heavy, low-volume cargo such as cars, pipes, gravel, sand, and other weighty goods. They are typically four feet high but come in a range of lengths, including 8, 10, 16, 20, and 24 feet. They have locking tops and can be stacked.

In addition to sizes, heights, and types, containers also come in a range of conditions. Choosing the right condition depends on how you plan to use the container and will affect the total cost you pay for it.

Here are the three main conditions shipping containers come in. 

One trip or “New”

One-trip containers are also known as “new” containers. They’ve only been used once to ship a single load of dry cargo on their journey to the U.S. Built to last 25-30 years, they don’t require any upfront maintenance or painting. In other words, they’re the nicest and newest containers on the market.

If you’re planning to place your container in a highly visible area, will be using it to build a tiny home, office, or cabin, or will be associating it with a customer-facing business (like a winery or public park), going with a new container may be the best route. These containers show very little to no visible signs of wear and are more presentable than used containers upon delivery.

Cargo-worthy

Cargo-worthy containers have spent an average of 12-18 years at sea — sometimes longer. Though they’re used, they live up to all requirements for international shipping and exports and are able to pass a CSC inspection.

These containers will show signs of wear, like dings, dents, scratches, and patches of surface rust. They’re a good, cost-effective option if you’re buying a container for international shipping. You can also use them for many of the same use cases as a new shipping container, you just might need to do a bit of surface maintenance if you care about the container’s outside appearance.

Wind & Watertight

Wind and watertight containers are typically 12-18 years old (sometimes older) and have been retired from shipping. As such, they are among the most budget-friendly shipping containers you can purchase. They can’t be used for international shipping because they no longer meet the structural requirements for it, nor should they be stacked.

However, wind and watertight containers are wonderful cost-effective options for storage or if you plan to modify your container for non-dwelling purposes. 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.

As-Is

“As-is” shipping containers are no longer considered wind and watertight. They’re at least 15 years old and show heavy signs of wear, though conditions may vary from one container to another. In addition to dings, dents, and signs of rust, these containers may also have warped floorboards, small holes, and doors that don’t seal properly.

These are the least expensive shipping containers you can purchase. As long as you don’t mind taking on the necessary repair work, they can be fixed to store hardy items like construction materials and equipment. Once repaired, they can make for a great garden, barn, or hardware sheds.

For Storage

New, cargo-worthy, and wind and watertight shipping containers are all great choices for storage. They’re all made of durable, weather-proof COR-TEN steel, which means you can store a wide range of goods in them safely and securely.

If you’re keeping your container in a place that’s highly visible to others, you may want to opt for a new container. New containers will have less visible wear than cargo-worthy or wind and watertight containers (though these conditions will offer the same functionality at a lower price point). 

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

If you’re using a container to move from one home to another, any condition will do. Because your container won’t be a permanent fixture on your property, you may choose to consider a more affordable used option, such as cargo-worthy or wind and watertight. Both of these will serve their purpose well and get your furniture and belongings safely and efficiently from one property to another.

For Building

If you’re purchasing a container (or containers) to build a tiny home, office, retail shop, or restaurant, opting for a new container may be the best way to go. They show virtually no signs of wear — usually, an important factor if the aesthetic of your use case is important to you. As the newest containers on the market, they also boast the most longevity. With the proper care, your container is likely to give you many years of use without requiring costly repairs.

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).

For Shipping

If you need a container for shipping purposes, you can choose either a new or cargo-worthy container. Both live up to all requirements for international shipping and exports and are able to pass a CSC inspection. At this point, it comes down to cost and longevity. A used cargo-worthy container will offer significant savings compared to a new container, but a new container will give you more years of use.

Conclusion

Now that you’re practically an expert on shipping container sizes, types, conditions, and uses, it’s time to start sourcing the right unit for your needs. If you still have questions or need help choosing the right shipping container, get in touch with someone from the Boxhub team. We’re here to help make the shopping process simple and stress-free.