October 15, 2020 Informative 3,437

What is a Shipping Container - The Complete Guide

A container is a transportation equipment of value. Its life time may easily reach 15 years. Its use has made possible to rationalize transportation of goods with the result that their transfer from one means of transportation to another has been speeded up. For this reason and also for others such as fraud prevention, interchange control and rating, the identification of a container is of utmost importance at any stage of the distribution chain: delivery to shipper, delivery to carrier, delivery to consignee, contract of carriage, transfer from one carrier to another, customs formalities (export, transit, import), customs temporary admission, customs sealing, insurance, transport manifesting, claim settlement, maintenance and repair, loss, etc.

As there are several means of identifying containers and in order to avoid confusion from the great variety of markings, the Bureau International des Containers has grouped the available data into a single document, the BIC-Code. Originally dedicated to the publication of ISO alpha codes for container owners, the BIC-Code now comprises documentation related to:

  • the Customs Convention on Containers,
  • the Istanbul Convention,
  • the International Convention for Safe Containers,
  • the Customs Convention on international movement of goods under cover of TIR carnets,
  • the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), which all provide or a specific marking as shown below,
  • various other markings also result from National regulations, dangerous goods regulations and National Standard Institutes.


Two major Conventions set forth the customs rules which regulates the circulation and use of ISO and non-ISO containers worldwide:

  • the Customs Convention on Containers (1972) which deals with temporary admission and transport under customs seal,
  • the Istanbul Convention (1993) which deals with temporary admission.

It must be noted that the Istanbul Convention supersedes the Customs Convention for Containers in the case where the two conventions have been ratified by a Contracting Party.

Customs Convention on Containers (CCC)

The Customs Convention on Containers (1972 – effective since 6 December 1975) grants, under certain conditions, temporary admission facilities to containers, loaded or not, which are due to be re-exported within three months from the date of importation. This period may be extended upon request.

Approval for transport under customs seal

Enforced in the Customs Convention on Containers, the agreement for transport under Customs seal is granted only to containers approved by the competent authority of the country of manufacture. The purpose of the approval is to certify that the container is constructed and equipped in such a manner that:

a) no goods can be removed from, or introduced into, its sealed part without leaving visible traces of tampering or without breaking the customs seal,
b) it contains no concealed spaces where goods could be hidden,
c) all spaces capable of holding good are readily accessible for customs inspection,
d) customs seals can be simply and effectively affixed to it.
Where the containers are manufactured by type series, the manufacturer may apply for approval by design type. In such case, he shall state in his application the identification numbers or letters which he assigns to the type of containers to which his application for approval relates to. It is recommended in such case to use the ISO type identification code.

Customs approval plate

The beneficiary of the approval shall affix the approval plate described hereafter to the approved container before its use for the transport of goods under customs seal. The plate shall be permanently affixed in a clearly visible place adjacent to any other approval plate issued for official purpose (see introduction). The Customs Convention on Containers also stipulates in Annex 1 that the following data must be durably marked on containers:

a) the identification of the owner or principal operator as per the ISO alpha code (ISO 6346)
b) the identification number of the container given by the owner or operator,
c) the tare weight of the container, including all permanently fixed equipment.

Istanbul Convention

The Convention on Temporary Admission (Istanbul, 26.6.1990) is intended to apply to the international transport of goods in containers and in other transport units such as road vehicles, railway wagons, inland waterways vessels, barges, etc. and permits to avoid, under certain conditions:

  • payment or deposit of import duties at the customs office of departure or at offices en route,
  • customs examination at offices en route,
  •  customs transit formalities like those laid down in the ITI convention.

ISO6346 – Shipping Container Standard

ISO 6346 is an international standard which describes the identification of a shipping container. The standard is maintained by the BIC (International Container Bureau) and covers the serial number, owner, country code, and size of any given shipping container.


Equipment identifier:

  • J: detachable freight container related equipment
  • R: reefer (refrigerated) containers
  • U: freight containers
  • Z: trailers and chassis
Code Type designation Type group code Main characteristics Code A Code B
G General purpose container Without ventilation GP Opening(s) at one end or both ends G0 GA
G Passive vents at upper part of cargo space G1 GB
G Opening(s) at one or both ends plus “full” opening(s) on one or both sides G2 GD
G Opening(s) at one or both ends plus “partial” opening(s) on one or both sides G3 GG
G (unassigned) G4 GJ
G (unassigned) G5 GM
G (unassigned) G6 GV
G (unassigned) G7 GW
G (unassigned) G8 GX
G With bulk capabilities G9 GY
V General purpose container with ventilation VH Non mechanical system, vents at lower and upper parts of cargo space V0 VA
V (unassigned) V1 VB
V Mechanical ventilation system, located internally V2 VD
V (unassigned) V3 VG
V Mechanical ventilation system, located externally V4 VJ
V (unassigned) V5 VM
V (unassigned) V6 VV
V (unassigned) V7 VW
V (unassigned) V8 VX
V (unassigned) V9 VY
B Dry bulk cargo
B Non-pressurized, box type BU Closed B0 BA
B Airtight B1 BB
B (unassigned) B2 BD
B Rear discharge/cat flap type B3 BG
B Rear discharge/full width opening B4 BJ
B Rear discharge/full width fixed B5 BM
B (unassigned) B6 BV
B (unassigned) B7 BW
B Front discharge/full width B8 BX
B Side discharge B9 BY
S Named cargo SN Livestock carrier S0 SA
S Automotive carrier S1 SB
S Live fish carrier S2 SD
S (unassigned) S3 SG
S Generator S4 SJ
S (unassigned) S5 SM
S (unassigned) S6 SV
S (unassigned) S7 SW
S (unassigned) S8 SX
S (unassigned) S9 SY
R Thermal container
R Refrigerated RE Mechanically refrigerated RO RA
R Refrigerated and heated RT Mechanically refrigerated and heated R1 RB
R Self-powered RS Mechanically refrigerated R2 RD
R Mechanically refrigerated and heated R3 RG
R (unassigned) R4 RJ
R (unassigned) R5 RM
R (unassigned) R6 RV
R (unassigned) R7 RW
R (unassigned) R8 RX
R (unassigned) R9 RY
H Thermal container
H Refrigerated and/or heated with removable equipment HR “Refrigerated and/or heated with removable equipment located externally, heat transfer coefficient K = 0,4 W/(m2-K)” H0 HA
H Refrigerated and/or heated with removable equipment located internally H1 HB
H “Refrigerated and/or heated with removable equipment located externally, heat transfer coefficient K = 0,7 W/(m2-K)” H2 HD
H (unassigned) H3 HG
H (unassigned) H4 HJ
H Insulated HI Insulated; heat transfer coefficient K = 0,4 W/(m2-K) H5 HM
H Insulated; heat transfer coefficient K = 0 W/(m2-K) H6 HV
H (unassigned) H7 HW
H (unassigned) H8 HX
H (unassigned) H9 HY
U Open-top container UT Opening(s) at one or both ends U0 UA
U Opening(s) at one or both ends, plus removable top member(s) in end frames U1 UB
U Opening(s) at one or both ends, plus opening(s) on one or both sides U2 UD
U “Opening(s) at one or both ends, plus opening(s) on one or both sides plus removabletop member(s) in end frames” U3 UG
U “Opening(s) at one or both ends, plus partial opening on one side and full opening on the other side” U4 UJ
U (unassigned) U5 UM
U Open topped container with removable hard top U6 UV
U (unassigned) U7 UW
U (unassigned) U8 UX
U Coil carrier U9 UY
P Platform (container) PL Platform (container) P0 PA
P Platform-based container with incomplete superstructure:
P Fixed PF Two complete and fixed ends P1 PB
P Fixed posts, either freestanding or with removable top member P2 PD
P Folding (collapsible) PC Folding complete end structure P3 PG
P Folding posts, either freestanding or with removable top member P4 PJ
P Platform-based container with complete superstructure PS Open top, open ends (skeletal) P5 PM
P Platform-based container for named cargo PT Ship’s gear carrier P6 PV
P Car carrier P7 PW
P Timber/pipe carrier P8 PX
P Coil carrier P9 PY
K Pressurized tank container (liquids and gases)
K KL Liquid tank non-regulated goods K0 KA
K Liquid tank dangerous goods2,65 barc pressure K1 KB
K “Liquid tank dangerous goods >2,65 barc and 10 barc pressure” K2 KD
K Liquid tank dangerous goods > 10 barc high pressure K3 KG
K Liquid tank non regulated goods requiring power supply K4 KJ
K Liquid tank for dangerous goods10 barc requiring power supply K5 KM
K Liquid tank for dangerous goods > 10 barc pressure requiring power supply K6 KV
K Cryogenic tank K7 KW
K Gas tank K8 KX
K (unassigned) K9 KY
N Pressurized and non-pressurized tank container (dry)
N NH Hopper type vertical discharge N0 NA
N Hopper type rear discharge N1 NB
N (unassigned) N2 ND
N NN Non pressurized rear discharge N3 NG
N Non-pressurized side discharge N4 NJ
N Non-pressurized tipping discharge N5 NM
N (unassigned) N6 NV
N Pressurized rear discharge N7 NW
N Pressurized side discharge N8 NX
N Pressurized tipping discharge N9 NL
Air/surface container AS A0

a) For containers designed and tested with full stacking (minimum superimposed mass of 213.360 kg) and racking (minimum transverse force of 150 kN) capabilities. Superimposed mass is as defined in ISO 1496-1:1990.
b) This includes containers designed and tested with reduced stacking and/or racking capabilities, but not containers that are approved or operated with one door off or otherwise operated with a temporary reduced capability.
c) 100kPa=1bar=105Pa=105N/m2 =14.5lbf/in2


2 – 20 Feet
2 – 8 Feet 6 Inches
G1 – General Purpose Container
4 – 40 Feet
5 – 9 Feet 6 Inches “High Cube”
R1 – Refrigerated Container
L – 45 Feet
U1 – Open Top Container
M – 48 Feet
P1 – Platform Container
T1 – Tank Container
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