What is a Container Depot?

Shipping containers are a convenient way to transport large items or objects from one place to another.

With the increasing demand for shipping, container depots have become a major part of the global transportation system.

This article provides a comprehensive guide to shipping container depots – how they work, where they’re located, and the services they provide.

What is a Container Depot?

container terminals near container depot

In the shipping industry, you’ll hear certain terms a lot, and one of those terms is container depot. Sometimes referred to as a container yard or container station, a container depot is simply a spot at a shipping facility that temporarily stores the containers that have been unloaded and are waiting to be used again.

One thing to note is that container depots do not store containers that are fully loaded. Think of them as a holding facility for shipping containers, where those containers will stay until it’s time for them to be reloaded. If you think shipping facilities can do without these depots, think again.

They are a practical solution that makes the entire shipping process much easier on all of the parties.

Container depots located close to the terminals are convenient because they mean that companies can transfer containers between the various locations quickly and easily.

Every day, millions of containers are dropped off at different ports by ships so that the loading and unloading process can take place.

Once they’re unloaded, they need a safe and secure place to stay temporarily, and that’s where a container depot comes into play.

Normally, this “depot” is located inside of a container terminal or port, but there are others located in inland areas away from the coast, and they’re called inland container depots, or ICDs. In fact, these facilities can be located out in the middle of nowhere in some instances.

What are Inland Container Depots (ICD)?

inland container depot with empty containers

An ICD is a dry port able to accommodate and store both empty and containerized cargo. This means that customers can be close to their premises and still receive the port services they need at the same time.

The first thing you should remember is that inland container depots (ICDs) and container freight stations (CFSs) are not the same thing, even though both of them function as a consolidation point.

For the most part, the CFS can be found close to the port of entry. Its main responsibility is to consolidate then segregate the cargo. It mainly deals with LCL cargo, storing the cargo that doesn’t fill these containers and waiting for other cargo that can fill it up.

In essence, the CFS is there to make the port less congested, and they are usually connected to road or rail transport.

On the other hand, inland container depots are away from the ports they serve and mostly accommodate FCL cargo. They can also be connected to rail and road transport, and they help accommodate customs-related services, as well as the storing and consolidation of the cargo.

While both of these types of depots have important functions, they are nonetheless a little different in their overall purpose.

What’s the Difference Between a Container Depot, Container Port, and Container Terminal?

It’s important to point out the difference between a depot, a port, and a terminal. Some people use these terms interchangeably but in fact, they are three separate entities that have very distinct functions and uses. Here is a brief description of each of them:

  • Container Depots – Depots are temporary storage facilities that hold shipping containers until it’s time to reload cargo.
  • Container Ports – Ports are specific areas that allow ships to dock, and the ships can be loading and unloading either cargo or passengers.

What Is the Purpose of a Container Depot?

container depot located near container terminal

Simply put, bottleneck problems and issues related to storing containers can be solved with container depots.

Some of them even accommodate out-of-gauge (OOG) goods. OOG goods have sizes and dimensions that are rather odd or even awkward, and these things make them different from goods that are stored in a standard container. Below are some of the most common uses of these depots:

  • Freight consolidation. Once you bring your cargo to the depot, everything gets packed up and shipped. If the area has containers that are still loaded, they can be unpacked and distributed the way they’re supposed to be.
  • Communication with logistics. Cargo owners love container depots because they help with some very important functions, such as customs clearance, loading and unloading of cargo, goods deliveries, and even managing receipts.
  • Repair and cleaning services. Once the containers clear customs, cranes are used to lift them so personnel can label them either operational or damaged. A maintenance facility repairs the damaged containers, and the operational ones get stored away for later reuse.
  • Documentation. Everything is documented and entered into the computer so that the entire process is tracked thoroughly and efficiently throughout the process. These are important administrative services that help document everything that goes on in the depot area.
  • Reefer storage facility. Temporary storage for reefers in a refrigerated area is allocated for any foods that are temperature-sensitive, including vegetables, fruits, and beverages, to name a few.

To be sure, container depots serve a lot of very useful purposes. You can even think of them as places where everything comes together to make the entire process as effective and organized as possible.

The Layout and Design of the Depots

container depot for shipping industry

As you can imagine, container depots are extremely busy places. In practical terms, this means that when you’re planning your own depot, you have to take your time and plan ahead so that there is enough space both to store containers and to make sure there is a high level of security in the area.

This is why most companies use a standard design and layout to make the most use of the space they have available. There are a lot of things to consider when planning the layout of one of these depots.

Keep in mind that one of the most important reasons for having a container depot in the first place is to protect the containers in the area.

If the area is well planned out, it can be a reliable place to protect the containers and keep them safe. Most depots also have numerous entry and exit spots, as well as security checks at all of them.

This is because, in some instances, the depots are there to trace smuggled drugs and alert the authorities when necessary, which is one of the reasons why security is so important.

Depots also have customs offices so that the containers are provided with regular inspections and to make sure the loading and unloading process goes smoothly.

There are usually quite elaborate rail and road networks connected all across the depot, allowing the cargo to be transported to its destination much easier and faster.

Finally, depots now use technology that allows them to be much more cost-effective and to increase both efficiency and storage of the containers.

The arrival and departure of each container is also documented so that at any time during the process, the people in charge can check their records and find out anything they want about the containers themselves.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Container Depots

Below are some FAQs associated with these depots:

Who actually owns these container depots?

The depots are usually owned by the state or a private company. The ownership can vary depending on where the depots are located. In Europe and North America, most of the owners are rail companies, port operators, and the shipping companies themselves.

In China, Asia, and India, most depots are owned by the state, whereas East Africa depots are usually owned by the private sector.

Are container depots always located close to the ports?

Yes, for practical reasons. With the depots being located close to the terminals or ports, the time to complete the tasks performed there is made much shorter, resulting in the transfer of containers between numerous locations being super easy and saving the companies both energy and money.

How busy are most container depots?

To give you some idea of how busy these depots are, consider the one in Hamburg, Germany. That facility alone handles about 120 TEUs of cargo every single day.

TEU stands for 20-foot equivalent unit, which essentially represents one 20-foot standardized shipping container. (For example, a 40-foot container would be two TEUs.)

What other important functions do container depots serve?

They assist in hauling or transit services by road and rail both to and from the serving ports, they provide large boundaries with security that is tight and operational 24/7, and they accommodate all types of container types, including side doors, flat rack, reefer, open top, and many others.

In most cases, the specific type of container is not restricted.

How many ICDs are there in the United States?

As of 2017, the Department of Commerce has documented 129 ICDs in the country.

From Storage Containers to Empty Containers, They Do it All

When it comes to logistics and operations management, shipping container depots have it all under control. That being said, there are some problems with these depots, although they are rare.

For one thing, providing security for very large units can be a challenge, and another problem is the theft of machinery from some of the containers, including the refrigeration units found in the reefers.

Finally, if the containers are not checked regularly and properly, there is always the possibility that illegal or illicit goods might be trafficked through them.

If you’re wondering how the containers are stacked and tracked, it is really quite simple. More often than not, straddle carriers or large spreader cranes lift the containers up high, where they can be piled very high on top of one another.

Usually, they are stacked in the order they arrived and departed. Some depots, however, will stack the containers according to the companies that they belong to. When this happens, there is usually a separate area for each company, and the exact size and location of this area are usually chosen through a bidding process.

Keep in mind that the arrangement of containers is crucial. Why? For one thing, it can directly affect the turnaround time between demand and supply.

In general, the depots work hard to make sure the turnaround time is as small as possible, which means efficient stacking is a must. Removing containers has to be done a certain way, which means a little pre-planning is necessary.

The stacking of containers isn’t done haphazardly, in other words, because this can affect the total time it takes for them to get to the container they’re trying to reach.

The depots offer a centralized location for collecting, storing, and maintaining lots of containers that are not currently being used, so the ports in the vicinity benefit by increasing their bottom line.

It is, in fact, an easy way for them to make money because these services are always needed.


If you want an effective and efficient way to reduce the turnaround time at various ports, these depot facilities are the perfect way to do just that.

These are very user-friendly and super-advanced facilities that are considered a very important part of the global supply chain.

More than just a temporary storage facility, shipping container depots help utilize space, organize the incoming and outgoing containers, and in the end, make sure that everyone is on the same page when it comes to managing the containers.

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