Ultimate Guide to Shipping Containers

*This blog was updated Nov 3, 2020 to include updated links, shipping containers square and cubic footage, and added contact form

Once used to ship goods by boat around the world, shipping containers have begun to take on other identities, from storage options to hotels to even homes. Shipping containers are very versatile in their function, but with so much variety, it’s hard to truly understand their different uses.

In this informative guide, we’ll look into the world of the shipping container, exploring the many facets of its history and use, including:

  • What shipping containers are
  • The different types of containers available
  • Modifications and customizations
  • Uses of shipping containers
  • How much shipping containers cost

Let’s start off by first understanding what shipping containers are and where they come from.

What are shipping containers?

When people talk about shipping containers, they are usually speaking about intermodal freight containers or freight transport containers. These are reusable units that are used for moving products and raw materials between locations or countries.

Before the use of shipping containers, goods were loaded onto cargo ships, which would take almost a week to load and unload. These goods would be stored at a port warehouse until a boat arrived and was known as break bulk cargo.

Containers on a ship

Ships would typically have around 200,000 pieces of cargo onboard, creating a very labor-intensive process. There was a real issue with this lack of standardization, especially in relation to the prevalence of trains.

The modern shipping container as we know it was invented in 1956 by American entrepreneur Malcolm McLean  in response to the slow delivery of cargo ships. Born and raised in North Carolina, McLean started his own transport business with five trucks.

It was during one of these transport trips that McLean witnessed the loading and unloading of cargo and was annoyed at the process, thinking it both a waste of time and money.

This began McLean’s idea for a more efficient way to transport cargo. He sold his trucking business and then purchased the shipping company, Pan-Atlantic Steamship Company.

Shipping Container Patent

Many cite the shipping container as beginning the trend of globalization, thanks to the rapidness in which products could be delivered across the sea. This was especially helpful during the Korean War, where the United States Army used containers for supply movements.

Today, over 90% of all purchased items are shipped in a container, with 20 million containers traveling across the oceans. And 500,000 of those are repurposed for other users.

But why? Why have shipping containers gone from a global delivery method to more creative and unique purposes?

Advantages of shipping containers

There are a number of reasons why shipping containers are being used for other purposes. Thanks to their steel construction, shipping containers can withstand a number of harsh weather conditions, both at sea and on the road.

Some advantages of containers include:

  • Affordability
  • Portability
  • Creativity
  • Durability

We’ll take a look at a few of these a bit later.

Types of shipping containers

While most people think of shipping containers as long rectangular cubed boxes, there are actually several different types of shipping containers  to choose from. This includes:

  • One-trip containers
  • Used containers
  • Standard sizing
  • High cube
  • Custom-built

Types of Shipping Containers

Let’s take a look at a few now.

What are one-trip containers?

A one-trip container is literally a container which has made one trip overseas.

These types of shipping containers are very common because the US imports more than we export. It is frequently cheaper for companies overseas to build new containers than it is to ship those containers back.

One-trip containers are often referred to as ‘new’ containers because they have significantly less wear and tear than containers that have made more than one trip overseas.

What are used containers?

A used container is a container that has made more than one-trip overseas. These types of containers can be used continuously for as many as fifteen years and often referred to as ‘recycled’ shipping containers.

The biggest difference between used containers and one-trip containers is the amount of wear and tear; some common issues with used containers include:

  • Hard to open doors
  • Wood down flooring
  • Interior odor

Recycled shipping containers are often used for permanent projects like pop-up shops, storage, or container homes.

Now that we’ve looked at the different kinds of shipping containers, let’s look at the different sizes shipping containers come in.

Standard sizing

When discussing the sizes of shipping containers, most will cite the ‘standard’ sizes, meaning the length of the shipping container. The most common sizes for shipping containers are 10-foot, 20-foot and 40-foot, however there are other sizes as well.

10-foot containers, which are 10’ x 8’ x 8.5’, can hold around 80 square feet or 680 cubic feet of items.

20-foot shipping containers which are 20’ x 8’ x 8.5.’ A 20-foot shipping container can hold around 160 square feet or 1,360 cubic feet.

40-foot shipping containers which are 40’ x 8’ x 8.5.’ A 40-foot shipping container can hold around 320 square feet or 2,720 cubic feet.

High cube containers are similar to the standard sizes, the difference is however that these containers are a foot taller than the standard dimensions. So, while the 10-foot, 20-foot, and 40-foot standard containers are 8.5’ tall, high cubes stand at 9.5 feet tall.

Every shipping container has what we call a grade. These denote the condition of used containers, that are rated A, B, or C.

  • IICL: this is the highest category grade for used containers. These containers are in excellent condition, both physically and cosmetically.
  • Cargo Worthy (CWO): this grade represents containers that have been inspected and certified by a licensed surveyor to be ship worthy.
  • Wind & Watertight (WWT): this grade represents weatherproof containers that are in relatively good condition and are great for commercial and residential storage.
  • As Is: ‘as is’ containers are exactly as it sounds — the container comes without any repair work. These containers might have rotten floors, broken parts, damaged doors, etc. and are mostly sold as scraps for recycling.

Shipping Container Grades

Now that you know about the standard sizes of shipping containers, let’s look at custom-built containers. As the name implies, custom-built containers are shipping containers that have been modified to meet an owner’s exact specifications.

Modifications and Customizations

As we mentioned, custom-built shipping containers allow for custom sizing and design per the specifications of the owners.

Modified shipping containers are the same steel shipping containers, but they have been modified and customized to create other projects and designs. These types of shipping containers are great alternatives to traditional buildings due to the low-cost, wide range of use, and customizable options.

Some of the benefits to modified and custom-built shipping containers include:

  • Built to your specific needs
  • Ability to move to where you need it
  • Quicker build time
  • Durable through decay, breakage, or weather damage
  • Secure through heavy-duty locks
  • Expression of creativity and uniqueness
Advantages of Shipping Containers

Thanks to modification and customization, shipping containers can be used for a variety of different purposes. Let’s check out some of the different uses of shipping containers in our next section.

Uses for shipping containers

We’ve looked at the history of shipping containers, some of the advantages to using shipping containers, the different types of containers available, and some of benefits to modifying or customizing a shipping container.

Now we’ll look at some of the ways you can use shipping containers. There are several different ways you can use shipping containers, but we’ll only look at a few such as:

  • Storage options
  • Mobile offices/temporary workspaces
  • Pop-up shops
  • Restaurants
  • Home building

Storage options

For many people, the use of shipping containers is for storage purposes.

These purposes cover everything from an uptick in business inventory, home or office remodeling or renovations, and even moving. In fact, 34% of Americans rented trucks for their moving purposes in 2018.

Moving especially is incredibly stressful, with 6 out of 10 people viewing the moving process as being more stressful than a divorce or death! In the case of moving, individuals made use of portable storage shipping containers in order to help the moving process.

Portable storage containers allows for people to move at their own pace, by placing items within the container and either storing it on their property or within the facility of the service.

An example of this would be someone moving from one area, but not having immediate access to their new location. They would rent a portable storage container, move their belongings inside and either arrange for delivery once their new location is available or store it at the service’s facility.

This would allow the individual to move and clean, but without the rush that goes into needing to be out of a location within a day or two.

Another use for shipping container storage is for inventory.

Many stores and showrooms will receive new inventory but may not have the room to store both current and new items in one place. This is where temporary storage containers come in.

Storage containers can be placed on the business lot, with easy access to inventory. Once the new inventory has been depleted, the storage container can be returned to the storage provider.

Mobile office/temporary workplaces

What exactly are mobile offices and temporary workplaces? These are both are prefabricated portable offices or temporary storage spaces.

Container in the City

These types of shipping container structures are used when something unexpected comes up that would normally require the closure of a business. For many businesses, closing for a number of hours can be costly for them, especially in a time where the office is inaccessible.

However, with mobile offices and/or temporary workplaces, businesses don’t need to shut down their business even if their physical office needs to be closed.

An example of a mobile office use is when a business is being remodeled or doing a renovation. Temporary workplaces  are similar, though there are other reasons to use temporary workplaces.

Temporary workplaces, like mobile offices, allow businesses to work out of offices when their main office is unavailable. Temporary workplaces are perfect for smaller businesses who are just starting or even freelancers who need a meeting place for clients without the need to be at their homes or a public place.

These types of mobile workplaces are perfect when business needs to continue without interruption.

Pop-up shops

Introduced as early as the 1990s, pop-up shops have been growing in popularity. Sometimes known as temporary retail, flash retailing, or pop-up store, these quick spaces are usually used to introduce a new product, generate awareness, move inventory, introduce new collaborations, and others.

These types of shops can usually last for a few months and are located in high foot traffic areas, like a mall, city center, or even a busy street.

Many online retailers will use pop-up shops to promote themselves and their products to a wider audience, however many brick and mortar retailers will also use pop-up shops to entice new and current customers to purchasing new items that may not be at particular location.


When going out to a restaurant, do you wonder what the building is made of? Most likely, you don’t, but you would be surprised by some of the eateries that exist.

Many restaurants have been built using shipping containers, either as an add-on for an established restaurant, like the Container Restaurant in Colorado, or as an entire restaurant like the El Rey Taqueria & Mexican Beer Garden.

There are even complete shopping and eating areas, like Market 707 and Beitang Container Restaurant Project.

Some companies, like Starbucks, are trying to reduce their environmental footprint, so the move to shipping containers cuts down their energy use and their location size. Since 2012, Starbucks has opened 45 green locations.

Home buildings

As with restaurants, you might be surprised to learn that shipping containers can also be made into homes. These ‘tiny’ homes and container homes  have grown increasingly popular  over the last few years.

These homes can actually be very affordable, depending on the housing design. As with the above options, you can modify and customize shipping container homes to include things like solar panels, insulation, rain tanks, and more.

The cost of shipping containers


Now that you’ve seen the different uses for shipping containers, you may have a pressing question –

How much do shipping containers cost?

This is a common question that we get here at Southwest Mobile Storage and the answer is a simple, “it depends.” Depending on what you need the shipping container for, your cost may vary.

Let’s look at a few scenarios where costs are determined by your need.

When it comes to shipping container cost, it all comes down to two distinct choices:

  • The type of shipping container you need
  • The length of time you need it for

How Much Do Shipping Containers Costs

Shipping container type

Depending on the size of container you need or any modifications to that container will dictate your cost. Obviously, if you need a bigger container with additional add-ons, that will cost most than a small container that is ‘as is’.

Length of time

The second factor is the length of time you’ll be needing the container. The shorter the amount of time may be the cheaper option versus having a container for a long period of time.

Southwest Mobile Storage container onsite

For longer periods, you may run into the question of whether you need to rent, lease, or buy your shipping container. Let’s look at all three of those now.

  • Renting a shipping container: if you need a shipping container on a temporary basis, then you would want to  rent one. As we mentioned earlier, a good example of this would be for retail businesses who receive new inventory and need a place to store it until they’ve run out.
  • Leasing a shipping container: leasing a shipping container is similar to renting, where you only need the container for a short amount of time. Businesses like construction companies, plumbers, pop-up shops, and retailers will often rent or lease a shipping container.
  • Buying a shipping container: When you  purchase a shipping container, you plan on using the container for a permanent basis. As we noted above, restaurants and those building a container home would most likely want to buy a shipping container.

In this guide, we looked at all things shipping container — from the history of where they came from, to the different types of shipping containers available. We also looked at the many different uses for shipping containers outside of their original use.

Finally, we looked at the different costs and the differences of whether you should rent, lease, or buy a shipping container. As you can see, there’s a lot more to shipping containers than just shipping goods and products across the ocean.

If you’re interested in using shipping containers for business or residential purposes or you’d like more information about using shipping containers, give us a call at 1.800.686.9114 to speak to one of our dedicated shipping experts! You can also use the contact form below.

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