top of page

How Container Shipping Works

You might be used to the idea of being able to order goods or services from practically anywhere on the planet and have them delivered within reasonable amount of time. Yet how do these goods arrive at desired destination?

Here is an overview of container shipping and some key terms and processes to get familiar with.

Types of Containers

There are many different types of containers available and range in size from 8 feet long to 40 feet long. the most common size is 20 feet by 8 feet wide. Below are the main types of containers:

container types

Dry Containers: Used for shipping dry goods that generally do not need much specialised care.

Open Side Containers: Cargo containers that can easily open on the side so much that longer or wider merchandise can fit inside.

Open Top Containers: A container without a solid roof. Instead, they often have bars that can be removed.

Flat Rack Containers: A container, either collapsible or non-collapsible, that can have open sides and an open top, allowing for much more open space for loading.

Refrigerated Container: Refrigerated or insulated containers are used for temperature-sensitive goods.

Tank Containers: Shipping containers designed to hold liquids; they may or may not also be refrigerated.

Key Shipping Terms


Party or company that wants to receive the cargo.


Wishes to send the cargo to the importer, likely after selling it.

Shipping Company

If the importer or exporter is not handling shipping in-house, they may use a shipping company's services. 'Freight Forwarder' might also be used here.

The Main Process

Here is a simplified summary of how container shipping works:

1. Export Haulage

The exporter or shipping company will forward the freight (generally by truck or train) to the port. Often the shipping company can or will arrange for this. Export haulage generally ends when the cargo reaches the port of export.

2. Export Customs Clearance

The first of two main documentation steps required (at least for international shipping). A licensed customs broker will clear the cargo to leave the country and receive a cargo declaration.

Documents and information will be required, but those documents vary by country, and you should carefully check the details of what is needed. Generally, this step will be handled by your Freight Forwarder.

3. Origin Handling

Origin handling can refer to all of the activities that occur after the container or items to be shipped have reached the exporting port but have not left yet. Following this, the cargo is generally placed into the port's warehouse, and it waits there until it is time to load it onto a ship.

4. Ocean Freight

This varies from ship to ship. The Freight Forwarder will usually enter a shipping contract with the shipping line, owner, or freight vessel. You should be able to track where the shipment is at any given point, but it is not uncommon for a cargo container to be transferred to multiple cargo ships through multiple ports (much like how people may have layovers while travelling).

How long the ocean freight step takes naturally depends on the distance between the ports and how many stops are made along the way.

5. Import Customs Clearance

To determine levies, duties, and other payments and make sure goods are as they should be, cargo must go through import customs clearance, much like export customs clearance.

Naturally, the exact process and requirements will vary from country to country. It is often the importer's responsibility to handle the matter, but the task can be assigned or forwarded to an authorised agent or broker.

6. Destination Handling

Much like how cargo is onboarded, there must also be an unloading process. Documents are checked, and the container is unloaded and brought to the destination handling warehouse. The importer can collect the cargo directly, or other shipping processes (trucks, etc.) can ensue.

7. Import Haulage

Once the cargo is in the import warehouse, it will travel to the address of the final destination. This last step is called import haulage. It can be done by the shipping company if they have the capabilities, or it might be outsourced.

Some importers might also decide to have the cargo picked up. How exactly it happens will vary depending on the shipping arrangement.


Shipping costs are a significant expense for many companies, especially with large products. While economies of scale impact container shipping and business, it still means that dedicated professionals must work to keep costs low. As with most things shipping, it is prudent to consult professionals about the process.

Anyone who has worked with container shipping before can tell you that there is a lot more to it than the simplified concepts and steps listed above. It is a massive industry, and one that we at Universe Logistics not only thrive in, we absolutely enjoy working with our clients to achieve their shipping best case scenarios.

We look forward to working with you also. Speak with us about your upcoming import/export shipment, and let us assist in simplifying and optimising the whole process for you.


bottom of page