How Many Containers Can You Fit on a Cargo Ship?

How Many Containers Can You Fit on a Cargo Ship?
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Participating in international trade and shipping as a small or medium-sized business (SMB) involves many aspects, one of which is understanding the basics of container shipping.

How many containers a cargo ship can carry depends on several factors, including the ship’s design, size, and the dimensions of the containers themselves. 

When working with service providers like freight forwarders, SMBs do not have to master every detail but rather have a good understanding of the essentials to facilitate informed discussions. In this post, we’ll provide a brief overview of container types, their history, types of vessels, and how many can fit on a cargo ship. Let’s get started.

Understanding Container Capacity and the Meaning of Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEUs) and Forty-Foot Equivalent Units (FEUs)

The capacity of a cargo ship is typically measured in Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEUs). A TEU represents the cargo capacity of a standard container, 20 feet long by 8 feet wide by 8.5 feet high, or how many containers fit on a cargo ship. Therefore, when we say a cargo ship has a capacity of 20,000 TEUs, it means it can carry an equivalent number of standard 20-foot containers.

But not all containers are 20 feet long. Some are larger, like the Forty-Foot Equivalent Unit (FEU), which is twice the length of a TEU. When a ship carries a 40-foot container, it takes up the space of two TEUs. Hence, the number of 40-foot containers (or FEUs) that can fit on a cargo ship is generally around half the number of TEUs it can hold.

Other Container Types

In addition to the standard TEUs and FEUs, several other container types are used in international shipping. Some of these include:

  • High-Cube Containers: These containers are similar in length to standard TEUs or FEUs but are an extra foot taller, providing more volume.
  • Open Top Containers: These containers lack a solid roof, making it easier to load cargo from above.
  • Flat Rack Containers: These containers have collapsible sides, which can be folded to create a flat rack for oversized cargo.
  • Reefer Containers: These are refrigerated containers used for transporting perishable goods like food and pharmaceuticals.

Understanding the different container types and the capacity measurement units will help you make more informed decisions when planning your cargo shipment.

Do I Have to Use the Whole Container?

Using the whole container for your shipment depends on the volume of your goods. If you have enough cargo to fill up a whole container, you can opt for FCL shipping. This is often more cost-effective for larger shipments and provides more control over the container’s contents, reducing the risk of damage from other goods.

However, if your cargo doesn’t fill a whole container, you don’t have to leave the rest of the space empty. You can use Less than Container Load (LCL) shipping, where your goods share the container space with other shippers’ goods. LCL can be more economical for smaller shipments, but in some cases, it may take longer due to the additional logistics of consolidating and deconsolidating multiple shippers’ goods.

A brief history of container shipping

Before the standardized shipping containers we know today, including the early use of limited standardized shipping containers during World War II, various forms of containers were used throughout history for transporting goods.

Crates and Barrels: 

For centuries, crates and barrels have been used as containers to transport goods by sea and land. They were used to ship commodities like wine, oil, grains, and other goods.

Tea Chests: 

During the 18th and 19th centuries, tea chests were used to transport tea from Asia to Europe. These chests were wooden boxes that were used specifically for tea.

Railroad Boxcars: 

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, railroads used boxcars to transport goods. These can be considered an early form of containers since they were standardized, enclosed spaces that could be loaded onto trains.

Lift Vans: 

In the early 20th century, lift vans were used to transport household goods. These wooden crates could be lifted by a crane onto a ship.

These early forms of containers were usually not standardized, and they could not be easily transferred from ships to trucks or trains as modern shipping containers can be. 

The Standardization of Shipping Containers:

The standardization of shipping containers brought efficiency and security to the shipping industry. The pioneer of this movement was an American trucking entrepreneur named Malcom McLean. He introduced the first commercial containers in the 1950s, dramatically reducing the cost and time of loading and unloading ships.

Over the years, container shipping has evolved to accommodate a variety of cargo types and sizes. From standard TEUs and FEUs to specialized containers for refrigerated goods, oversized cargo, and more, the container revolution has transformed the global supply chain, making it more streamlined and efficient than ever before.

What Are the Different Types of Cargo Ships and How Many TEUs or FEUs Each Can Carry?

Shipping containers across the globe requires a diverse fleet of cargo ships, each designed for different trade routes, port sizes, and cargo volumes. Let’s explore some common types of cargo ships and their capacities.

Feeder Ships

Feeder ships are the smallest type of cargo ships, primarily used to transport goods to and from ports that cannot accommodate larger vessels. They typically carry between 200 and 800 TEUs, though this can vary based on the specific design of the ship.

Feedermax Ships

A step up from feeder ships, Feedermax ships carry containers to and from medium-sized ports. These ships usually have a capacity of up to 1,500 TEUs, but again, this can vary depending on the ship’s design.

Panamax Ships

Named after the Panama Canal, Panamax ships are designed to fit perfectly within the canal’s original lock dimensions. Panamax ships can carry between 3,000 to 5,000 TEUs, making them a common sight on global shipping routes.

Post-Panamax Ships

Post-Panamax ships are larger than the original Panama Canal locks could accommodate. These vessels have a capacity ranging from 5,000 to 10,000 TEUs, enabling them to transport larger volumes of goods across the world’s oceans.

New Panamax

With the expansion of the Panama Canal in 2016, the New Panamax ships were introduced. These larger vessels can carry between 10,000 and 14,500 TEUs, vastly increasing the amount of cargo that can be transported on routes through the canal.

Ultra Large Container Vessels (ULCVs)

ULCVs represent the upper limit of container ship sizes. These behemoths can carry a staggering 18,000 to 24,000+ TEUs. Their immense size requires the use of specially equipped ports with deep waters and large cranes.

Keep in mind that the number of 40-foot containers (or FEUs) a ship can carry is generally about half the number of its TEU capacity. Also, these capacity ranges are approximations; the exact number can vary based on specific ship designs.

What Are the Factors That Determine the Number of Containers on a Ship

Here is a simple list of key factors that determine the number of containers a ship can carry:

Size and Type of the Ship

The larger the ship, the more containers it can hold. The ship’s design also plays a role, with certain designs accommodating more containers than others.

Type of Containers

The type and size of containers being used can affect the total capacity. For example, a ship can carry twice as many 20-foot containers (TEUs) as 40-foot containers (FEUs).

Weight Limits

Ships have a maximum weight, or deadweight tonnage (DWT), they can carry, which includes the weight of the containers and their contents.

Stowage Planning

How containers are arranged on a ship, known as stowage planning, can affect the total number of containers a ship can safely carry.

Regulations and Safety Standards

Shipping regulations and safety standards can limit the number of containers a ship can carry to prevent overloading and maintain ship stability.

Ship’s Draft

The ship’s draft, or how much of the ship is beneath the waterline, can limit the number of containers a ship can carry, especially in shallower ports.

Weather Conditions

Adverse weather conditions can affect the number of containers a ship can safely carry, as stability can be impacted by rough seas.


The cost of transporting containers can influence how many a shipper chooses to put on a ship. The more containers, the higher the price.

Shipping Schedule and Frequency

The frequency and schedule of a ship’s route can influence how many containers it carries. A regular, high-frequency route might carry fewer containers per trip compared to a less frequent route.

Planning Your Shipment: Practical Tips and How a Freight Forwarder Can Help

Shipping goods internationally can be complex. Here are some practical tips and ways a freight forwarder can help streamline the process:

Evaluate Your Needs

Before beginning the shipping process, accurately define your shipping needs. Consider the volume of goods, the distance they need to travel, the timeline for delivery, and your budget. A freight forwarder can help you assess these needs and develop a shipping plan.

Choose the Right Type of Shipping

There are different types of shipping, including ocean, air, rail, and road. The right one for you depends on your specific needs, such as the speed of delivery, and the nature of your goods. A freight forwarder can advise on the best type of shipping for your circumstances. Learn more about air freight vs. sea freight.

Packaging and Labeling

Packaging and labeling must comply with strict standards and regulations. Ensure your goods are properly packed and labeled to protect them during transit and ensure they arrive at the right destination. Freight forwarders can provide advice on packaging requirements and assist in keeping your shipment in compliance with international standards and regulations.


Shipping internationally requires a lot of documentation, including commercial invoices, packing lists, and bills of lading. Mistakes in documentation can lead to delays or fines. Freight forwarders handle this paperwork on your behalf, reducing the risk of errors.


Shipping insurance protects your goods from damage or loss during transit. A freight forwarder can help arrange appropriate insurance coverage for your shipment.

Customs Regulations

Every country has different customs regulations, and non-compliance can lead to delays and fines. Freight forwarders have expertise in these regulations and can ensure your shipment complies with all necessary customs laws.

Door-to-Door Delivery

Even if you have found a carrier to ship your goods internationally, you must also organize the transportation of your goods to the port from where they will be shipped and from the destination port to your shop or warehouse. This is called door-to-door delivery. A freight forwarder can facilitate this by coordinating with trucking companies or other local carriers, managing schedules, and ensuring timely pick-up and delivery. This not only adds convenience but also ensures that your shipment is handled efficiently and responsibly from start to finish. 

Track and Monitor

Make sure you can track your shipment and get updates on its status. Many freight forwarders offer tracking systems that provide information on your shipment’s location and progress.

By understanding these tips and utilizing the services of a freight forwarder, you can help make sure your shipment arrives safely and efficiently at its destination.

Ship4wd Makes Sure SMBs Maximize Shipping Container Capacity

For small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) engaged in international shipping, maximizing the use of container capacity is crucial for cost efficiency. At Ship4wd, we understand that each shipment is unique and requires careful planning and consideration. As your trusted shipping partner, our team will help you determine the best shipping methods and strategies for your specific needs, helping you make the most out of each container’s capacity.

The following are just a few highlights of what we offer SMBs:

  • Helping SMBs with Container Sizes: Ship4wd offers guaranteed ocean container allocation tailored for SMBs. This unique service eliminates the worry of losing out to larger companies and ensures that businesses have the appropriate container sizes to meet their shipping needs.
  • Customer Service: As an SMB, getting the assistance you need when you need it is vital. Ship4wd prides itself on its human customer support that’s available 24/7, ensuring that help is always just a click away. This support goes beyond automated responses, providing businesses with real solutions to their problems.
  • Flexible Payment Solutions: Ship4wd offers a range of flexible finance options, such as our ‘Buy Now, Pay Later,’ allowing businesses to schedule their shipping needs now and make their payment up to 90 days after delivery, giving SMBs a competitive advantage.
  • Global Reach: Ship4wd’s expansive transport network spans 500 nodes around the world. By partnering only with top-tier carriers and service providers, Ship4wd ensures that there are almost no limitations on how far your goods can travel and how wide your business can reach.
  • Ease of Use and Expertise: Ship4wd’s digital freight forwarding platform makes it easy for SMBs to quote, book, and track shipments in minutes, saving time and resources. Additionally, the platform allows businesses to find the most suitable freight transport tailored to their unique budget and schedule. Also, if you would like some help or guidance regarding our platform, as we mentioned earlier, our 24/7 customer support staff would be more than happy to assist you with any questions that you may have.
  • End-to-End Shipment Tracking: For peace of mind, Ship4wd provides end-to-end tracking, ensuring that businesses can know where their shipment is at every step of the journey. This transparency eliminates the stress of uncertainty and allows SMBs to plan and react accordingly.

Whether you’re shipping a few boxes or multiple container loads, Ship4wd is your trusted partner, dedicated to helping you maximize your shipping container capacity while ensuring a smooth and successful shipping process. Sign up with us today and discover for yourself exactly what we can do to help bring your shipping operations to the next level.

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