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Loading a 20-foot shipping container

So you’re thinking about shipping your belongings abroad by container, and good for you! This is by far the most cost-effective and carbon-friendly way to move your stuff overseas. But you probably have all sorts of questions about container shipping, such as which shipping agent to use, how can you load all your stuff in, and how much it’s likely to cost. This article will describe step by step what you need to do and what things to consider when shipping your stuff overseas in a shipping container.

How much fits in a 20-foot container?

20ft is the most commonly used type of container. Given the above dimensions and restrictions, a family of two adults and two children could reasonably expect to fit the contents of a two bedroom house into a 20 foot container, including a car. See below for an idea of what will fit in your 20-footer, along with cubic volumes. If you are unsure about what type of container you will need, you can get a professional estimator to come to your home and assess your needs. If you have a larger family and unable to fit the contents of your home into a 20ft container, consider using a 40ft container..

Shipping container dimensions

Shipping containers tend to be 20 or 40 feet in length, but we are going to focus on 20-footers as the more commonly-used container type for individuals and families moving abroad. A 20-foot long container is 8 feet 6 inches tall, and 8 feet wide.

Source: Shutterstock.com

This gives you an internal space of 19 feet and 4 inches in length, by 7 feet 8 inches in width and 7 feet and 10 inches in height. The container door is 7 foot 8 inches tall and 7 foot 5 inches wide – worth considering before you start planning to pack that enormous Welsh dresser or grand piano.

Source: Movehub.com

A 20-foot container’s overall capacity is 1,170 cubic feet and its maximum gross weight is 30,480 kilograms 6,700 pounds. These limits vary slightly according to where in the world you’re shipping from, so always check with your agent.

When the time comes to loading your container, it will be delivered to your home or storage unit on a chassis that sits quite high up off the ground – about four feet.

Source: Flickr | Andrew Stawarz

The container will arrive empty and clean, attached to a truck. You may need to arrange ramps and all packing materials yourself, so ask your shipping agent about this and use a local plant hire company for a ramp if necessary. Be aware also that most container truckers don’t get involved in loading, so think about calling in a few strong friends to help you load your container, or consider hiring in casual labourers to help with the heavy lifting.

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LCL vs FCL

First of all, you must determine whether your shipment is going to be an FCL (Full Container Load) or a LCL (Less than Full Container Load). As it sounds, an LCL is where you do not fill up the entire container, so you share it with other cargo. In the case of LCL, you only pay for the volume and space you take up. Note that you cannot transport a car in an LCL, due to the risk of damaging other cargo.

Using a 40ft container doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to fill the whole container. Rather, it means that you do not share the container with any other cargo. FCLs are usually quicker as they don’t have to pick up or drop off other cargo.

Container loading capacity

Item

Cubic feet

Quantity

Total cubic feet

King size Bed

60

1

60

Single Bed

30

2

60

Armchair

25

2

50

3 -Seater Sofa

45

1

45

Washing Machine

15

1

15

Fridge

10

1

10

Small TV

5

2

10

Medium Boxes 18" x 18" x 18"

4

5

20

Large Boxes

8

5

40

Suitcases

5

4

20

Dining Table

50

1

50

BMW 3 SERIES 325i M Sport 2dr Step Auto Convertible 3.0

670

1

670

Grand total

1050


The full load capacity of a 20-footer is 1170 cubic feet, but normally you’d be able to fill it to a up to 90% capacity, or 1053 cubic feet. These estimates, however, are only valid if you fit in the items perfectly - which rarely happens - so make sure to leave some extra room.

Packing and loading tips

  • With a few extra pairs of hands to help, it shouldn’t take more than five hours to load a 20 foot container full. Bear in mind that your trucker will be on a schedule and will expect everything to be ready to load once the container arrives, so take the time to have everything packed and moved ready for its arrival.
  • When your container does arrive, check the floor is clean and dry, and try to air it out for as long as you can before loading it up. Also take note of the container number.
  • All items should be in boxes and on pallets. Any pieces of furniture that cannot fit into boxes, must be wrapped in plastic and also put on pallets.
  • Collating your packing materials will take some forward planning of its own, so purchase sturdy boxes from your shipping agent or order them online well in advance. Straps and pads should be available wherever you buy your removals boxes from, and it’s also a good idea to start stockpiling newspaper to wrap your valuables, artwork and mirrors in. Ask your shipping agent to advise on quantities of packing materials needed for your move.
  • Arrange your boxes and furniture items in the order they should be loaded into the container, largest first wherever possible. Wrap furniture or other large, unboxed items in blankets, pads or other household items like old towels or sheets, securing with strong tape. Shrink wrap is an alternative way to protect furniture, especially items likely to be affected by heat or changes in humidity.
  • Consider packing the boxes you’ll want to get to first at the end of the loading process, so they’re readily accessible on arrival at your new home.
  • Strap items into place as they are loaded into the container, perhaps strapping groups of smaller items together so as to not slide around and damage one another in transit. Weight should be distributed as evenly as possible throughout the container, which will also help prevent items shifting around during shipping. Although if you have some particularly heavy items consider storing them on the sides.
  • Biggest items should be loaded first, with furniture and other large household items positioned along the back and sides. Table legs and the bottoms of other unstable, top heavy structures should be secured to the rings fixed along the container walls. Sofas and mattresses can be stored on their ends to save space and limit damage to fabric.
  • Boxes should come after all furniture and larger items are loaded and secured with weight distributed evenly throughout the container. Plug all available gaps of space above and below the furniture – between chair legs, for example - to enable a snug move with minimal movement within the container.
  • Use clothing, towels and bed linen to wrap and protect fragile items like glassware, and suction-pack your clothing to optimise space. These packs also make great padding inside the container once filled and suctioned.

Loading a vehicle

Source: Movehub.com

If you’re shipping a vehicle in your container you need to build a wall or barrier of some sort to keep it separate from your other things – either out of plywood or timber. This process is called embarkation and is an essential measure when shipping a vehicle in a container.

You must also declare your vehicle non-hazardous by draining all fuel from the car or motorbike, then disconnecting the battery and alarm system. Also, don’t forget to remove all vehicle documents from the glove box as you will need them at a later stage.

Wheels need to be blocked from the front, back and from the sides with wooden blocks or wheel chocks, and the wheels then need to be lashed securely within the container. Sometimes your shipping agent will want this to be done professionally and will provide someone to secure the vehicle in your container for you. Your local garage may be able to load your vehicle into the container using a flatbed for a small hire out charge.

Container loading dos and don’ts

  • Do plan ahead. Use the chart above to identity what you can expect to load into your container and what you’ll need to leave behind, donate or sell. Start to clear out what won’t be moving with you as soon as you can.
  • Do start stockpiling boxes and other packing materials as soon as possible. You can never have too much newspaper in these circumstances.
  • Do think about where to position the container when it arrives as it will need a sturdy, flat surface to rest on. Make sure its position won’t obstruct garage doors you’ll need to get into, or neighbours’ parking.
  • Do get help loading your container, from friends or paid labourers. Don’t injure yourself trying to do it all on your own.
  • Don’t overload your container as it’s unsafe to transport it if loading is not level – your truck driver will actually refuse to take it away until any overage has been removed.
  • Don’t try to ship any items that are prohibited in your new country. Read up on restricted and prohibited items, and estimated shipping costs and times to your specific country.
  • Don't leave your container unattended at any time during loading. Always have someone keeping an eye on it for security purposes.
  • Don’t let children to play in or around your container, as items can shift and fall.