Different Types of Shipping Containers and What They’re Used For

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There are many types of shipping containers in use today, and you may be surprised to learn that while some haul cargo, others are people’s homes or businesses. These highly versatile metal boxes can haul a surprisingly heavy amount of material but also get retrofitted to suit a variety of commercial and residential needs.

Types of Shipping Containers

There are a number of shipping container types, with some featuring technical characteristics so that they can carry specific types of cargo. Some types of shipping containers feature tanks for liquids, while others lack some of their sides, which makes it easier to load raw materials such as steel, heavy machinery, and other oversized goods.

Here are some common shipping container types and a little bit about what they’re commonly used to transport.

General Purpose

General-purpose containers or “dry” containers work well for items that need protection from the elements and a fully weatherproof form of transit. These are the most common container type in use by a wide margin and can carry most kinds of ordinary cargo. They can also get fitted with bags or tanks in a pinch to ship certain kinds of liquid bulk goods.

Flat Rack

Flat rack containers have foldable sides with end walls strong enough for securing heavy cargo. These units can haul oversized machinery, vehicles, and construction materials that weigh several tons.

Double Door

Double Door

Double-door containers also get called Tunnel containers thanks to the doors on either end that aid in speedy unloading and loading. Both sets of doors are identical and feature locks and weather-tight seals to protect the goods inside.

Open Top

Open Top

This type of container has a convertible top to accommodate cargo that is taller than the standard unit can accommodate. Tall machinery and bulky finished goods that require a crane to maneuver typically use this kind of container, which often has lashing rings to make loading and unloading easier.

High Cube

High cube containers look just like general purpose containers but are a foot taller at 9.5-feet. These units are perfect for when you need a bit more space for cargo but still want a container that comes in a standard length.

Insulated Containers

These temperature-regulated containers can withstand high outdoor temperatures and can either heat or cool their contents. The design of these containers is similar to a vacuum flask and can safely carry goods such as medicine, food, and chemicals long distances.

Open Side Containers

Open Side Containers

Open-side containers are similar to general-purpose units, with the exception that they have doors on one of the longer sides that open up. This feature makes these containers ideal for loads that require greater access and generally come in 20-foot and 40-foot lengths.

ISO Reefer Containers

ISO containers ship goods that require temperature control, and they rely on an external power source to operate. These units typically measure either 20-feet or 40-feet long and carry perishable items such as food and medicines.

Half-Height Containers

Half-Height Containers

This type of container is much shorter than other units and designed to carry very dense cargo such as stone. The size of this container makes it easier to move heavy loads thanks to the lower center of gravity, but they’re robust enough for even the most demanding industrial applications. This style of container is also easy to load and unload when full or empty.

Swap Containers

These containers can fit on either road vehicles or train cars for transport on land and feature a convertible style top, which makes them a versatile option for a broader range of goods. These containers are not stackable since they lack upper corner braces, and they’re most common in Europe.

Tank Containers

These containers hold liquids of all kinds and feature strong, anti-corrosive materials that help extend their useful life. The tanks must be at least 80% full for safe transit but cannot get filled to more than 95% of their capacity, or there’s not enough room for expansion if the liquids warm up.

How Are Shipping Containers Used?

Modern shipping containers are sturdy enough for a variety of uses, and different types of containers can carry cargo or get reused in other residential or commercial applications. The type of containers you see in shipping yards may look similar on the outside, but their physical properties can vary.

There are a few types of containers for food, depending on whether the food needs refrigeration or not. A dry storage container may hold food or other dry goods that don’t require temperature control, such as paper products, medical supplies, or any other shelf-stable items.

A general-purpose container is the most common and lends itself well to alterations such as liners, tanks, bags, or dividers that make it more suitable for different types of cargo. This type of shipping container is more versatile than other options, which makes it ideal for a variety of non-cargo applications.

Shipping Container Sizes and Capacities

There are two main types of shipping containers sizes:

TEU and FEU
  • Twenty-foot Equivalent Units (TEU)
  • Forty-foot Equivalent Units (FEU)

Twenty-foot units now make up less than 20% of all the containers on major shipping routes, and the demand for them continues to decrease each year as the longer 40-foot containers become more preferred. A standard 20-foot shipping container has a total interior capacity of 33.1m3.  

With so many container types and growing preferences for containers that are forty-feet long, container manufacturers have focused on producing longer containers to meet demand.

It’s possible to get containers that have smaller measurements, but these are far rarer and not widely used by larger shipping companies. Most of these smaller containers end up as part of residential builds, storage units, or for commercial applications on-land.

TEUs are still necessary for specific shipping applications, so they’re still available for purchase, but they are considered heavy, and many carriers charge an additional fee to carry them. There are still a number of cargo ships that carry TEUs for financial reasons as these older ships are nearly obsolete thanks to advances in technology.

Alternative Sizes

Other standard sizes for containers include lengths that measure:

  • 8-feet
  • 10-feet
  • 45-feet
  • 48-feet
  • 53-feet

The shortest containers measuring 10-feet or less cannot ship in the same way that the larger containers do but still come in the standard 8-foot width. Containers of virtually any size come in a taller height, sometimes called a “high-cube,” which measures 9.5-feet tall instead of the standard 8.5-feet high.

New and Used Shipping Containers

Different types of shipping containers get sold after getting used, but it’s much easier to find new ones if you’re willing to pay a higher price. Many shipping containers only get used once before being sold off to another company as some shipping companies refuse to move empty containers and reuse them.

Used containers often come with few marks or blemishes, which makes them ideal candidates for DIY projects, modern housing, and offices. Containers with more damage often get used for storage provided they’re still weather-tight but may still work for other commercial or residential uses in sheltered areas.

Frequently Asked Questions

If you want to know more about shipping containers, take a look at our list of frequently asked questions for some frequently sought-after information.

What are other names for shipping containers?

Since there are different types of shipping containers, you’ll find a variety of other names for each design. Some are called refrigerated, tunnel containers, car carriers, shipping units, drum containers, thermal containers, or storage containers.

How many shipping containers are there in the world?

Estimates vary, but the global fleet of TEU containers works out to approximately 34-million containers, with each shipping container having a unique number, called a box number.

Does a car fit in a shipping container?

In a standard 20-foot container, you can fit two standard-sized cars, and in a 40-foot container, you can fit four standard-sized cars end to end. A 40-foot container can accommodate approximately three large cars or full-size SUVs. Provided the vehicle is less than 8-feet wide and shorter than 8.5-feet tall, it will fit in a standard-sized container.

Are shipping containers bulletproof?

Ordinary shipping containers are not bulletproof in general but can take a substantial amount of general wear and tear as they get moved around. Some companies offer reinforced shipping containers that are bulletproof, and other buyers have found ways to make shipping containers more resistant to different types of firearms and ammunition.

Can I insulate a shipping container?

Yes! Many shipping containers are used as homes or offices and require insulation to keep their occupants comfortable. Insulation can also attach to the container’s interior with fasteners or adhesive for a temporary solution during shipping, but this should be done with care as it can damage the integrity of the container.

Final Thoughts

variety of shipping container

Shipping containers come in a variety of types and sizes to make loading, unloading, and hauling various types of cargo a breeze. These units are incredibly durable, frequently weatherproof, and often feature robust doors for added security.

You can also repurpose shipping containers for various uses, including storage, and residential and commercial applications, including homes, offices, and businesses.

Ryan Stetson

Ryan Stetson

Currently own two 20' and 40' containers converted into an office/workshop. Having worked in the shipping industry for 6 years, my goal is to share my personal experiences as well as connect potential container buyers with suppliers around the US.

Ryan Stetson

Ryan Stetson

Currently own two 20' and 40' containers converted into an office/workshop. Having worked in the shipping industry for 6 years, my goal is to share my personal experiences as well as connect potential container buyers with suppliers around the US.

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