Types of container units for shipping cargo

Shipping cargo efficiently and safely is crucial in global trade, and the type of container units plays a key role in this process. Different types of cargo require different container units, each designed to meet specific shipping needs. From standard containers for general goods to specialized units for unique items, understanding these various types helps ensure your cargo is transported effectively. For that reason, Kokusai Express Japan is here to help you explore the different types of container units available for shipping cargo. Whether you’re shipping household items, perishable goods, or oversized machinery, there’s a container unit designed to suit those needs. Knowing the right type of container can make a significant difference in the safety, cost, and efficiency of your shipping process.

What are shipping container units?

Shipping container units are the backbone of international relocation to Japan and global shipping. These are large, standardized metal boxes used to transport goods safely over long distances, whether by sea, rail, or road. They’re designed to be easily loaded, stacked, and transported, making them incredibly efficient for moving large quantities of items. A common example is the 20-foot container, often seen on cargo ships and trucks. It’s ideal for most household moves or smaller commercial shipments. For larger loads, the 40-foot container offers double the space, accommodating more goods.

A man jumping on container units
Learn what are shipping container units and what types exist

Specialized containers also exist for specific needs and different sorts of transportation. Refrigerated units keep perishable goods at a constant temperature, while open-top or flat-rack containers are perfect for oversized or irregularly shaped items. These containers ensure that everything from personal belongings to commercial goods arrives safely and intact, making international relocation and trade more streamlined and secure.

How to determine what type of container units you need?

Choosing the right type of container unit for your cargo is crucial, especially for specific needs like exhibition cargo. Here’s how you can determine the best container for your shipping requirements:

  • Assess your cargo size and volume: Start by measuring your cargo. For standard items or a small exhibition setup, a 20-foot container might suffice. If you have a larger exhibit, like a trade show booth, a 40-foot container offers more space.
  • Consider the nature of your cargo: If your exhibition cargo includes sensitive items like electronics or artwork, climate control is key. In such cases, a refrigerated container (reefer) can maintain the right temperature and humidity levels.
  • Evaluate special requirements: For oversized or heavy pieces, like large sculptures or machinery, open-top or flat-rack containers are ideal. These allow for easy loading and unloading of bulky items.
  • Think about accessibility and loading: If your cargo needs to be loaded quickly or from the top, consider containers with special loading features like open-top or side-open options.

Types of container units for shipping cargo

Shipping cargo with international freight forwarding relies on various container units, each tailored for different types of goods. Standard dry containers are widely used for general cargo, while refrigerated units preserve perishable items. Flat racks are ideal for oversized loads, and open-top containers suit tall goods. But in order to understand each of these types, continue reading and familiarize yourself with the differences between these cargo containers.

Dry storage container

When planning your relocation, choosing the right container is vital, and a reliable moving company can guide you through this. A common choice is the dry storage container, the standard type used for a wide range of cargo. These containers are fully enclosed, protecting goods from weather and theft. They come in various sizes, with the most common being 20 and 40 feet. For example, if you’re moving a household’s worth of items, a 20-foot dry container might be sufficient. A reliable moving company for your relocation will assess your needs and recommend the appropriate size, ensuring your belongings are transported safely and efficiently.

Flat rack container units

Flat rack container units are essential for shipping oversized or heavy lift cargo that doesn’t fit in standard containers. They are uniquely designed with collapsible sides, allowing for easy loading and unloading of large items like machinery, vehicles, or construction materials. Imagine transporting a bulky piece of construction equipment; a flat rack container is ideal, providing the necessary space and strength. These containers come in sizes similar to standard ones, but their open construction makes them adaptable for unusually shaped or extra-large items.

Shipping boat on the water with container units
With flat rack container units, loading and unloading is easy

Open-top container

Open-top containers are a perfect solution for transporting project cargo, especially items that are tall or need to be loaded with a crane or overhead hoist. Unlike standard containers, these have a convertible top that can be completely removed. This feature is particularly useful for cargo like tall machinery or large construction materials, which might exceed the height limitations of regular containers. For example, if you’re shipping a tall industrial drill or large steel beams, an open-top container offers the flexibility needed for such items.

Tunnel container

Tunnel containers are an innovative solution in the world of shipping, designed for ease of loading and unloading cargo. These containers have doors at both ends, resembling a tunnel, which is how they get their name. This feature is especially beneficial when you need to quickly load and unload goods from both sides. For instance, if you’re transporting items like construction materials that need to be accessed from both ends for efficiency, a tunnel container is ideal.

Open-side storage container

Open-side storage containers offer a unique advantage in cargo transportation, particularly when it comes to ease of access. These containers feature doors that open on the long side, significantly widening the entry point. This is especially useful for cargo that’s wide or needs to be sorted while in transit. For example, if you’re transporting a large quantity of retail goods that require regular organization and access, an open-side container is perfect. It allows you to reach items without having to unload everything.

Open-side storage container
Open-side storage container units are perfect for easy access

Double-doors container

Double-door containers are a versatile choice in cargo shipping, distinguished by doors at both ends of the container. This feature greatly facilitates the loading and unloading process, making it more efficient, especially for long or bulky items. Imagine transporting something like lumber or metal beams. A double-door container allows you to load and unload these items more easily from either end, reducing handling time. Additionally, this type of container enhances cargo tracking efficiency. With doors on both sides, you can access your cargo for checks and updates during transit, ensuring a smoother shipping process and keeping you informed about your shipment’s status at all times.

Refrigerated ISO containers

Refrigerated ISO containers, often known as reefers, are essential for transporting perishable goods that require temperature control. These specialized containers maintain a constant temperature, ensuring items like food, pharmaceuticals, or flowers remain fresh during transit. They are equipped with an integrated cooling system that can be adjusted to the specific needs of the cargo. For example, if you’re shipping a load of fresh produce from a farm to a market, a refrigerated ISO container keeps it at the optimal temperature, preserving its quality and extending its shelf life.

A person in a supermarket
Use reefers if you need to transport perishable goods

Insulated or thermal containers

Insulated or thermal containers are designed to protect temperature-sensitive goods during transportation, especially when precise temperature control isn’t necessary. These containers have a layer of insulation that helps maintain a stable temperature, safeguarding items from external temperature variations. This feature is particularly useful for products like chocolates, wines, or cosmetics, which need to be kept within a certain temperature range but don’t require active cooling like refrigerated containers.


Tank containers, often just called tanks, are specialized for transporting liquid cargo. These are cylindrical vessels made of strong steel or other durable materials housed within a rectangular frame that fits standard container dimensions. Tanks are ideal for safely moving various liquids, from food-grade products like oils and wines to chemicals and hazardous materials. For instance, if a company needs to ship a large quantity of olive oil, a tank container ensures that the oil is transported securely without any leaks or contamination.

Cargo storage roll container

Cargo storage roll containers are a unique and flexible solution for transporting a variety of goods. These are wheeled containers, which makes them highly mobile and easy to maneuver. They are particularly useful in scenarios where goods need to be moved quickly and efficiently. For example, in a large supermarket, roll containers can be loaded with products and easily moved directly to the sales floor. This eliminates the need for additional unloading and handling, streamlining the process.

Half-height containers

Half-height containers are designed for transporting heavy and dense materials such as coal, stones, or minerals. They are shorter in height compared to standard containers, making them ideal for heavy loads that require easy loading and unloading. For example, in mining operations, these containers are perfect for transporting extracted materials. Their lower height enables easy access for machinery like excavators or cranes to load the cargo. Additionally, the robust design of half-height containers ensures the safe and secure transport of heavy materials, preventing spillage and containing the load effectively during transit.

A pile of coal
Half-height containers are ideal for heavy materials, such as coal

Car carriers

Car carriers are specialized container units designed specifically for transporting vehicles safely and efficiently. These containers come equipped with built-in ramps and secure lashing points to ensure that vehicles, such as cars, motorcycles, or even small boats, are firmly anchored during transit. For example, if an automobile manufacturer needs to ship cars overseas, car carriers provide a secure and damage-free transportation solution. Their design allows for easy loading and unloading of vehicles, minimizing the risk of damage.

Intermediate bulk shift containers

Intermediate bulk shift containers, commonly known as IBCs, are versatile and efficient for transporting and storing bulk materials, especially liquids and granulates. These containers are typically cubic in shape and are made from materials like heavy-duty plastic or metal, often mounted on a pallet for easy handling. IBCs are a popular choice in industries like chemicals, food, and pharmaceuticals. For instance, a company manufacturing liquid detergents might use IBCs to transport their product in large quantities. Their design is ideal for maximizing space in storage and transport. And the durable construction ensures the safe handling of a range of materials, from hazardous chemicals to consumable goods.


Drums are a classic and widely used type of container for shipping various kinds of cargo, especially liquids and granular materials. They are cylindrical containers, typically made of steel, plastic, or fiber, known for their durability and strength. Drums are ideal for smaller quantities of goods that require secure and stable packaging. For example, a company shipping paint or chemicals often chooses drums. This is because they are robust, can be sealed tightly, and are relatively easy to handle. Their design allows for safe transportation of hazardous materials as well, ensuring that the contents are well-protected and contained during transit, whether by road, sea, or air.

Special-purpose containers

Special-purpose containers are tailored for specific cargo needs that standard containers can’t fulfill. These are customized with unique features to accommodate particular types of goods or shipping conditions. For example, a special-purpose container might be equipped with extra security locks for high-value cargo like electronics or art. Others are designed with climate control systems for sensitive items like pharmaceuticals. These containers ensure that unique cargo requirements are met, providing optimal conditions during transit. Their customization makes them essential for shipping specialized items, offering solutions that go beyond the capabilities of regular container units.

Container units on a cargo ship
Special-purpose container units can be customized according to your needs

Swap bodies

Swap bodies are a flexible type of container unit used primarily in Europe for road and rail transport. They are similar to standard containers but have a convertible feature. This allows them to be easily transferred between trucks, trains, and sometimes ships. What sets swap bodies apart is their adaptable design, with foldable legs that facilitate the transferring process. For instance, a swap body loaded with goods can be quickly transferred from a train to a truck without unloading the contents. This makes them highly efficient for multimodal transport, providing a versatile solution for shipping various types of cargo over different transportation modes.

Transit and flight case

Transit and flight cases are specialized container units designed to protect sensitive equipment during transportation. Particularly in the entertainment, sports, and exhibition industries. These cases are highly durable, often made from materials like aluminum, plywood, or reinforced plastic. They are custom-built to fit specific items like musical instruments, sports equipment, or electronic gear, providing a snug and secure environment. For example, a band on tour would use flight cases to transport their guitars and sound equipment, ensuring these delicate items are shielded from the rigors of travel.

Pick one of the container units that will anticipate your needs

Choosing the right container units is crucial in ensuring that your cargo is transported safely and efficiently. Each type of container has its unique features designed to cater to specific shipping needs. Whether you’re moving perishable goods in a refrigerated container, bulky items in an open-top, or sensitive equipment in transit and flight cases, there’s a solution for every type of cargo. Consider the nature of your goods, the required transportation conditions, and the logistical aspects of your shipping route.

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