Moving abroad all sounds very exciting until you’re loading a 20ft container with furniture. But don’t worry, it’s way less stressful than it sounds. In fact, it’s actually pretty fun. You get your friends round to help you, put the kettle on and make a whole morning of it. Shipping containers are actually quite beautiful when you get close to them, and having one delivered to your house is a very special experience. A 20ft container is obviously made of strong stuff, but that doesn’t mean the things inside are 100% protected.

The key is to pack your furniture properly and load your container correctly – and this article will help you do just that.

A container ship approaches a port

How much fits in a 20ft container?

You can’t really plan what you’re bringing until you know how much fits inside a 20ft container. Let’s start with its basic dimensions.

20ft ContainerSize
Exterior Length6.06m / 20ft
Exterior Width2.44m / 8ft
Exterior Height2.60m / 8ft 6in
Interior Length5.9m / 19ft 4in
Interior Width2.35m / 7ft 9in
Interior Height2.39m / 7ft 10in
Floor Space150ft²
Cubic Capacity1170cf / 33.13cbm
Max Gross Weight30480kg

As you can see, a 20ft container has a total capacity of 33 cubic metres (cbm), however in reality there is usually only around 25-28 cbm of usable space. The contents of a three-bedroom house (furniture, televisions, beds, boxes etc.) will normally fit inside a 20ft container, unless you’re a hoarder.

If ‘cbm’ isn’t a useful way of thinking about a container’s capacity, here are some other ways. A 20ft container can hold:

  • 50-60 fridges or
  • 100 washing machines or
  • 400 flat-screen TVs or
  • 200 full-sized mattresses or
  • 48,000 bananas

That’s right, if you want to bring all your bananas with you on your move abroad, you’ll be able to bring up to 48,000 of them. We’ve also made a pretty pink infographic to help you visualize a 20ft container’s capacity.

a table with all the loading capabilities of a 20-foot container


If you think that a 20ft container simply sounds too large for the amount of cargo you want to bring, don’t worry; shipping companies have a solution for this. Groupage shipments, also known as Less Than Container Load (LCL), are where several customers share the use of one container. Small amounts of cargo from different people get gathered together and travel as one big happy family. Generally speaking, if the total volume of your cargo is lower than 15 cbm then it’s more economical to go for LCL. Meanwhile, anything over 15 cbm should probably have sole use of a container, also known as Full Container Load (FCL).

If you do choose LCL, it’s far less likely that you will have to load the container. The shipping company will collect your cargo from your house and then bring it back to their warehouse, where it will be loaded onto a container with other people’s stuff. On the other hand, most FCL shipments will require that you load the container at your house.

For a longer explanation of FCL and LCL, along with loads of great shipping info, check out our page on International Container Shipping Costs 2018.

Packing your belongings

Proper loading always starts with proper packing. If you don’t wrap up and box up your belongings correctly then it’s highly likely they’ll get damaged along the way. A shipping container can tilt by up to 30 degrees while it travels over the ocean, so all your valuable and delicate items need some serious padding. Strong materials are essential, so be sure to get your hands on lots of furniture blankets, plastic shrink wrap and corrugated cardboard.

We’ve created a really detailed guide to packing furniture for an international move, including advice on essential materials, typical costs and best practices. It’s also full of handy tips for packing specific items of furniture.

Select the size of your move to get free quotes

Preparing for the loading day

Most of the work takes place on the loading day, however there are a few things you can do in preparation.

Ask your friends for help

If you’ve got any mates with big arms, it’s time to give them a ring. Filling a 20ft container with furniture is a challenge, so the more people you’ve got on board, the easier it will be. You can always hire casual labourers, but if you’ve got true friends then they should be doing it for free. Most shipping companies will normally give you only two or three hours to load the container before they start charging you for their time. This is called a live load.

Alternatively, some companies will offer you a drop and pack service, where they leave the container with you for a bit longer (ranging from one day to one week). This is more expensive, but it makes things less stressful. Just make sure you warn your neighbours about the massive sea container that’s going to appear on their road.

It normally takes around three hours to load a 20ft container, so get a decent sleep the night before. Regular cups of tea and coffee are essential to a smooth container-loading process.

Get a ramp

When your container arrives, it will be on the back of a chassis (like a raised platform with wheels) attached to a truck. A chassis sits about four feet off the ground, which is quite a problem if you’ve got any heavy furniture to put in the container. The solution? A ramp. Get one from a local plant hire company and everything will be a lot easier. Make sure it’s in place at your house before the shipping container arrives, so you can get loading right away.

Plan your loading

Enthusiasm and strong friends are great, but you also need strategy. If you start putting things in randomly, it’ll be like a terrible game of tetris and you’ll probably end up having to take it all out again. Have a think about what order you’re going to load the container in. Heavier items should go in first, and the weight should be distributed across the container. Once everything is wrapped up and/or boxed up, place it in your garage or driveway in the order that you’d like it to go in the container. You could also colour-code your boxes, if you think that would help. Remember, with a live load, time is money. Your money, to be precise. The better your plan, the quicker you can load.

A container ship sailing on the ocean

Checking the container

The time will eventually come for the container to arrive. You’ll see it moving down the road towards you and suddenly everything will feel real. It’s time to put your plan into action. However, before you get stuck in, you need to check your container is up to standard.

Every shipping container has a wooden floor inside, so make sure that the wood is clean, dry and free of any protruding nails. You also need to check that the container is watertight, otherwise its journey across the ocean is likely to leave your furniture a little damp. The best way to test this is to get inside the container and shut the doors behind you (honestly). If there’s no light getting in, that means no water will get in either. Just make sure you have a trustworthy friend at the container door who won’t lock it behind you.

Should I use wooden pallets?

Putting all your cargo on wooden pallets can only be a good thing. They make it much easier to load the container and your cargo is much more stable during transit. Likewise, everything will be quicker to unload at the other end. It just depends if you’re willing to pay the extra costs, ie. buying the pallets and hiring the use of a fork lift truck.

If you do decide to use pallets, it’s a good idea to put a thin wooden sheet on the bottom just to support everything that goes on the pallet. Make sure you distribute the weight evenly across each pallet and you don’t allow anything to overhang. You should then wrap each pallet in shrink wrap so that everything is securely held in place. Once the container arrives, it’ll be super easy to slot the pallets in. Your container delivery driver will be extremely impressed with you, and you can use the remaining time to take the fork lift truck for a quick spin around the block.

There are two types of pallet: a standard pallet (1.2m by 1m) and a Euro pallet (1.2m by 0.8m), although the standard pallet is much more appropriate for a 20ft container’s dimensions.

Loading tips

There’s an art to putting things inside a container. It’s all about achieving the perfect balance. Follow these tips and your cargo will be nice and snug.

Put the heavy stuff in first. This one is just common sense, really. You don’t want your delicate items to get smashed on the journey over. If you’ve got any heavy objects, such as a refrigerator or a dining room table, it’s best to put these at the bottom.

Distribute the weight evenly. If one side of the container is much heavier than the other then that could cause serious issues down the line. Whenever the container tilts during its journey over the ocean, the heavier side will crush the lighter side. If you put something heavy at one end of the container, make sure you put something equally heavy at the opposite end.

Pack it tightly. Things need to be very cosy in there. If there’s any looseness between items, damages will occur. Whenever the truck driver slams on the brakes, or whenever the container ship tilts, there’s an opportunity for furniture bruising. Think of a tightly packed bookshelf; that’s what the inside of your container should be like.

Use dunnage. Sometimes you need assistance when it comes to packing everything tightly. If there are still some gaps that your cargo can’t fill, this is where ‘dunnage’ comes in handy. ‘Dunnage’ is basically shipping language for ‘padding’ and it normally involves loose pieces of wood, but you can use anything, such as pillows and blankets. Just stuff the gaps with anything until nothing can move.

Tie everything down. The walls on the inside of a container are covered with small metal rings, meaning you can use loading straps (basically rope) to secure your items. Anything that’s particularly heavy or looking a little loose: tie it down. Make sure the ropes are tight too; they’ll have to deal with some serious strain once the ship gets going across the ocean.

Load the most important stuff last. The things you put into the container last are the things that will come out first at the other end. If you need your crockery on the first day you arrive, you don’t want to fight through a wall of tightly-packed furniture to get to it.

Prepare for “container sweat”. It’s also known as “container rain”, if you fancy calling it something a bit less disgusting. This is where condensation builds up on the ceiling and walls of the container and then drips onto your cargo. Depending on the conditions, temperatures inside a shipping container can reach as high as 60°C, particularly if they’re travelling through tropical areas (eg. a container heading from the UK to Australia).

The best way to reduce internal humidity is by using dehumidifiers, such as “damp sticks” (like the silica gel packets you get in new trainers, but bigger). You can also reduce the amount of moisture that enters your container during loading by making sure that all the wood you use (eg. pallets, dunnage) is very dry. Loading a container while it’s raining it’s a bad idea, so check the weather forecast before you arrange your loading day.

Mini blue car

Loading a car on to a 20ft container

Your car was built to move, but the one thing it must not do in that container is move. For the duration of the shipment, you need to make your car as useless as possible.

Preparing for loading

Here are some simple steps to getting your car ready for shipment:


  • Clean it (inside and out). If your car’s clean, it’ll be easier for you to notice any dents or scratches that have taken place during the journey over.


  • Take off the radio antenna. These things really stick out, so it’s best to remove it before your container removes it for you.


  • Fold the wing mirrors. Making the car as narrow as possible is a wise move. You don’t want to knock the wing mirrors off as you drive into the container.


  • Put the roof on. Any owners of a convertible car should stop showing off and put the roof back on before it goes into the container.


  • Drain the fuel out. A vehicle that’s going onto a container ship must be “non-hazardous”, which means it can’t have petrol sloshing around inside of it. Drain the fuel, disconnect the battery and switch off the alarm system.


  • Remove your vehicle documents. Like most people, you probably keep a lot of important vehicle documents in the glove box. Take them out before your car is taken away, as you might need them to prove you own the car.


Loading the car

Once your car is ready, it’s reversed into the container. The back and sides of each wheel are blocked with wooden or metal chocks to prevent any movement. It’s important to screw the chocks into the floor of the container to make them extra secure. After that, use rope to tie the wheels to the sides of the container. The car must be facing outwards when customs officials open the container so they can read the vehicle identification number (VIN).

If you’re putting furniture and a car into a container than you should a build a wall between them, typically made from plywood or timber. This is called embarkation and it’s a great way of preventing your car from damaging your other belongings.

What next?

Hopefully we’ve made you feel much more confident about loading a 20ft container. Who knows, maybe you’re even excited about it. Remember: as long as you’ve done some proper planning, the loading day will be a breeze. If you’re moving a particularly large amount of cargo, we also have a page on loading a 40ft container. For a great summary of all the typical costs involved in moving abroad (along with some lovely photos), check out our guide to international moving costs. Good luck!