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  • Allen Czermak

What Can I Ship In A Shipping Container?

According to Statista, in 2020, there were an approximate 1.85 billion metric tons of cargo shipped around the world. That was a little over 5 billion metric tons of cargo that were shipped on a daily basis. Two years later there is a good chance that those numbers have only doubled due to the increase of consumer demand post the COVID-19 pandemic.

Much of that cargo is shipped in TEU (twenty foot equivalent) containers that rest atop huge container ships that trek the big seas. Each one of these TEU containers has an approximate 1,360 cubic feet to ship anything from merchandise to automobiles. Today we will discuss what you can and what you can’t ship in these big hunks of steel from one side of the world to the other. As with any cargo coming into the United States of America, all of the contents inside these containers are scanned by large-scale X-ray, gamma ray machines, and radiation detection devices prior to entering the country.

Whatever Is On Amazon Can Be Shipped In a TEU Container

Pretty much anything that you can find on Amazon can be shipped from overseas in a shipping container. Items like household goods, merchandise, furniture, electronics, and toys are some of the most common items shipped on a daily basis from Asia. These products can be mass produced in warehouses across the globe and neatly arranged in the 1,300 plus cubic feet of cargo space found in the generic shipping container. Manufacturers in the Far East will work with partners to optimize the product to be consolidated to take up the least minimal space possible. Thereafter they will cram as much merchandise as possible into the shipping container.

Furniture

For example, in the case of an outdoor furniture set that consists of a square six foot table, the manufacturer will manage to fit that into a six foot long box with just a couple feet of height. This accomplishes being able to stack as many tables as possible into a shipping container. The objective is for the manufacturer to cram in as many items as possible in order to keep the shipping cost down per item. Only when the final consumer purchases the product can the manufacturer recoup the money spent on production and shipping. Furniture is one of the more common items that gets shipped in a standard TEU container due to its size and weight.

Household Goods

Common household goods that are part of Americans’ everyday life such as soaps, shampoos, detergents, and pantry condiments are all shipped from overseas in large shipping containers. Instead of major brands like Procter & Gamble producing their products here in the United States they will mass produce them overseas and ship them in large shipping containers to their local warehouses. Such items will have years of shelf life and can be ordered in bulk and stored until replenishment is needed. Many of the products that line the shelves of our home are fully stocked in warehouses all across the United States. It was only during the pandemic that we witnessed empty store shelves due to the hysteria of over buying and over storing.

Machinery

It goes without saying that manufacturing complex machinery in the USA is expensive and companies are outsourcing production overseas. At the same time, all the parts for these machines are coming from Asia and it just makes sense to localize the manufacturing and import the final product in a shipping container. Many of our favorite devices, mobile phones, laptops, and smart screen TV’s are all imported in large shipping containers. Criminals are well aware of what might be in the hunks of steel and this past summer $300,000 worth in retail cargo would have been lost, if not for sophisticated GPS tracking on the shipping container. If you are importing expensive electronics it is vital to have a trusted logistics partner to ensure the safe delivery of the merchandise.

Building Materials

Anyone who is building a home or is in the middle of a home makeover is well aware that whatever price they were quoted originally has now doubled. That is because prices for building materials like lumber, trimming, doors, and concrete have all gone up and become more scarce. Labor shortages have also caused the price of construction to sky rocket and homeowners are left with a big bill or choose to simply stop the project. That is why the building material is purchased from Asia and arranged neatly into a shipping container and imported into the United States.

What Items CANNOT Be Shipped In a Shipping Container?

The list of items that should not be imported is pretty basic and can be easily identified with the saying “When in doubt, do without”. Any item, material, or substance that you think may be at risk of getting flagged by customs prior to manufacturing overseas is in this cautionary category. Sure the facility in China will produce it for you (as long as they get paid in full) but you might have no way to legally import it to the United States. Besides, one who imports contraband into the USA can be subject to imprisonment.

So here is a quick shortlist of items that should not be transported in a shipping container: Guns, fireworks, explosives, ammunition, animals, humans, plants, aerosols, nail polish remover, household cleaners, and batteries are some examples of common items which cannot be shipped in a TEU shipping container. If you are at any time unsure as to whether or not your cargo is subject to getting flagged by customs, pick up the phone and give them a call. For the United States Department of Homeland Security, the phone number is 1-877-CBP-5511.

When Will My Shipping Container Arrive At My Warehouse?

Being a purchasing manager in the United States is no easy feat. A little over a year ago the lead time on manufacturing products overseas was capped to 30 days. At the end of 2022, and anticipated to continue into 2023, the time it takes to produce an item in China has exceeded 45 days. Even with all the guarantees from the manufacturer, the time it takes until your products are ready to be palletized needs to be given a minimum of six weeks. Thereafter the journey to the United States can take an additional two to three months. Once the container arrives at the port, there are many methods to get it to your warehouse as fast as possible. One of those logistics modules is referred to as intermodal transportation which uses multiple modes of shipping including rail and truck. A trusted logistics partner will ensure that your cargo arrives at your local warehouse in the most cost effective manner. Keep in mind that most U.S. imports from China arrive at the Port of Los Angeles and if your facility is on the East Coast it can take some time to make the trek across the USA.

Final Words

If you are an experienced shipper or this is your first time, it is important to have a trusted logistics partner to know exactly where your container is at any time. Often, it’s after the journey that you want to know when your container will arrive. During the marine journey you are supplied with the ship's information that can be tracked on Marine Traffic after searching for the vessel code. The vessel code can be found in the original tracking provided by your manufacturer

Always be sure that you are aware of the items you can transport in a shipping container and don’t take the word of the manufacturer you are using overseas. Unfortunately, they are in it for themselves and after they get paid they leave it all up to the logistics company. If you want to be sure that your shipping into the United States will be cleared by customs, reach out to the Department of Homeland Security or go to the DHS website. Many of the answers to your questions can be found there without having to pick up your phone. Today, DHS has infrared technology that allows their cameras to see everything inside the shipping container. This helps processing shipping containers faster and prevents holdups at customs. Always be sure to have filled out all the paperwork in order for your container to keep moving.


As for when your cargo will arrive at your warehouse, that is a little difficult to know for sure, as many retailers all across the United States are dealing with that issue. Often they purchase products well in advance of the upcoming season in large quantities. They hope to sell all of the inventory purchased and if they do get stuck with extra they sell it at a loss to a company that purchases closeouts. It’s a hard time for local brands that manufacture products overseas as they often have to guess four to five months in advance and hope for the best. There is little one can do since the time of delivery is not in their hands. Perhaps that itself is a comfort.

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