Shipping containers – One size doesn’t fit all

Ever been stuck behind a lorry in a traffic jam and wondered what those letters and numbers on the back of a shipping container mean?

Every container has a Bic Code, a unique alpha numeric identity that can be linked to the owner or operating company. This assists with tracking and permits visibility throughout the supply chain. So what do the elements of this identity represent?

Owner code – the owner of the container, in this case the international shipping line, Hamburg Sud

Product Group Code – You may also see ‘J’ or ‘Z’ printed on the back of trailers. ‘U’ means that this a freight container.

Registration Number – This is assigned by the owner or operator of the container, uniquely identifying the container within the fleet.

Check Digit – This is where it all gets a bit complicated… this number is produced using an algorithm where the letters are converted to numbers and a calculation is made using each of the digits in the container code. The result of the calculation is the check digit. Basically if the check digit doesn’t add up according to the other numbers then the authorities know there’s some funny business going on and that they need to carry out a check.


Right now there are at least 20 million containers in service. There are a range of different container types, each of which is set to a standard size, based upon the International Maritime Organisations ISO standards for containers.

What container will you require to import/export goods?

Standard ocean containers are made from either aluminium or steel and are the most commonly used container types. These 20ft and 40ft dry containers are used to ship all manner of goods from textiles to toys, sports equipment to furniture. The internal capacity sizes for each are:

Length   5.87m, Width 2.33m, Height 2.35m, Cubic size 33m3, Weight Capacity 21 metric tonnes

Length 12.00m, Width 2.33m, Height 2.35m, Cubic size 68m3, Weight Capacity 25 metric tonnes

Length  12.00m, Width 2.33m, Height 2.65m, Cubic size 76m3, Weight Capacity 25 metric tonnes

Temperature controlled ‘reefer’ containers, used to ship fruits, meat, fish, seafood, vegetables, dairy and also non-food products such as flowers, pharmaceuticals and film are have a fully integral refrigeration machine which is capable of holding internal temperatures between +25 & -25 degrees centigrade.

Bulk and oversized cargo is generally shipped using platform, flat-rack and open top containers, whilst Flexi-tanks are used for gas, oil or other large quantities of liquids.


Your freight forwarder or logistics provider is a valuable source of information and advice in relation to international trade. This can be particularly useful for businesses who are new to importing or exporting. Companies like Velta turn a complicated A to Z process in to a simple A to B solution for their clients.

Approach your logistics provider with the exact weight and measurements of the goods you’re expecting to ship and as long as the information provided is accurate they can give you precise requirements and costs.


Related Blogs

A history of shipping containers and containerisation

The future of sea freight – is container diversity the answer?


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