Choosing The Right Shipping Container: The Ultimate Guide
Shopping for shipping containers but don’t quite know where to start? You’re in the right place.
Boxhub is the leading online marketplace for buying and selling shipping containers. We help people find the right containers for all kinds of needs — whether they’re buying wholesale for construction and retail purposes, moving house, seeking storage space, or hoping to transform a container into a tiny home, farm, office, or storefront.
If you’ve never shopped for a container before, navigating all the details and specs can seem overwhelming — but it’s actually quite simple. Selecting the right container really comes down to five key elements: size, spec, type, condition, and budget.
20ft vs. 40ft: Picking the Right Size Shipping Container
The size of a container can dictate other aspects of your purchase, such as condition (new vs. used) and cost. Therefore, it’s a great place to start when trying to determine how to pick the right container.
The two most popular shipping container sizes available for purchase are 20ft and 40ft. While there are other sizes available, such as 10ft and 30ft containers, they’re less common and can therefore be more challenging to source.
20ft Shipping Containers
20ft shipping containers are designed to carry a small volume of heavy cargo, such as machinery and heavy commodities like sugar, paper, cement, and steel. A 20ft shipping container’s empty weight is 5,181 lbs. On average, 20ft containers have a loading capacity of 62,016 lbs.
A 20-foot container’s internal volume is 1,172 ft3. That’s the equivalent of 200 standard mattresses, two compact cars, or 9,600 wine bottles.
A 20ft shipping container’s dimensions are as follows:
- External: 20’ L x 8’ W x 8’6 H
- Internal: 19’4” L x 7’8” W x 7’10” H
- Door: 7’8” W x 7’5” H
40ft Shipping Containers
Next up are 40-foot containers. These can carry double the volume of a 20-foot container, but not as much weight — typically, their cargo is composed of bulky yet lighter goods such cotton, electronics, and consumer furniture. A 40ft shipping container’s empty weight is 8,267 lbs, with a loading capacity of 63,383 lbs (only 2.2% more than its 20ft equivalent).
A 40-foot container’s internal volume is 2,385 ft3. That’s the equivalent of 400 standard mattresses, four compact cars, or 19,200 wine bottles.
A 40ft shipping container’s dimensions are as follows:
- External: 40’ L x 8’ W x 8’6 H
- Internal: 39’6” L x 7’8” W x 7’10” H
- Door: 7’8” W x 7’5” H
Here’s a quick look at how a 20ft standard and a 40ft standard compare to each other.
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.
For buyers, the global standardization of shipping containers means that you can always count on the dimensions to fall within specifications that are clearly defined by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). It’s extremely helpful when trying to identify 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.
Standard vs. High-Cube: Picking the Type of Shipping Container
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 most common containers are called “standard” containers, also known as “general purpose” containers. Most standard containers are either 20 or 40 feet in size, with dimensions listed above.
“High cube” containers, on the other hand, look just like standard containers but have a height of 9’6” — a foot taller than their standard counterparts. The additional height causes them to look like cubes when viewed from the back or front, hence the name.
Both standard and high-cube containers offer several different options when it comes to quantity and placement of doors. Choose a container with doors that open on both sides (called a “double-door” container) or opt for one that opens along the entire width of one side (called an “open-side” container).
Finally, if you’re planning to use your container to store or ship perishable or heat-sensitive cargo, you’ll want to go with a “reefer” container. These are refrigerated and insulated.
New vs. Used: Picking the Right Condition Shipping Container
Now that you know what type of container you need and how big it should be, it’s time to decide if you want to purchase a new container or upcycle a used one.
One-Trip (New) Shipping Containers
One-trip containers (also known as “new” 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 are the newest, nicest containers you can buy.
One-trip containers are built to last 25-30 years and don’t require any upfront maintenance or painting. What’s more, you’ll get a three-year condition guarantee if you buy your one-trip container from Boxhub.
One-trip containers are ideal if:
- Your container will be placed in a highly visible area (e.g., visible by neighbors, 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, such as a winery or public park.
Cargo-Worthy (Used) Shipping Containers
Cargo-worthy containers are units that have previously been used, but can still be certified to ship cargo across the ocean.
Because cargo-worthy containers have been used, they’re more affordable than new containers. All of Boxhub’s cargo-worthy containers are inspected for structural integrity. We also offer a 30-day money-back guarantee on cargo-worthy units.
Wind & Watertight (Used) Shipping Containers
Wind and watertight containers are among the most budget-friendly conditions you can opt for. These containers are typically 10-15 years old and have been retired from shipping.
Though they will have patches of surface rust or slight cosmetic damage, wind and watertight containers have intact floors, properly sealing doors, and are guaranteed watertight — that means no holes or leaks. Boxhub also offers a 30-day money-back guarantee on these containers.
Wind and watertight containers are ideal if:
- Your container’s primary function will be for storage.
- Your container will be modified for non-dwelling purposes.
- The aesthetic of your container is not a primary concern.
This chart offers an at-a-glance comparison of the different kinds of container conditions and what you’ll get with each.
Shipping vs. Storage: Picking The Right Specs for Your Shipping Container
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.
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 being used for storage or as a dwelling.
Choosing a container condition will ultimately depend on your budget and how you plan to use your container.
If you’re looking for the most economical option and don’t care much about aesthetics, or if you’re planning to turn the container into an additional storage space, wind and watertight and cargo-worthy containers are both great options.
If you’re shopping for a container you can use to ship and sell overseas, choose a cargo-worthy or new container. And if you want a container you can easily turn into a dwelling, office, or storefront with minimal exterior work, choose a new container.
Figuring out how to pick the right container requires a clear understanding of your needs, intended purpose, and budget. If you take the process one step at time, beginning with choosing a size, then type, then condition, you’ll find the shopping experience can be short, sweet, and simple.
If you still have questions about choosing a shipping container, ask a Boxhub container consultant for buying support.