The voyage of a lifetime: The rules for sending a shipping container

The idea that someone can order a product and have it delivered to their home is a simple one, yet one we often take for granted. In the era of Amazon Prime, next day delivery and increasing globalisation it’s now easier than ever to see an object we want and have it in our gleeful hands only days later. However, behind the scenes are a mass of constantly spinning cogs, helping to get products from A to B around the world, 24 hours a day. Making sense of this system can seem like an ordeal but following a few simple rules can make the whole process as seamless as possible. nn n

The shipping system

nBefore diving into the rules, it makes sense to first understand checkpoints involved in the shipping process. In total there are five physical steps and two documentation steps for every successful shipping. Normally the cost of each step is agreed beforehand between the seller and the buyer. As a customer, the relevant costs are often rolled into a general shipping fee added to the total transaction, although the seller will sometimes pay these costs – especially on higher priced items. The touchpoints for a typical product are as follows:n


  1. The Manufacturer/seller
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  3. Storage Warehouse
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  5. The Origin Port
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  7. Ocean Shipping
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  9. The Destination Port
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  11. Destination Warehouse
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  13. The Buyer
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nAs you can see, international shipping is essentially a mirrored process, making it straightforward to account and track goods across countries and continents. However, the shipping industry is unique in the fact that it crosses international borders, meaning that it’s useful to have a globally accepted set of shipping rules to smooth things over.n

How much does it cost to ship a container overseas?

nAs mentioned, the cost to ship a container overseas from the UK depends on the individual steps within the process. To give you a broad idea, however, it usually costs £1,000-£2,000 to ship a 20ft container, and £2,000-£3,000 to send a 40ft container (depending on the origin and destination ports). nnIf your cargo isn’t enough to fill an entire container, you may consider sharing. When sharing a container, you only pay for the portion that your cargo requires. Numerous shipping companies offer this service, so it’s best to gather a few quotes before making any decisions.n

Clearing customs

nBefore sending any shipment it’s vital to look at the customs regulations for both the origin country and the destination. Some countries have specific rules in place regarding the importation of certain goods, the UK requires additional clearance for e-cigarettes for example.  In order to ship internationally it’s therefore key to have the correct paperwork. Normally this takes the form of two custom forms. One for each country. nnDepending on where a product is being shipped to and the value of the product, the custom fees will vary considerably. In the UK custom duty is paid on shipments over the value of £120 and import duty if the value is over £18. Meanwhile duty is waived if the value is below £7. Bear in mind these are figures for items coming from outside the EU. Needless to say, it’s crucial to check the rates of the destination country when budgeting shipments. n

Packing a container

nIn 2008 the international chamber of shipping released its own set of guidelines for the safe and effective packing and unpacking of shipping containers (if you really want you can order the book too!). While most of the industry guidelines are common sense, it’s well worth using it as a checklist to ensure steps aren’t inadvertently forgotten about. n


  • Have a pre-loading plan so that weight and volume considerations are considered and that point loading limits are adhered to.
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  • The maximum weight will be marked on the container – never exceed this.
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  • Likewise, do not exceed the weight limit for secondary transport. Most countries have strict weight limits for road transit.
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  • The weight of cargo should be evenly distributed across the container floor. Having light items in one area and heavy items in other can be dangerous and even cause tipping.
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  • As a guide, shipping companies follow the guidance that no more than 60% of the weight should be contained within half the length of a container.  
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  • Heavy goods should never be placed on top of light goods.
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  • All cargo should be secured tightly within the container.
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  • Packages containing liquid should be placed as low as possible to minimise the impact of movement within.
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nRegardless of the freight company involved, these rules should always be followed to ensure safety for both cargo and workers handling a container. Hazardous substances have extra guidelines (quite sensibly) and should be placed close to a door where possible. They should also be labeled with identifiable labels and the shipping container itself should also be labelled, specifying which categories of dangerous goods are within.  nnOnce packed it’s important to record the seal number and container number on any documents. Documentation should be included with all products to be imported. If multiple kinds of products are being imported, it can save time to leave a sample of each product easily accessible by the door for customs officials to inspect. nn n

Extra considerations

nSome goods require special measures when shipping. For example, items with a high moisture content (typically unroasted coffee or cocoa beans) normally require the walls and ceilings of the container to be lined with moisture absorbing paper before they’re allowed to be shipped. Perishables have their own set of rules dependent on the type or quantity of product, while plants and animals understandably have an even longer list. When shipping the latter it’s important to ensure that the freight company has extensive experience in handling live animals, making sure that they are well looked after throughout the journey. nn n

Weighing a container

nBefore a container can be loaded onto a ship, shipping documents specifying the exact weight must be supplied to the shipping company. To obtain these figures a loaded container can either be weighed as one, using certified industrial scales or items can be weighed individually and added to the total specific weight of an empty container. nn n

Making use of a unit

nOnce the container safely arrives, the goods are unloaded, processed and delivered to an eager customer. After signing for delivery, the now empty container is often redirected to another port where cargo is ready and waiting for export. Of course, before it can be cleared to set sail again it must be thoroughly inspected and cleaned out. However some lucky containers are chosen with grander plans in mind. At Unit Hire, we offer a whole range of containers for rent or sale, as well as conversions. Why not get in touch today to find out more!

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